When it comes to articles, English speakers have it easy.
They only have to contend with “a,” “an,” and “the.” They don’t have to figure out whether a word is masculine or feminine like their french cousins who have to use “le,” “la,” and “les.”
And, both the English and French are better off than the Germans who have not only to figure out whether a word is masculine, feminine, or neutral but also have to determine whether the word is being used in the nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive.
Simply put, English articles are a cinch.
Nevertheless, there is still room to get confused when using English articles, especially with regard to the indefinite articles.
For instance, is it “a unique man” or “an unique man”? On the one hand, the rule tells you that you should use “an” before a vowel, so “an unique man” should be correct.
On the other hand, “a unique man” just sounds better and more correct. So, which is it?
Is it “a unique…” or “an unique…”?
Actually, the correct answer is “a unique [insert noun]” This might come as a surprise to some of you, but, I promise, it will all make sense in a minute.
So, what’s the rule?
Alright, the first thing you want to learn is that whether you use “a” or “an” doesn’t really depend on the first letter of a word.
Instead, it depends on the first sound of the word. We put “an” before words that have the following first sounds.
Ergo, here are some simple illustrative examples.
Interestingly, this rule extends to consonants that might give off a vowel sound because they are silent. The classic case is the letter “h.”
An honest woman.
Even though these words start with the letter “h,” the fact that the first sound is that of a vowel means that they are preceded by “an.” However, this is not the case when the “h” is pronounced.
As a matter of fact, this rule of when to use “an” extends to abbreviations and single letters.
You see, many letters are pronounced with a vowel sound at their beginning.
More specifically, we are talking about “A,” “E,” “F,” “H,” “I,” “L,” “M,” “N,” “O,” “R,” “S,” and “X.” For example, when talking about “F,” we pronounce it as “eff” with an “e” sound at the beginning.
Similarly, “M” is pronounced “em.”
He’s with an NEP group.
She finished an MUN report.
Notice that the abbreviation’s letters must be all pronounced for us to use “an.” However, if the word is an acronym where we don’t pronounce the individual letters, then we will treat it as a normal word.
There’s a NASA meeting in five minutes.
To even see this whole letter and article interaction better, take a close look at the following example and notice which letters take “a” and which letters take “an.”
Give me an “L,” give me an “I,” give me an “N,” give me a “G,” give me a “U,” give me an “A,” give me an “H,” give me an “O,” give me an “L,” give me an “I,” give me a “C.” What does that spell, everybody?
So far so good? Well, what about the sounds that don’t take “an” but take “a” instead?
Obviously, any consonant sound takes “a.” But, the “yoo” sound also takes “a” and so does the “wo” sound.
Even though the word starts with an “e,” you should use the indefinite article “a” because the first sound is “yoo.”
A European commission.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Here, the “o” in “once” is pronounced as “wo,” so the word is preceded by “a.”
A one-trick pony.
And, of course, it is a unique man, not an unique man.
Although we use “the” as the definite article in all cases, not all “the”s are created equally. You see, “the” is pronounced differently depending on the succeeding word.
The simple rule is this. In cases where you would use “a,” “the” is pronounced as “thuh.”
And, in cases where you would use “an,” “the” is pronounced as “thee.”
To be clear, this is not a grammatical rule that will change how you write in any way.
Rather, it is a neat phonetic rule that correlates with everything we’ve talked about so far, so it only seemed right to include it here.
Let’s look at a few examples to clear things up.
“The astronaut” is pronounced as “thee astronaut.”
And, “the igloo” is pronounced “the igloo.”
Alternatively, “the book” is pronounced as “thuh book.”
“The spindle” is pronounced as “thuh spindle.”
And, of course, “the unique man” is pronounced as “thuh unique man.”
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.