These words typically precede a singular noun of some kind, telling you that there is one of these particular items. You’d say that there is a truck in the parking lot or a man hiding in an igloo. This seems simple enough and it’s something that you do every day.
In school, you were probably taught that you should use “a” when the next word starts with a consonant and you should use “an” when the next word starts with a vowel. Unfortunately, that’s only half truthful. The rule is not whether the next word starts with a consonant or vowel; it’s if the next word starts with a consonant or vowel sound.
The phonetics are what matter in this case. What do I mean? The best way to illustrate this is through some examples:
- a battleship
- an hour
- a hotel
- an apple
- a university
- a one-sided affair
Even though “hour” starts with an consonant, you don’t pronounce the “h” at the beginning of the word. Instead, it starts with a vowel sound (like “our”), so you would use “an” in that instance. In like manner, “university” starts with a vowel, but it is pronounced like “yoo-niversity.” This starts with a consonant sound and, as such, you use “a” in that case.
Many people say that they can’t spell and they have trouble with big words, but we shouldn’t forget about little words too. I see far too many people get little words mixed up and that bugs me even more.
Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101 post? Feel free to let me know through the comment form below.