Language can always be a complicated thing. With Spanish, the wrong grapheme on a vowel can lead to a different word meaning than what you originally intended. For Tagalog, the incorrect intonation when the word is spoken can result in the same thing and in French, telling the time needs a bit of calculation before you can say 12:48 PM. For American English, it’s the use of ‘A’ and ‘An’ that can confuse students.
For non-native speakers, articles have long been their weakness in learning the language; sometimes you think you’ve got it all figured out, but upon reviewing it later on it turns out you haven’t quite got it yet. It may be simple to most, but then again, native speakers themselves sometimes misuse these two articles. To clear the air, here is a review of the basic rules and the exceptions to the usage of ‘A’ and ‘An’.
The Definition of An Article
Nouns are a necessity in the English language; in fact, it can be hard to find a sentence without a single mention of a noun. Oftentimes, you will need to use an article in the sentence to indicate the type of reference made by the noun. There are two kinds: indefinite and definite. “The” is a definite article, while the word “an” and “a” are indefinite. These are considered to be adjectives.
The Basic Rules
Since “an” and “a” are indefinite article, they are mainly used to point out or indicate something non-specific. These are usually singular, although there are rules to know in regards to non-countable thing like water.
The most common way people understand the use of “a” and “an” is for “a” to be used for consonants and “an” for vowels. An example for the use of “a” is this: “I would like to purchase a ticket for tonight’s show.” Meanwhile, this is an example of the use of An: “She is an extraordinary girl.”
There are, however, exceptions one must abide by.
Exception: Consonants Sounding Like Vowels
Native English speakers themselves wonder what word to use when it comes to words such as ‘heir’ or ‘honor’. The answer to this is if the words sound as if it were beginning with a vowel, then use ‘an’.
The most common exception to these is many words beginning with ‘h’, but are read as the first letter of the vowel following it. The word ‘hour’ is read as our, and so the phrase “An hour” begins with “an” instead of “a”.
Exception: Vowels Sounding Like Consonants
On the opposite end of the spectrum are vowels sounding like consonants. For example, the word unique is spelled with a vowel at the beginning, but when spoken sounds as if it were beginning with a consonant. Thus, when used in a sentence, it must have an “a” as it article instead of “an”.
This exception mostly applies to words beginning with “u” or “eu”. For words beginning with “U”, it’s because these words sound as if they begin with a ‘y’ instead of a ‘u’. For eu, it’s because eu is pronounced as “you”, therefore the word “eulogy” is pronounced as “you-lo-gee”.
Exception: Plural and Uncount Nouns
There are things in this world whose amount you cannot count in a single seating; can you count the blades of glass on a football field? What about the grains of rice in a single cup? Or the number of hairs on the back of a dachshund puppy? These are exempted from the rule. Instead, you will need to use an auxiliary verb, determiner or quantifier.
For plural nouns, you absolutely can never use “an” or “a” as these indefinite articles are purely for the use of singular nouns. Read this sentence: She ate an apples. It does not sound correct nor does it read correctly. Here is an improved version of the same sentence: She ate some apples. In the second sentence, a determiner was used in place of the indefinite pronoun. You can also use a quantifier or adjective.
Grammar can always be bit tricky, especially since there are nearly always exceptions to grammar rules. Study these rules to be the best English speaker you can be.