The Grammarphobia Blog

Sound advice

Q: My boss wrote a memo with this phrase: “in order to display an EULA.” The acronym “EULA,” which stands for “End User License Agreement,” is usually pronounced “YOO-la.” So was he correct to write “an EULA”? Does how a word looks on the page trump the way it sounds? Just wondering.

A: We generally use “an” in front of a word that begins with a vowel (“a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” or “u”), and “a” in front of a word that begins with a consonant (a letter with a hard sound like “b,” “c,” “d,” “f,” “g,” “h,” and so on).

But not all the time. Whether we’re speaking or writing, the choice of “a” or “an” depends not on the actual letter that follows, but on the way the letter is pronounced.

The rule is that we use “a” before a word that starts with a consonant sound even if the first letter is a vowel (“a university,” “a European,” a “EULA,” etc.), and we use “an” before a word that starts with a vowel sound even if the first letter is a consonant (“an honor,” “an hour,” “an M&M”).

And, remember, an acronym (like “EULA”) is a word: it’s a word made up of the initial letters of other words.

I’ve talked about this “a”-vs.-“an” business on the blog once before. You might find the earlier posting helpful.

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