A - an

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The indefinite article in English is the word a. This is pronounced, and written, with an additional -n when it is followed by a vowel. So it is often said that the indefinite article in English is a or an. This is normally without difficulty, although non-native learners sometimes have difficulty in applying the rule in rapid speech. Two areas sometimes present difficulties even to native speakers

  • See H - with indefinite article for whether to use a or an before words that start with h. See below for how to write the name of the letter.
  • Abbreviations can cause problems for those who forget that the definition of a vowel is a matter of the spoken language, not the written one. The names of several consonants when spoken start with a vowel, like that of m ('em'); and the name of the letter u, which is normally thought of as a vowel, actually starts with a consonant. (It is pronounced as a homophone of 'you'.) When you write an abbreviation with an indefinite article, therefore, you should think of how it sounds before deciding on whether to use a or an. One would obviously say (and write), for example, "an umbrella", but "a USB flashdrive". British applicants to universities have to use the form from UCAS. The organisation itself - the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - uses no full stops for the abbreviation, which can be pronounced in two ways. Those who say it with the first vowel like that in 'up' should write 'an UCAS form'; those who say it with a first syllable like 'you' should write 'a UCAS form.' (The more usual pronunciation these days is 'YOU-cass'; the organisation was called 'the Universities Central Council on Admissions' until 1993, and was then pronounced with the first vowel as in 'up'. Academics are often quite conservative in their habits, and not all have changed the pronunciation.)
    • The name of the letter h is pronounced variously as 'aich' and 'haitch'. If you say the first of these, write "an 'h'"; if you say it in the second way, write "a 'h'". The first is preferable in academic writing (see H - letter name.) You can always write "an aitch".