Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Using "a" or "an"

Yesterday, I was checking out some info on how to decide whether you should use "a" or "an" in a sentence. Believe it or not, sometimes the proper use of these articles can trip things up. For the longest time, I thought it was appropriate to say "a SASE" because, in my head, I broke down the acronym and it sounded right to say "I have enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope" instead of "I have enclosed an self-addressed stamped envelope."

Then I started seeing writers note how it's actually correct to use "an" before "SASE." Of course, in my mind, I STILL broke down that acronym, so using "an" didn't sound right. I had to force myself to mentally read it as "an S-A-S-E" instead of the words those letters stood for.

Now, I address this confusion in my Revisions book. But the problem is that, during the hours spent researching these chapters on grammar, I forgot to tackle the whole "a" vs. "an" debacle.

My next choice was to hit the 'Net to see what I could find out.

The site English-Zone told me that you are supposed to use "a" if the word following it starts with a consonant, and "an" if the next word starts with a vowel.

"A car."

"An envelope."

Source: Using Articles - A/An

However, after some thought and after I wrote up that part of the chapter, I realized something. There had to be a mistake. You wouldn't say "I just saw an UFO." You'd say "I just saw a UFO." The "u" is a vowel, but using "an" would not work here! What about that??

So I did some more research on this. I finally came to a site that cleared up this confusion:

Use an in place of a when it precedes a vowel sound, not just a vowel. That means it's "an honor" (the h is silent), but "a UFO" (because it's pronounced yoo eff oh).

Most of the confusion with a or an arises from acronyms and other abbreviations: some people think it's wrong to use an in front of an abbreviation like "MRI" because "an" can only go before vowels. Not so: the sound, not the letter, is what matters. Because you pronounce it "em ar eye," it's "an MRI."

Source: Guide to Grammar and Style - A

So there you have it, folks. Rely on how the words sound together and not so much on what letters are following the "a" or "an" in a sentence.

Better make a note of that in my book, while I'm at it.

And now for today's grammar goof that I caught:

"Gay's in the military."

Sadly, this is from a writer doing an article for the Philadelphia Tribune. I'm becoming convinced that the only way for me to break into the big leagues is to include grammatical errors in my work.

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  • At 7:36 AM , Blogger LazyKing said...

    WOw, I was confused about the "a" and "an" at the beginning of the post but now everything is clear in my head and I have more knowledge.
    Thanks :)

  • At 8:21 AM , Blogger MK said...

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 8:22 AM , Anonymous Mridu Khullar said...

    I always believed that a good writer focuses on the reporting and a good editor does the clean up. That's changed in our world, of course, where the writer is responsible for everything.

    The gay's thing looks like a typo to me, and I think the editor might have been responsible for that one.

    I don't think good grammar or spelling make or break a writer. People who're meticulous about syntax can sometimes be very bad at telling stories.

  • At 8:45 PM , Blogger colbymarshall said...

    I have to say I'm not a huge fan of people using the "an" in front of an "h" word...like, "I drive an hybrid car"...irks my taters.

  • At 7:20 AM , Blogger Dawn Wilson said...

    LazyKing: Leave it to blogs to provide extra knowledge. :) Though it is the so-called "useless knowledge" that can be a fun diversion! Thank you for stopping by. :)

    Mridu: Yay for "seeing" you on my blog! :) Thank you for commenting. Yeah, that apostrophe error is so easy for many writers to make What bugs me is that many writers try so very hard to get into sucj publications, and it's discouraging when we see writers who overlook mistakes such as this getting there while we can't. Nevertheless, that was not my reason for pointing out the typo. I included it merely for the sake of pointing out that it IS a typo.

    Here is an interesting story which may offer some moral and even reinforce your point: After my novel was published, my sister threw a party to celebrate its release and my brother got a cake that said, "Congrat's Dawn!" The cake decorator insisted to him it was not correct but my brother was stubborn about that apostrophe placement and told him to leave it that way. That was how he'd written it on the paper and that's how he wanted it on the cake. This story was related to me after I pointed out the error. It was still good cake!

    Colby: LOL I hear that! As pointed out, however, determining whether "a" or "an" is correct also depends on how it all sounds. As you pointed out, "I drive an hybrid car" is the exception to the vowel rule because it does not sound right.


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