Difference Between A and An (With Table)

The English Language has articles. The articles are further classified into definite and indefinite articles. The definite article includes “the” and the indefinite article includes “a” and “an”. These three little words play a pivotal role before naming words or nouns.

A vs An

The main difference between ‘a’ and ‘an’ is that ‘a’ is used before a word that begins with a constant sound while ‘an’ is used before a word that begins with a vowel sound.

‘A’ is used in front of words that start with a consonant or sound like starting with a consonant. Words that sound like consonants could typically begin with ‘u’. When ‘u’ is pronounced, it sounds like ‘you’. Examples of words are unique, unicorn, uniform, union, unit, use, user, utensil, united, useless, and many more words which though begin with a vowel, but sound like a consonant word.

While ‘an’ is used in front of words that start with a vowel or sound like starting with a vowel. Examples of words with a vowel sound are words beginning with ‘h’ as ‘h’ is not pronounced. The words could be honest, heir, honorable, heirloom, hour, and many more which though begin with a consonant, but sound like vowel and hence an is used.

Comparison Table Between A and An

Parameters of comparisonAAn
UsageIt is used before words that start or sound with a consonant It is used before words that start or sound with a vowel
FunctionTo modify non-specific nouns To modify non-particular nouns
TypeIndefinite article Indefinite article
LimitationsIt cannot be used with possessive pronouns, plural nouns, or before a word starting or starting like a vowel It cannot be used with cardinal numbers, demonstratives, definite nouns, or before a word starting or sounding like a consonant
ExamplesA new house, a tall building, a beautiful word, a long curtain An angry lion, an accident, an elephant, an igloo, an hour

What is A?

The article ‘a’ is used for a singular common noun. The use of the article ‘a’ depends on the word that follows after it. It is essential to note the sound or pronunciation of the word. Words that start with a consonant or sound like a word starting with a consonant, have the article ‘a’ before them.

The consonants in the English Language are ‘b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z’. Any word that starts with these alphabets can have the article ‘a’ before it. Some examples are – a party, a book, a teapot, a cart, a watermelon, a flower, a hat, a woman, and many other combinations.

Other than the consonants, some words start with a vowel yet sound like a consonant and qualify for the usage of the article ‘a’. Such vowel starting but consonant sounding words can typically begin with the alphabet ‘u’. ‘U’ when pronounced in English sounds like ‘you’ and hence lands up sounding like a consonant.

Examples of consonant sounding words are ubiquitous, utopia, unisex, universal, university, etc. The article ‘a’ promotes smoothness in speech. It is also applicable for acronyms and abbreviations like A CBS News report.

What is An?

The article ‘an’ is an indefinite article. It is used for a singular common noun. The article ‘an’ is used before words that start with a vowel or sound like a word starting with a vowel. The vowels in the English language are ‘a, e, i, o, u’. If the word starts with any of these alphabets, then the article ‘an’ can be used before the same.

Example of such words is ice cream, an octopus, an engine, an umbrella, an envelope, an owl, an orange, an egg, an hour, an eagle, an ant, an afternoon and many other combinations. But some words begin with a consonant, yet sound like starting with a vowel alphabet and can qualify the usage of the article ‘an’.

Such consonant starting words typically start with the alphabet ‘h’ and sound like it has started with ‘o’. Examples of such words are honest, honor, herb, hour, honorary, hysterectomy, hereditary, humble, homage, and many other words.

The article ‘a’ promotes clarity in speech. It is even applicable to acronyms and initials. Example An HTML web application or An NBC television show. Hence, it all depends on the sound and pronunciation of the words, abbreviations, acronyms, or letters irrespective of the spelling.

Main Differences Between A and An

  1. The article ‘a’ is used before words, abbreviations, acronyms, or letters that start with a consonant while the article ‘an’ is used before words, abbreviations, acronyms, or letters that start with a vowel.
  2. The exception of the usage of article ‘a’ is for words that start with “u” as it is pronounced as “you” while the exception of the usage of article ‘an’ is for words that start with “h” as the “h” is silent.
  3. The function of the article ‘a’ is to modify non-specific nouns and make the speech smooth while the function of the article ‘an’ is to modify non-particular nouns and make the speech clear.
  4. Example of the article ‘a’ is a girl, a fish, a book, a university while the examples of the article ‘an’ is an old house, an arcade, an honorable man, an LCD screen, etc.
  5. The article ‘a’ can be used before alphabets like “a, e, i, o, u” while the article ‘an’ can be used before alphabets like ”b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z”.

Conclusion

Articles cannot be used with all nouns. Like names of languages (Chinese, Spanish, French), nationalities (Indian, Russian, African), sports (cricket, badminton, hockey), or academic subjects (physics, chemistry, economics, history) do not take an article before them.

Both the articles are used with singular countable nouns. It is used when the subject is not specific and clear. They are used to signify one or singular object in the presence of many numbers and units.

References

  1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/339955
  2. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0075424209352729
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