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The Indefinite Article

Never use 'a' before a vowel

There are many rules of grammar we are taught in childhood that stick with us when we become adults. We may not remember the why, but we remember the what.


But not all rules are really rules. Some are misremembered. Some mistaught. Others misapplied.


They stay in our minds and colour how we use language through life. How we use language incorrectly.


These rules are:


The Seven Sins of Syntax

The Sin


Articles are the words that come before nouns to show if the noun is specific or general. When we refer to a specific thing, we use the definite article: the, that, this. When it is only general, we need the indefinite article: a or an.


The indefinite article we choose depends on whether the noun it introduces begins with a vowel or consonant. There is no hard edge to a vowel. When you try and run two such sounds together, there is no natural break between them. It forces us to put in an unnecessary pause between the words to stop the sounds merging.


It is therefore a sin to use an ‘a’ before a noun that begins with a vowel. The ‘n’ in ‘an’ acts as that hard edge that would otherwise start the word that follows.


Not So Sinful


When we talk of vowels, we generally think of the five letters, A, E, I, O and U. Possibly Y if you’re being smartass. We define consonants as all the other letters.


Committing this sin doesn’t come from the letter the noun begins with. The rule is not about vowels as letters. It is about vowel sounds.


When choosing the correct article form, think how the word after the article sounds rather than how it is spelled. There are a few areas where this happens.


Acronyms


When the leading initial is spoken as though it starts with a vowel, eg:


‘N’ is pronounced as ‘enn’, an NHS worker

‘F’ is pronounced as ‘eff’, an FDA regulation

‘M’ is pronounced as ‘emm’, an MP


H


When an 'H' is unsounded, so the word sounds like it starts with the vowel that comes straight after. For example:


An (h)onest mistake,

An (h)ourly check-up,

An (h)otel room.


This isn’t the case for all uses of ‘H’, no matter how cockney you may be. When the letter is audible, usual rules apply. For example:


A hand on a heart in a house on a hill by a heath.


O and U


Both vowels can be pronounced with the hard edge, sounding like consonants. Think when the former makes the same sound as ‘W’ in ‘won’ and the latter the ‘Y’ in ‘you’.


It would be:

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a one-time actor speak,

but:

An overlong speech given by an old actor.


It would be:

A unique way to get a place at a university,

but:

An unusual way to get a place at an unknown university.


Committing More Sins


The incorrect article will always look wrong when written. Most of us would also think it odd to hear them spoken incorrectly too. Apart from the ‘H’.


In some accents and dialects, dropped ‘H’s are common. When that happens, the letter is no longer audible, so leading to:


An ‘and on an ‘eart in an ‘ouse on an ‘ill by an ‘eath.


This is likely to be greeted by raised eyebrows from even the mildest of grammarians. You’ll rarely see it written this way. But, arguably, this is the correct application of the rules.


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