Grammar Bite #2: Indefinite articles

23 September 2010 

 

Today’s grammar review covers the use of the indefinite article (a/an) with nouns, adjectives or adverbs.

 

You already know this ‘rule’, right?

 

If a noun, adjective or adverb begins with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u), you should use the indefinite article ‘an’ before it. If it begins with a consonant (all the other letters of the alphabet), you should use the indefinite article ‘a’.

 

But is that always true? Today we’ll look at words that begin with ‘h’ and ‘u’.

 

Which indefinite article should you use with these words – ‘a’ or ‘an’?

 

hour

hybrid

honest

hug

hotel

house

honour

herb

horribly

union

undertaking

united

urban

uniform

ulcer

unique

umbrella

usually

 

The ‘h’ words

Let’s look at the words that begin with ‘h’.

 

With most words that begin with ‘h’, you actually pronounce the ‘h’ sound: hybrid, hug, hotel, house and horribly. So, since ‘h’ is a consonant, the correct article to use is ‘a’.

 

But with some English words, the ‘h’ sound is not pronounced: hour, honest, honour. So with these words, you’d use ‘an’.

 

What about ‘herb’? The pronunciation of ‘herb’ can be with the ‘h’ sound (if you’re British) or without it (if you’re American). So you can use either ‘a’ or ‘an’ with ‘herb’.

 

The ‘u’ words

Now let’s look at the words that begin with ‘u’.

 

Say these words out loud:

--union

--united

--uniform

--unique

--usually

 

What sound does each of those words start with? The first sound is like a ‘y’ – as in ‘yellow’.

 

So because the first sound of those words is actually a consonant sound (‘y’), you should use the article ‘a’ with them.

 

Now say the other words aloud:

--undertaking

--urban district

--ulcer

--umbrella

 

These words begin with a vowel sound – ‘uh’. So they need the article ‘an’.

 

Here’s the list of nouns, adjectives and adverbs above:

 

Use the article ‘a’ with these words

Use the article ‘an’ with these words

 hybrid

hug

hotel

house

horribly

 

union

united

uniform

unique

usually

 

herb [British]

hour

honest

honour

 

undertaking

urban

ulcer

umbrella

 

 

 

 

herb [American]

 

Not sure how to pronounce them?

If you’re not sure whether to say the ‘h’ sound or not – or whether to use the ‘y’ sound or the ‘uh’ sound, you’ll need to look the word up in a dictionary and check the phonetic spelling.

 

Tip: If you don’t know the phonetic spelling symbols, I suggest using an online dictionary that has sound files of the pronunciation.

 

Look up words that begin with ‘h’:

--if the phonetic spelling starts with the symbol /h/, then say the ‘h’ sound (eg, house). Use the article ‘a’ with them.

--if the phonetic spelling starts with the second letter of the word (not ‘h’), then do not say the ‘h’ sound (eg, hour). Use the article ‘an’ with them.

 

Look up words that begin with ‘u’:

--if the phonetic spelling starts with the symbol /j/, the word will be pronounced like the letter ‘y’ (eg, union). Use the article ‘a’ with them.

--if the phonetic spelling starts with the symbol that looks like an upside-down ‘V’ /^/, the word will be pronounced like ‘uh’ (eg, umbrella) -- or the symbol that looks like a small ‘3’ /3:/ in words like ‘urban’. Use the article ‘an’ with them. 

 

Frustrating, isn’t it?

It’s frustrating when a ‘rule’ of English grammar seems to be broken or inconsistent.

 

I have to apologise for that (even though I didn’t develop the language). So if you still have questions about this ‘grammar bite’, please ask me for clarification.

Copyright 2014 DeGolyer Associates Ltd |  Contact Deborah at:  writewithtaste@me.com