The Grammarphobia Blog

Sound advice

Q: In Woe Is I on page 115 you give the following example: “An 1840 saxophone is a rare artifact.” Shouldn’t the first word be “a,” not “an”?

A: No. The correct article is “an.”

Here’s the story with “a” and “an”: Use “a” before a word, an abbreviation, a number, and so on if it starts with a consonant SOUND (“a unicorn,” “a BMW,” “a 19th-century novel”). Use “an” before a word, an abbreviation, a number, and so on if it starts with a vowel SOUND (“an uproar,” “an NFL coach,” “an 1840 saxophone”).

It’s not just the letter or number at the beginning that determines the article; it’s the SOUND of that letter or number.

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