American Grammar Checkup: Using A and An Correctly

In terms of using “a” and “an,” most of us go by the basic rule we learned back in grade school. And we give it no thought — although we should.

Does this sound familiar?

I bet it does, but the problem is it’s not complete. It doesn’t give the whole picture, and as a result, we see a lot of errors using these two small words.

For instance, on a résumé, a writer will put something like this: “I have a MBA from … . ” And the writer will think nothing of it; after all, he or she is just following the rule everyone knows.

But try saying out loud. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Right. Your tongue trips over “a MBA”! You cannot say it easily, because you’re not supposed to do it at all.

Yes, M is a consonant, but it is one of many that can be pronounced as a consonant AND as a vowel.

Here’s another example — which of these is right?

An union rep was present at the meeting.
A union rep was present at the meeting.

Again, can you really say “an union”? No, you can’t. Your ears hate it, and your tongue stumbles all over it. But according to the rule you learned, you’re supposed to — “u” IS a vowel, after all.

So what’s the solution? Learn the complete rule and make it easy on yourself. Add one word to each half of the rule and you will understand completely.

The word to add is “sound.”


So, it’s AN MBA, because MBA said out loud is EM B A.

We write and say a mother, a match, and a master’s degree because the letter m is using a consonant sound in those words (think moo, milk, much). But we write or say an MBTA station (Boston’s version of the “Underground” trolley system) or an MBA because m sounds like em, as in ember, in that form.

In golf, there’s the Ladies Professional Golf Association or LPGA. While “L” is a consonant, if you write or say the acronym LPGA, you have to use “an” because L in the acronym is pronounced “el.” So it would be an LPGA event.

(For consonants, it’s usually the shorter form that causes trouble; once we turn a group of words into an acronym, the first letter often — but not always — changes its sound.)

SO:  the North Atlantic Treaty Organization = NATO = a NATO treaty

Vowels face the same “sound” issue. Union starts with a vowel, but it’s pronounced like the letter “y,” which often acts as a consonant. So you could have an upset, an unsettled stomach, or an unfriendly person. But you would have a union, a unicorn, or a uniformed patrol officer.

There’s a video that has gone viral called
“It’s all about that bass.”

Here, it’s all about that sound.