A vs. An – How To Distinguish These Two Simple Words

22.02.24 Commonly confused words Time to read: 5min

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When writing, you may encounter some words that are easily confused. Such words are frequently referred to as commonly confused words. One of the most common pairs is “a” and “an.” Although these two words seem interchangeable, it’s crucial to understand their difference, as they are used in slightly different contexts. Clear and precise communication is vital in academic writing to maintain the quality of the writing.

Definition of “a” vs. “an”

“A” and “an” are indefinite articles in English, and they are used before nouns to indicate that the noun refers to something not specifically identified or to refer to a member of a general category. “A” is used before words that begin with a consonant sound, while “an” is used before words that begin with a vowel sound.

A

… is an indefinite article that precedes a noun and is used before words that begin with a consonant sound.

An

… is an indefinite article that precedes a noun and is used before words that begin with a vowel sound.

The key distinction between “a” and “an” is based on the sound that follows them, not necessarily the specific letter. Whether a word starts with a vowel or consonant sound determines which article to use.

Note: It’s about the sound that follows, not the actual letter. This distinction helps maintain smooth and natural-sounding language.

Using the word “a”

The word “a” is an indefinite article in English, serving the purpose of introducing non-specific items or referring to something for the first time. Unlike “an,” “a” is used before words that begin with a consonant sound.

“A” as an indefinite article

Use “a” before words that start with a consonant sound. Even if a word begins with a vowel letter, use “a” if the sound that follows is a consonant sound. In some cases, when the “h” is pronounced (not silent), “a” is used. Furthermore, use “a” before acronyms and initialisms that start with a consonant sound. Understanding the consonant sound following the article is crucial for using “a” correctly. These guidelines will help you make the right choice in various contexts.

Examples

  • They visited a university of high esteem. (Vowel letter, but no vowel sound)
  • Her grandmother witnessed a historic event. (Exceptions with “h”)
  • He saw a UFO last night. (Acronym without vowel sound)

Tip for using “a” correctly

The word “a” serves as an indefinite article in English and doesn’t have direct synonyms in the context of introducing a non-specific item. However, depending on the context, you might use alternatives like “one,” “any,” or rephrase the sentence to convey a similar meaning. Keep in mind that the choice of words depends on the specific context of your sentence.

Example with “one” 

  • I need a pen to sign this document.
  • I need one pen to sign this document.

Example with “any” 

  • Do you have a question about the project?
  • Do you have any questions about the project?

Using the word “an”

The word “an” serves as an indefinite article in English. Indefinite articles are typically used before nouns to refer to non-specific items or to introduce something new. The primary function of “an” is to specifically precede words that begin with a vowel sound.

“An” as an indefinite article

Use “an” before words that start with a vowel sound. If a word begins with a silent “h,” use “an.” It’s about the sound, not the letter. Consider the pronunciation of the word. Moreover, use “an” before acronyms and initialisms that start with a vowel sound. Remember, the choice between “a” and “an” is determined by the sound that follows, not the specific letter. These tips should help you use “an” appropriately in various contexts.

Examples

  • He’s an honest person. (Silent “h”)
  • They have an hour to complete the task. (No vowel letter, but vowel sound)
  • She is driving an SUV. (Acronym with vowel sound)

Tip for using “an” correctly

Similar to “a,” the word “an” is an indefinite article and doesn’t have direct synonyms in the sense of introducing a non-specific item. However, you may use alternatives like “one,” “any,” or rephrase the sentence based on the specific context. Remember that the choice of words depends on the sentence structure and the nuance you want to convey.

Example with “one”

  • I need an apple for this recipe.
  • I need one apple for the recipe.

Example with “any”

  • Can I have an orange?
  • Can I have any oranges?

Be careful, the use of “any” often implies a question about the availability of the item in general, rather than a specific quantity.

Test yourself!

Practice sheet

To improve your ability to differentiate between “a” and “an,” please complete the practice sentences in the second tab.

  1. I have ____ apple in my bag.
  2. She wants to adopt ____ cat from the shelter.
  3. He bought ____ interesting book yesterday.
  4. Can you lend me ____ umbrella?
  5. It was ____ hour-long presentation.
  6. She is  ____ honest person.
  7. I saw ____ UFO in the sky last night.
  8. She ordered ____ unique gift for her friend.
  9. He’s attending ____ university in the city.
  10. It was ____ historic mument for the team.
  1. I have an apple in my bag.
  2. She wants to adopt a cat from the shelter.
  3. He bought an interesting book yesterday.
  4. Can you lend me an umbrella?
  5. It was an hour-long presentation.
  6. She is an honest person.
  7. I saw a UFO in the sky last night.
  8. She ordered a unique gift for her friend.
  9. He’s attending a university in the city.
  10. It was a historic mument for the team.
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FAQs

Use “a” before words that begin with a consonant sound, and use “an” before words that begin with a vowel sound. The choice depends on the sound that follows the indefinite article, not the specific letter.

The difference between “a” and “an” lies in their usage before nouns. Use “a” before words starting with a consonant sound, and use “an” before words starting with a vowel sound. It depends on the sound that follows, not the specific letter.

Use “a” before words that start with a consonant sound, and use “an” before words that start with a vowel sound. The choice is based on the sound that follows the indefinite article, not the specific letter. Consider pronunciation when making this distinction.

“A university” is correct. Use “a” before words that begin with a consonant sound, and in this case, “university” starts with the /juː/ sound, which is a consonant sound.