A Word, Please: Some indefinite articles are a matter of opinion

As the holiday season drags on and workplace productivity grinds to a halt, you may find yourself running out of ways to waste time at the office.

And once paper-clip sculptures, baiting Donald Trump on Twitter and gossiping about a certain co-worker's imprudent cupcake consumption have lost their luster, what's a dead-weight employee to do?

Try this little time-waster I stumbled upon a few years back. Print the following sentence on a piece of paper, then walk around to co-workers' desks and ask them to read it aloud: “The resort has an array of standard guest rooms and suites and offers specials to any traveler with a AAA membership.”

If your workplace is anything like mine, you'll notice that, while some people pronounce the last part as “an A-A-A membership,” others will utter words that aren't even on the page, reading it aloud as “a triple A membership.”

A similar dynamic will occur if you ask enough people to read this sentence: “Before she goes home to start dinner, Joanne has to stop at the bank, buy an Xmas gift for Lou, and fill up the gas tank.” Some people will say “an eksmas gift.” Others will pronounce it “a Christmas gift.”

True, in either case you're influencing the response by choosing either “a” or “an” in the printed version. But a wider experiment using both would likely produce a similar result: people have different ideas about whether certain shorthand terms should be pronounced as shorthand or as the full words they represent.

All this seems to create a serious conundrum for anyone who actually wants to write these terms. Do you write “a AAA member” or “an AAA member”? Do you write “a Xmas gift” or “an Xmas gift”?

What seems like a conundrum is actually license to choose for yourself. Because when it comes to the indefinite articles “a” and “an,” the choice is all about pronunciation.

In English, the main indefinite article, so to speak, is “a.” A cat. A house. A beautiful day. But that's only when the word it's modifying begins with a consonant sound, like the C in cat or the H in house. When it starts with a vowel sound, we use “an”: An apple. An honor. Note that letters like H may take either “a” or “an” depending on whether they represent a consonant sound or are silent, leaving a word to start with a vowel sound, “an honor.”

Vowels sometimes indicate a consonant sound, “a university,” and consonants, especially as letters, can indicate a vowel sound, “an FBI agent.” And, of course, some are subject to debate, like “a historic” vs. “an historic.” Either of those is correct, by the way, but a lot of experts suggest that, because “historic” begins with a consonant sound, “a” is a better choice than “an.”

With terms that could be pronounced any of several ways, like AAA and Xmas, the writer should choose whichever he thinks is best for his reader.

“Should you write ‘a Xmas gift' or ‘an Xmas gift'?” asks Bryan Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage. “The answer depends on how readers hear the word in the mind's ear. If readers hear ‘Christmas,' then ‘a' is the correct indefinite article. If readers hear ‘Eksmas,' then ‘an' would be correct.”

Garner adds that, in his view, “Christmas” is probably what more people “hear” when they see “Xmas,” so he thinks that “a” might be the better article. I would guess the opposite.

To me it seems that “an” is more natural. As for AAA, I personally, prefer “an” before it. But your co-workers' opinions are just as valid as mine.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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