Steve in Glendale wrote to tell me about a snag he hit recently when writing about a blogger on a National Public Radio website.
“When I just typed ‘a NPR blogger’ it didn't sound right. It sounded clumsy,” Steve wrote. “‘An’ sounds better to me since the letter ‘n’ is pronounced ‘en’ giving it a vowel sound. Do we go with the eye or the ear?”
Steve wasn’t asking me. He was asking a friend, a retired English teacher, who replied: “I would always follow the simplest rule: ‘An’ before a vowel, ‘A’ before a consonant.”
But Steve’s email had his friend second-guessing himself. So the former teacher did some research. “Some experts say go with the sound, some say go with the letter,” he wrote. “In this instance, I don’t think you can make a mistake.”
Actually, yes, you can. In choosing between the indefinite articles “a” and “an,” it’s a mistake to choose based on anything but sound.
Say the following out loud: a university professor, an urgent matter, a European country, a one-year commitment, an MBA program, a unique problem, an ugly situation, an FBI agent. Now try changing the article before each and it becomes clear very quickly that you can make a mistake.
“The indefinite article ‘a’ is used before words beginning with a consonant sound, including ‘y’ and ‘w’ sounds,” writes Garner’s Modern American Usage. ‘The other form, ‘an,’ is used before words beginning with a vowel sound. Since the sound rather than the letter controls, it’s not unusual to find ‘a’ before a vowel or ‘an’ before a consonant.”
That’s why “a,” not “an,” goes before the “European.” Though “European” starts with the vowel “e,” it’s pronounced as though it starts with the consonant sound of “y.” Similarly, that’s why “an” goes before “MBA.” Yes, “m” is a consonant. But the letter is pronounced “em,” beginning with an “e” sound.
This raises a question: Is “MBA” in fact pronounced “em bee ay”? Or is it pronounced “master of business administration”? I think most people would agree it’s the former, but that consensus is aided by the fact that “MBA” is very common. It’s almost automatic to see those three letters and hear something that starts with “em.” But if most people’s natural impulse were to imagine hearing “master’s” instead of “m,” it would be different.
My favorite example of this is illustrated in a test I have conducted on co-workers who, like me, edit travel articles. I write on a piece of paper “They stayed at the AAA-approved resort,” then I ask them to read it aloud. Without exception, every one speaks those initials not as “ay, ay, ay” but as “triple ay,” beginning with the consonant “t.”
That’s why, fascinatingly, it’s correct to write “a AAA-approved resort” instead of “an AAA-approved resort.” The presumed pronunciation, the one intended by the writer and understood by the reader, begins with a consonant. So as the copy editor, I leave it the way writers always type it: “a AAA.”
Native speakers usually don’t need to question their indefinite article choice. It comes naturally. The big exception is the word “historic,” along with related forms like “historical” and “historian.” Almost everyone’s unsure about these. But really, the best course is to follow the standard rule: If the “h” is pronounced, which in the United States it is, use “a”: a historic, a historian.
But on this matter here you do have a choice: “The theory behind using ‘an’ in such a context is that the ‘h’ is weak when the accent is on the second rather than the first syllable,” Garner’s writes.
So because “historic,” “habitual” and the like stress the second syllable, the “h” gets downplayed and, you could argue, should therefore be preceded by “an.” That is an acceptable choice, though Garner’s says that “a” before “historic,” “habitual” and similar words is the preferred form.