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The A's and An's of Grammar

Q: I know “a” goes before words beginning with a consonant and “an” before words that start with a vowel. But it seems like lately it’s become fashionable in print to use “an” with any word beginning with the letter “h.” Try to say “an half an hour”: You’ll wind up with a sprained tongue! What’s the correct rule?—Tad C. Rhoden

A: It’s all about the sound of the first letter of the word following “a” or “an.” While “a” generally is used in front of consonants (a dog, a cat, a purple people-eater), every now and again, it creeps its way in front of words that begin with a “u” or “eu.” The true rule here is when the word following the article begins with a consonant sound, use “a.” For example: People gain knowledge and discipline at a university. I’m planning a European vacation in August. The “u” in “university” and “eu” in “European” make a “y” sound—a consonant sound—therefore, “a” is used.

On the flip side, “an” goes before words starting with a vowel sound (an elephant, an anteater, an obnoxious purple people-eater). Some consonants fall into this category, such as the letter “h.” When the “h” is silent—like in “hour” and “honor”—use “an”: Would you like me to bring an hors d’oeuvre? When you hear the “h,” stick with “a”: I’ll meet you in an hour and a half.

I hope that didn’t sprain your tongue too much.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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