A and An. Random Thought of the Day

Someday, I need to look up how the actual rule for use of "a" vs. "an" is written.  Most people, including me, have always said that "an" is used in front of a vowel.  "This is an unusual task."  But this is not always true.  How about, "this is a useful item."  In this case, I suppose we use "a" because despite starting with a vowel, "useful" really starts with a "y" consonant sound, as in "you."


  1. AughtSix:

    Or when used with an acronym: an SMTP server, a USB port, a POP server, an IMAP server

    (Says the guy who wanted to name an enum on my work project "participle" because what it represented, when said in a sentence was in the present perfect)

  2. Brad Warbiany:

    A/An is one of those that I don't struggle with. Typically if you just speak it to yourself in your head, you'll quickly know whether it "sounds wrong". If it sounds wrong, it probably is.

    That said, I consistently struggle with the question of doing what is an established rule in grammar, vs. what I think makes more sense. Improperly using grammar makes one look like an idiot, but sometimes I force myself to do things my way. Such as above, where I didn't enclose punctuation to end a sentence within quotes. I know it's the rule to do so, but it seems to me that the quotes are included *within* the sentence structure, and the punctuation should -- as the close of the sentence -- follow the quote. Likewise, doing it this way allows me to differentiate punctuation within quoted material with the punctuation I might personally give to a sentence. (The same goes for punctuation within/outside of parentheses, another rule I'm breaking right now.)

    One bad habit I've been trying to break is the use of nested parentheses. As an engineer with a math and a computer programming background, nesting parentheses is so normal to me that I hate having to avoid them to follow the rules of grammar. However, I've made a change and work to consciously avoid them now; I've realized that if a sentence requires nested parentheses, it probably already has poor structure or is a run-on sentence and needs to be fixed anyway.

  3. AughtSix:

    Brad, I'm right there with you. I'll split infinitives and use the British style for punctuation and quotation marks (i.e., in/out depending on context), but will never (intentionally) use the wrong pronoun case; that grammar rule allows you to include information in it:
    She likes golf more than I [do].
    She likes golf more than [she likes] me.

    And, I tend to use nested parentheses if I'm writing informally. All of which seem to be quite common among engineers.

  4. stan:

    The flip side to "useful" is "honor" where 'an' is used despite the word starting with a consonant becouse it sounds like it starts with a vowel.

  5. Highway:

    It's not whether it's in front of a vowel. It's whether it precedes a vowel sound. So that's why it's "an" in front of the 'uhn' sound, but "a" in front of the "yoo" sound.

  6. David:

    Another good example is "historian" which will take a or an depending on the pronunciation of the speaker.

  7. john:

    I'm all for "engineer grammar" but it's worth noting that there seem to be two kinds. The first kind, as described above, is the result of an analytical mind understanding the concepts and information conveyed in the rules and applying them as consistently as possible. Example: I heard her say, "What in the world are you doing?" right before he pushed that button. (Although I shy away from adding a comma after the second quotation mark.)

    Then there is the most common kind of "grammatical writing" (or speech) which applies rote rules without understanding of the underlying information being conveyed. This is the most common non-engineer grammar.

    Then there is the kind of engineer grammar that comes of being analytical and numerate but illiterate... that's something else again. It seems to imply contempt for learning rote rules, without an understanding of the framework behind it. When I see this I worry about the engineering skills too...

    My pet peeve is the rule that every level in the hierarchy of an outline has to have two members. I've taken to adding "b. The first element is sui generis." as the second item. If taken to it's logical conclusion, the topic level should also have a partner element and therefore outlines should only be allowed to occur in pairs.

  8. lukas:

    For those who ever find the need to use nested parentheses—as in this (admittedly contrived) sentence—dashes may be an acceptable workaround.

  9. Brad Warbiany:

    Given the number of comments already, I'll add another question here: how do you pluralize acronyms/abbreviations?

    For example, I work in the storage industry, so I am often writing about hard disk drives and solid state drives. Pluralizing here is easy, but if I use the shorthand, do I call them "HDDs and SSDs", or "HDD's and SSD's", or somthing else? If I just use SSD that could imply singular or plural, but generally IMHO the standard meaning would be singular.

  10. aretae:

    Remember to give it AN honest search.

  11. AughtSix:

    “HDD’s and SSD’s”
    Get behind me, Satan! Apostrophes do not plurals make! :-)

    I would write "SSDs". (And there's the engineer/British-style punctuation with an engineer's overuse of parentheses, too.)

    But it gets interesting with, e.g., the plural of AG, used for Attorney General. Plural would be Attorneys General, but I wouldn't write AsG.

  12. Highway:

    Agreeing with AughtSix, plurals of acronyms usually just get the 's' tacked on with no apostrophe. Especially since the possessive case can still apply to things like HDD and SSD ("The HDD's motor is broken"). I also agree with the cases where the last word in an acronym isn't the subject of pluralization, so they're mostly left intact with no s. But if they are considered a word in their own right, then frequently a trailing s is used for pluralization. For instance RBIs and WMDs.

  13. David:

    Brad, I prefer to reserve the apostrophe for either contractions or possessives, so I'd write SSDs. Sadly, I don't believe that there is a real standard yet.

  14. Regan:

    I agree with Highway. The use of "a" or "an" depends on whether the next word begins with a vowel sound. This is why I've always argued that "an historic" is incorrect. I've heard theories that this comes from the British dropping the h--which would make it "an 'istoric." However, in America, where we pronounce our h's, it should be "a historic." After all, you've never taken "an history" class have you?

