The Grammarphobia Blog

Sound bites

Q: I have a question about using “a/an” before consonant/vowel sounds. Why is the long “u” considered a consonant sound? After all, the long “a” in “atrium” and the long “i” in “island” are vowel sounds. Why can’t the long “u” in “universe” be a vowel sound too? Can we have any wiggle room here?

A: Nope, no wiggle room.

In deciding whether to use “a” or “an” before a word, use your ears, not your eyes. If the word begins with a consonant sound, use “a.” If it begins with a vowel sound, use “an.”

As I’ve written before on the blog, don’t be distracted by the letter of the alphabet. Some letters play dual roles.

For instance, the vowel combination “eu” at the beginning of a word like “European” is a consonant sound. The word is pronounced just as if it began with “yoor.”

Similarly, “universe” is pronounced just as if it began with “yoon.” Would you really want to say “I attend an university” or “He has an universe of things to learn”? Of course you wouldn’t.

So again, pay no attention to the LETTER a word begins with. Listen to the SOUND. It’s what determines whether you use the article “a” or “an.”

That’s the long and the short of it.

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