How do you know whether to use “a” versus “an” in front of a word? Many of us were taught in elementary school that we use “a” in front of nouns that begin with consonant letters (e.g., “a crown”) and we use “an” in front of nouns that begin with vowel letters (e.g., “an apple”). What if we told you, though, that this rule isn’t quite right? Would you believe us?
A lot of people still believe the rule we learned in elementary school because in most cases, it leads us to the right answer. For example, in all of the following cases, using “a” for words that begin with consonant letters and using “an” for words that begin with vowel letters works out:
Words that begin with consonant letters:
- a beach
- a sandcastle
- a wave
Words that begin with vowel letters:
- an ocean
- an octopus
- an eel
In some cases, though, the rule leads us in the wrong direction. Let’s take a look at the following example:
- They need ___ MC (master of ceremonies) for their wedding.
What word belongs in the blank? “A” or “an”? Many of you would probably say that “an” sounds right more than “a” does. If we go with “an,” we end up with the following sentence:
- They need an MC for their wedding.
Notice, though, that “MC” starts with a consonant letter. This conflicts with our elementary school rule, which tells us that we use “a” with words with begin with consonant letters. Nonetheless, this answer is correct.
If our elementary school rule isn’t correct, how do we know when to use “a” versus “an” in front of a noun? Instead of looking at the first letter of the noun, we need to identify the sound that the noun starts with. If you were to say the word “MC” out loud, you would pronounce it like this: “em see.” As you can see, the first sound (i.e., “em”) is a vowel sound. For this reason, we use “an” rather than “a” in front of “MC.”
In many cases, words that begin with consonant letters (e.g., crown) also begin with consonant sounds, and words that begin with vowel letters (e.g., apple) also begin with vowel sounds. This is why the elementary school rule often leads us to the right answer. If you want to make sure that you always choose the correct word, though, you’ll need to think about the first sound of the noun instead of the first letter.
Have any lingering questions about when to use “a” vs. “an”? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate your questions into one of our upcoming posts.
Inpression Editing helps businesses, professionals, and students make the best impression possible on customers, investors, hiring managers, and admissions committees. We do this by providing copywriting, editing, and writing coaching services for website copy, blog posts, marketing materials, personal statements, and much more.
Located in Toronto, Canada, we provide all of our services in both Canadian and US English. Get an instant quote here.