Professional Style

A vs. An

November 2008
Spot the Error

Anna so admires her uncle Harry that she intends to follow in his footsteps and don a NYPD uniform someday.

The rule regarding a and an has been drilled into us since elementary school. You use a before a consonant and an before a vowel. Right? Wrong. In truth, the determining factor is not the first letter of the word that follows, but the first sound. If the letter sounds like a consonant, use a; if it sounds like a vowel, use an. For example:

  • a historic event, an honorary title
  • an understanding parent, a university professor

It gets a little trickier, however, with abbreviations. It all depends on how your audience reads the abbreviation. In some instances, your audience will read the individual letters:

  • an M.A. degree – People seldom think of “Master of Arts”; they simply read “M-A” (vowel sound).

In other instances, they’ll decode the letters into the original words:

  • a N.Y. production – People tend to decode “N.Y.” into “New York” (consonant sound).

And then there are the instances in which the abbreviation has become its own word (or acronym):

  • a NASA engineer – The acronym stands for National Aeronics and Space Administration, but who really cares … we just say NASA (consonant sound).

In the “NYPD” example above, the abbreviation is typically read as “N-Y-P-D”(vowel sound), rather than “New York Police Department,” so its article should be an.

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