American Grammar Checkup: Using A and An Correctly

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

Does this sound familiar?

Use “a” before a word beginning with a consonant.

Use “an” before a word beginning with a vowel.

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.”

Use “a” before a word beginning with a consonant sound.

Use “an” before a word beginning with a vowel sound.

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, embarrass, or empty in that short form.

In golf, there’s the Ladies Professional Golf Association or LPGA, so it would be an LPGA event but a PGA event.

A National Hockey League event, but an NHL event.

And although mostly it’s the consonants that change their sound, it can happen with the vowel U.

Union starts with a vowel, but it’s pronounced like Y, which often acts and sounds like 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.

Do you remember a video that went viral years ago called “It’s all about that bass”?

Well, here it’s all about that sound.

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