What is the rule for determining whether to use a or an?

The rule is: Use an before a word beginning with a vowel sound, however the word is spelled. Hence you say an MBA, an hour, but a BA, a horologist. You say either an historical event or a historical event, according to whether you pronounce the h. The rule is that if the h- is sounded, then a is the proper form. The indefinite article a is used before words beginning with a consonant sound, y and w sounds. The sound, not the actual letter, determines which you use. It is not unusual to find a before a word starting with a vowel or an before a word starting with a consonant.

1 Comment

  1. ausGeoff -  February 5, 2016 - 10:42 am

    The word “historical” in modern spoken English begins with an aspirated “h” and so “a” is always correctly used. The “h” in this instance is a so-called silent letter that represents a hiatus at word boundaries. Noone actually says “an horse” or “an house” or “an hot day” do they? And if they do say “an historical event” then its sounds both audibly clumsy and an affectation.

    In the ‘Corpus of Contemporary American English 2015′, there are 1591 incidences of “a historic” and 428 incidences of “an historic”, clearly indicating that the usage of “an” before such words is dying out. And rightly so.


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