    An historic may have become acceptable over the years but I still fight for what I consider is the correct article. Sadly though, with all of the texting abbreviations and horrible grammar and spelling of facebook I fear that the English language as we know it is not long for this world.

  15. john:

    My example above is kind of stupid. Note to self, do not post blog comments before drinking coffee. Making it, then letting it sit and get cold doesn't count. I hope it made sense anyway.

  16. Bryan:

    My big gramatical uncertainty comes when I'm nesting quotation marks. Does anybody have any tips for that situation?

  17. I Got Bupkis, SF Enthusiast Emeritus:

    Of course -- the purpose of the "n" in "an" is to help the tongue break up the obnoxious gargle that happens when two vowels -- particularly the "a" vowel's oral construction -- are pronounced in succession (vowels like the "ou" in "pronounced" aren't in succession, they're a single, more complex phoneme-vowel sound assigned to the two vowels)

    Hence it's an "h" sound. "ay-aych" is much more difficult to say than "an aych". The "n" sound allows the mouth to break apart the two 'ay's more distinctly.

    I recall reading an SF anthology when I was a teenager, with an interesting short story in it, I wish I recalled what it was. The book had to have been published sometime from 1950 to 1975.

    In it, the author was writing from a perspective of fifty years from now, discussing the "past 50 years of English spelling reform" (i.e., a proposed set of reforms to come). It was essentially an argument for how to reform English spelling to get rid of at least part of the dunderheaded inconsistencies. He discussed a series of reforms that "took place" hypothetically, over time to allow people to adjust slowly, and, as he described them, he actually began implementing them in the text. Two obvious examples that I recall were the elimination of the silent "e" (and replacing its reason for existing in some cases in the word itself), and the removal of 'c', since the lone 'c' phoneme (as opposed to the "ch" phoneme) can always be changed for a k or s without confusion: "Hens, hiz text wood thensforth refer tu a kat."

    By the end of the short story, the text was still utterly readable and comprehensible, but far more consistent and easy to learn.

  18. Jay:

    Nesting quotation marks? As in:
    In reply I said "people say 'using single quotes on any inner quotes and double quotes on the outside is a historically correct method' in reply," and then added "people also get confused about punctuation inside quotes or not, which has loosened up in recent times, partly because it is done the other way when writing software."

  19. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    >>> Plural would be Attorneys General, but I wouldn’t write AsG

    I think the plural form is spelled "assholes"... but that's just my take on it.

  20. I Got Bupkis, Critic Extraordinaire:

    Heh, speaking of grammar rules, the one I violate is to use the third person plural "they" in gender-neutral third person singular examples... "When playing on a football team, the primary goal of the wide receiver is that they catch the football", even when the subject is clearly singular.

    It tends to be so much less clumsy than "s/he" which you can't really say, even, just write, and a lot less impersonal than "it".

  21. Logan:

    It took me half a hour to get through that one...

  22. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA):

    As one quite comfortable in six languages (and functional in six others [at least enough to be polite]) I tend to regard my mother tongue with rather more interest than might otherwise be the case. Perhaps the most remarkable advantage enjoyed by English is its profound adaptability, a trait leading far too often towards absolutely inexcusable usage: "him and me went ..." for example.

    I've watched two particularly fascinating and significant patterns of change unfold during the past fifty years or so in English usage and not only here in the States.

    First, there is a rapidly growing tendency to use nouns as new verbs, as in "to office" or "to pancake". This is useful adaptation at its best.

    Second, many of the relatively few "strong verbs" are continuing their centuries-long simplification towards "weak verb" structure. Weak verbs all have the same set of bland endings: walk-walked-walked. Compare to sing-sang-sung. If you listen you'll begin to notice usages like "I buyed it last week".

    These changes may grate somewhat, but consider the weak-verb structure of "he has helped". Two centuries ago it was a strong verb: "he hath holpen". Even more interesting is the way is the rapid transition of "to bring" from one strong-verb structure to one not quite so strong, because it rhymes with "sing": bring-brought-brought --> bring-brang-brung, which is probably just a way-station to fully weak structure because you occasionally hear the bring-bringed-bringed usage.

    Parenthetically (parentheses enclose extra *information* not essential to the key thought) it's also worth noting that if your sentence structure is such that you're inclined to use nested parentheses, use brackets to differentiate the inner information. You now see why I structured my first sentence in the manner I did.

    Finally--and the difference matters--dashes enclose extra *emphasis* rather than information. Different function, different punctuation, but in essence both have the same purpose: enabling our written communication to resemble effective conversational English.

  23. Eric H:

    Dammit, Logan, you beat me to it. I guess I should go take a herbal remedy.

  24. Elliot:

    Putting punctuation inside quotations, always, is a stupid rule which dates back to the printing press. Apparently, having a period after a close quote made them more susceptible to break or misprint (sorry, I can't reference Wikipedia to fact check today). Despite what any grammarians might declare to be the "correct" way to use quotation marks with other punctuation, I just do what makes sense—what "AughtSix" calls the "British style"—unless of course the "American style" makes more sense.

  25. Samsam von Virginia:

    Every one should know that Kory Stamper is the world's greatest Language Geekess

    Her bit on octopus plurals is pretty good.


  26. Samsam von Virginia:

    Hmm... not sure why the off-topic link got featured better than the on-topic link.