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Language Arts

A vs. An

A vs. An - when to use A or An. Find the meaning and usage of A versus An. Another lesson in our series on confusing words: A vs. An. Learn how to use An versus A.

A vs An

In English schooling, the areas in which language assimilates to context are not often discussed. In some cases, such as with the indefinite article a and an, we actually see the change in spelling. This is also true of prefixes that assimilate-like in-, il-, im-, and ir-though many people may not be consciously aware that these are variant spellings of the same word part called allomorphs. But assimilation also occurs in pronunciation changes like those we use for the definite article the. Let’s focus on the articles for a bit.


A is the indefinite article. It is used before nouns, both singular and plural, and noun phrases to signify that any member that fits the description is being referred to, or the noun or noun phrase is being referred to in general. Here is an example sentence:

Given the choice, would you rather: drive a Maserati, live in a mansion, or have an in-ground heated swimming pool?

The entire setting of this sentence is fictional, and neither the car nor the home is a specific reference.

A is also used to introduce a new element to the discourse, for example:

Okay, so to understand my story, you need to know that I have a cat.

A can also be used before a proper noun to mean “something with the characteristics or qualities of.” Here is an example sentence:

Yeah, I heard they’re building a hotel here, too, but I’ll wager anything it won’t be a Ritz.

Thirdly, a can be used before a non-count noun to indicate a particular instance of a non-count noun (see the article “Less vs. Fewer” for more information on count and non-count nouns.) Sometimes this construction requires having an adjective before the noun. Here’s an example sentence:

Jenny prefers a local artisan bread to any sliced, prepackaged brand.

Notice that so far, we have only used a, not an. Why is this? Well, try saying the following aloud:

a apple
a opal
a egg
a honor

Now try saying these instead:

an apple
an opal
an egg
an honor

The n creates a bridge between the two vowels, making them easier to pronounce distinctly without a great amount of concentration. You may be interested to learn that a is not unique in having this alternative. In Shakespeare’s time, the possessive pronoun my was rendered as mine before a word beginning with a vowel or an h.

So, a is used in writing, with nouns or noun phrases that begin with a consonant sound, including before u when it is pronounced /y/ or o iws pronounced /w/, for example, a unique opportunity and a one and a two. An is used in writing when it precedes a word that begins with a vowel sound, for example, an onion, an honorable man. In the past, all words with h took an, but that was due to initial h not being pronounced at that time. Today, in general, except for words in which not pronouncing the initial h is standard, a is used, except in formal writing and with the word historical, which has a larger percentage of an’s. In speech, a before an initial vowel sound is found more often in some dialects.


The is the definite article. It is used before nouns-singular or plural-or noun phrases to signify that a specific or particular person, place, or thing is being referenced. This can either be in an initial reference (particularly when the item is present with a speaker and listener and indicated by gesture), or when the item has already been introduce with a. For example:

Okay, so to understand my story, you need to know that I have a cat, and the cat likes to sleep in the bathtub.

It can also be used to create emphasis, as in this example:

Yes, there are many men named John Smith, but I am talking about the John Smith: the one in the Pocahontas story.

A can have the force of a definite article when it is used like this:

Has anyone seen a green handbag with pink polka dots and a shoulder strap?

In this case “a green handbag with pink polka dots and a shoulder strap” has the force of “the green handbag with pink polka dots and a shoulder strap that I lost.”

Written by Mary Elizabeth