If the word following begins with a vowel sound, the word you want is “an”: “Have an apple, Adam.” If the word following begins with a consonant, but begins with a vowel sound, you still need “an”: “An X-ray will show whether there’s a worm in it.” It is nonstandard and often considered sloppy speech to utter an “uh” sound in such cases.
The same rule applies to initialisms like “NGO” (for “non-governmental organization”). Because the letter N is pronounced “en,” it’s “an NGO” but when the phrase is spoken instead of the abbreviation, it’s “a non-governmental organization.”
When the following word definitely begins with a consonant sound, you need “a”: “A snake told me apples enhance mental abilities.”
Note that the letter Y can be either a vowel or a consonant. Although it is sounded as a vowel in words like “pretty,” at the beginning of words it is usually sounded as a consonant, as in “a yolk.”
Words beginning with the letter U and starting with a Y consonant sound, like “university” and “utensil,” also take an “a”: “a university” and “a utensil.” But when an initial U has a vowel sound, the word is preceded by “an”: it’s “an umpire,” “an umbrella,” and “an understanding.”
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This week on the Common Errors in English Usage podcast we interview Ingrid Tieken about her work on the history of usage guides.
This is the tenth year of the Common Errors in English Usage calendar. To celebrate, we are bringing back some of our favorite interesting, funny, but sometimes merely silly entries through the years before going on hiatus in 2016.
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