The Rule is Not “A” Before Consonants and “An” Before Vowels

Many people adhere to a belief that you use the article “a” before words that begin with consonants and “an” before words that begin with vowels. But that isn’t the rule, and it’s important to avoid this rookie mistake before turning over your manuscript to agents and editors.

The real rule is this: You use the article “a” before words that start with a consonant sound and “an” before words that start with a vowel sound. For example, He has a unique point of view on the subject and talked about it for an hour. The “u” in “unique” makes the “Y” sound—a consonant sound—therefore you use “a” as your article, while the “h” in “hour” sounds like it starts with “ow”—a vowel sound.


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22 thoughts on “The Rule is Not “A” Before Consonants and “An” Before Vowels

  1. Ljgrosbier

    I am not trying to become a writer, but this is the only forum I can find that might be able to answer my question. I have noticed with increasing frequency, the use of long sound a (ay) instead of short sound (uh) by news persons and others on public media. Maybe I am just old, or missed some rule of grammar, but hearing chefs on food channel say they hav prepared “Ay Asia inspired sauce.”, or David Muir mentioning “Aynother mass shooting.”, makes my head want to explode. Tell me that I am a bonehead and I can let it drop.

  2. Khara House

    I knew this one! And I probably feel a bit too proud of myself right now for knowing it. (Also, to answer a question above: There is no *real* difference between the American and British pronunciation of “ear,” at least not insofar as it would change the grammatical ruling of “a” versus “an.” In either case, “ear” begins with a vowel sound [even if it is slightly vocalized differently].) 🙂

  3. cantwritetosavelife

    So, would it be “a earful” or “an earful” and is there a difference between the American pronunciation of ear versus the British one? (a arguments stands to be won 🙂 )

  4. JohnA

    Not just history. There is hotel, and possibly some others, although I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

    It sounds awkward, and I have always used a before histor/y/ical/ian etc, and before hotel/ier. Why is an considered the correct article for those words?

    1. MojaveMan

      I don’t believe AN ever was used logically before hotel or history. Simply apply the sound rule and disregard what you might have seen from other writers. I think the reason some writers made the a/an mistake is because they had low self esteem and instead adopted usage from some writer they respected. Trust yourself more. If it sounds bad, it probably is bad. The one exception I can think of is the article before herb. Some people actually use the H sound when beginning words like herbivore or herb. If they did, well, good luck choosing the article. Since almost all Americans consider this H to be silent, you should write it as an herb for an American audience. Remember, this language belongs to all of us. If you want it to flow naturally into a reader’s mind, go for some natural sound rather than for something that you think will make your readers gasp, “Wow, this writer doth writeth az goot az shakespear doeth!”.

  5. efpg

    “An” historical was always pompous and wrong (as the Brian’s rule shows us). It was believed that using “An historical” versus the correct form “A historical” might prevent the reader from perceiving that one was writing about something that was ahistorical (lacking historical perspective or context). But that is one word, not two. We can’t simply change the rules because the reader might misread two words as one. And if one is speaking the words “a historical,” then the context should help clarify the usage.

    Sorry if I sound like a prescriptivist!

  6. chadyeager

    We learned in school not to think of what it looks like but but to think of how it sounds. In regards to “humble” (with a silent h) I would use the common pronounciation for my narration. However, if my character pronounced it “umble” I would use the “an”. It’s a good technique that lends to the characters voice.

  7. Karleene

    OK, I know the rules, English is my forte, but sometimes I choose to break them. My novel DESTINIES is “an” historical fiction. But on the cover and opening pages, I chose to write DESTINIES, a historical novel. I liked how it looked, rules be d*mned. I expect someone to eventually beat me up about it 🙂 Oh well. We makes our choices and we lives with ’em.

    But thanks for the good post.

    1. Tiffany Munro

      I’m pretty sure that “a historical novel” is correct, as it’s not pronounced ‘istorical’ and h is a consonant sound. At least from where I’m standing, though if you speak English with a different regional accent it could be different.

    2. Bron

      Hi. Grammar Girl covers a versus an before historical for US usage at: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/a-historic-versus-an-historic.aspx “Although there are regional variations, the standard American pronunciation of “historic” starts with a consonant sound (just like the words “hit,” “hipster,” and “highlighter”), so the correct choice is “a historic.” There’s nothing special about “historic” that exempts it from the standard rule.”

      New Zealand usage is the same. I don’t know about the UK. This is a classic that Brian could, perhaps, include in his examples above.

  8. creativemetaphor

    I knew this one! Horray for me. Usually you can figure it out just by saying it out loud, since our ear naturally hears one as right or wrong based on where we were raised. But it is dependent upon pronunciation, so what is correct in British English may not be accurate for American English

    a one
    an herb
    a youth
    an honest
    a usual
    an unusual

    😀

  9. Joe Sewell

    Yay! I got the rule right. 🙂

    The tricky part, though, is knowing the right pronunciation of some words. For example, a lot of people familiar with the King James Version of the Bible tend to pronounce the word “humble” with a silent “h,” simply because 17th century British, I suppose, pronounced it that way … or at least that’s how it’s written, when it refers to “an humble man.”

    Then there’s the sticky words beginning with a “yuh” sound, like “unique.” Is something a unique item, or an unique item? (Remember, “y” can sometimes be a vowel, especially in the absence of any other vowels to take the job.)

    1. justinmcm

      “Y” is only considered a vowel when it gives the vowel sound. The “Y” in yard is a consonant. However, the “Y” in ytterbia (a chemical compund) is a vowel because it makes the vowel sound of “ih”. Just as the article suggests, if you figure out the sound, or “pronunciation”, you will easily be able to figure out whether or not to use “a” or “an”. Also, if you do actually pronounce the word “humble” with a silent “h” then yes, it would be appropriate to say “an”. However, we do not speak old english, therefore pronouncing it that way in day to day life would be both pretentious and silly!

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