A, An, & And: How to Choose the Right Word

Two are articles with a shared meaning, the other is a conjunction

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Maria Eklind/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

"A" and "an" are indefinite articles that precede nouns or the adjectives modifying nouns. In English grammar, "a" and "an" are determiners, meaning they specify the identity or quantity of something, and for both words, that quantity is "one"—the word from which they're derived. Really, the only thing that sets this pair apart is the pronunciation of the first sound of the word that follows them. It's pretty simple, except when it isn't—but we'll get to that. "And," on the other hand, is a coordinating conjunction that's used to join words, phrases, and clauses—which is another thing altogether, so we'll save "and" for last. OK?

How to Use 'A'

"A" is an indefinite article that's used before a noun or adjective that starts with a consonant sound—even if the first letter of the noun or adjective is a vowel.

How to Use 'An'

"An" is an indefinite article that precedes a noun or an adjective that begins with a vowel sound—even if the first letter of that noun or adjective is a consonant.

Examples

"A" and "an" are two forms of the same word, so you really can't confuse their meaning. Just remember, choosing the right article is all about the first sound, not the first letter of the noun or adjective that follows the article.

  • An elephant crashed through a fence.
  • She has a high-pitched voice and an annoying habit of using it.
  • I sat at a table and ate an apple.
  • It was an honor to meet a military veteran.

When Using 'A' or 'An' Can Get Confusing, Part 1

Some words that begin with vowels actually sound like consonants, and vice-versa. Words that begin with the letter "u" are a bit of a challenge. When "u" is pronounced "you," as in "ukelele," it's preceded by "a" because "you" starts with a consonant sound ("y").

  • He played a ukelele in the band.
  • She wore a uniform.
  • I met a unicorn.

When "u" is pronounced "uh," as in "umbrella," or "ew" as in "tuber," it takes "an" because "uh" and "ew" are vowel sounds.

  • We had an understanding.
  • That was an unconventional strategy.
  • I called an Uber.

When Using 'A' or 'An' Can Get Confusing, Part 2

Some words that start with the letter "h" begin with a vowel sound, while others begin with a consonant sound—but as long as you know how the words are pronounced, choosing the correct article shouldn't be a problem because the same rules apply.

  • Words in which you pronounce the initial "h" as a consonant, including habitat, hospital, and horoscope, are preceded by "a"—a habitat, a hospital, a horoscope.
  • Words in which the initial "h" is dropped, including hour, honor, and hors d'oeuvre (making the vowel the first sound you hear) are preceded by "an"—an hour, an honor, an hors d'oeuvre.

Another point of confusion is which article to use for all the "history" words: historian, historic, historical (and a few others like "hysterical"). The current common consensus is that since you pronounce the "h," the correct usage would be: "I was accosted by a hysterical historian in a historic district of Boston."

Of course, you're still going to hear some folks say things like, "It was an historic day for all concerned." There are two reasons for this: The person speaking might be from Great Britain. In some instances of British English, as opposed to American English, the "h" sound is dropped, making "an" acceptable.

The other reason you might hear it is due to an affectation. The person speaking may be attempting to sound like someone of elevated social status. People who do this also tend to pronounce the silent "t" in "often" because they think it makes them sound "classy." This practice is something to be avoided—except perhaps in a Monty Python sketch.

Using 'A' and 'An' With Abbreviations

According to Theodore M. Bernstein, author of "The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage," one last bastion of confusion in the "a" vs. "an" conundrum rears it's ugly head when abbreviations crop up:

"Do you write, 'He received a M.A. degree' or 'an M.A. degree'? Do you write, 'a N.Y. Central spokesman' or 'an N.Y. Central spokesman'?"

Once again, the test is pronunciation.

"M.A. registers with most people as alphabetical letters, not as 'Master of Arts'; hence, 'an M.A. degree' is proper. On the other hand, 'N.Y. Central' is instantly translated by the mind into 'New York Central'; it would not be read as 'En Wye Central.' Therefore, a 'N.Y. Central spokesman' is proper."

How to Remember the Difference Between "A' and "An"

"When in doubt, sound it out!" If you're still not sure which article is correct, saying the word or phrase you're having trouble with out loud can help. If you're unsure of the proper pronunciation, most dictionaries offer standard pronunciation guidelines for each entry. If you can't figure out the notations, most online dictionaries also feature an audio function that will give you the correct pronunciation. Just click on the sound icon.

When to Use 'And'

Although it's a common error to type "an" instead of "and" or "and" instead of "an" (and spellcheck won't always catch it!) there's really no reason to confuse either "a" or "an" with "and" since they serve very different functions in language.

We've already identified "a" and "an" as articles. "And" is a conjunction. It doesn't qualify or quantify things, but rather, it joins them. You can think of and as the plus sign in an addition equation because that's pretty much the grammatical equivalent of what it is.

In math class, you'd write out 2 + 2 = 4, but you might say, "two and two are four." The thing between the two factors of the equation (+ or and) simply means you're supposed to add them. Either way, it adds up to four.

Examples

  • Jane and I are friends.
  • It was a case of apples and oranges.
  • The wound on his hand was ugly and infected.

'And' and '&'

And finally, the ampersand—a.k.a. "&"—is a symbol that's interchangeable with the word "and" in meaning (easily remembered because it has the word "and" in it), however, there are times and places when using an ampersand is acceptable, and others when it's not.

Ampersands are great for signage, graphics, and texting. When you're writing any kind of formal document, always use "and" unless the ampersand is part of a name, title, or quoted phrase.

  • Ben and Jerry were kind enough to send 12 cases of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream to the charity event.

Sources