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Old 12-01-2005, 11:01 AM
Crowbar of Irony +3 Crowbar of Irony +3 is offline
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Is it "A unique situation" or "An unique situation"

I think there may be some grammar rule about vowels which I am not aware off. In school, I was taught that any words, beginning with any of the sarced "AEIOU" is always "an", not "a". But as I was typing merrily away, Microsoft Word helpfully prompts that "An unique situtation..." is a grammar mistake.

There's no way I am going to accept revelation of grammatical rules just from a paperclip alone. So, is it "An unique..." or "A unique..." and why?

Thanks in advance!
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  #2  
Old 12-01-2005, 11:05 AM
Shagnasty Shagnasty is offline
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This question has come up here several times before. The basic answer is that the correct choice depends on the sound of the word an not the letter. A long 'U' seems to require a "A" to sound correct to most people.

There are examples where different pronunciations of the same word call for either "A" or "an" depending on the speaking.

Historic can be pronounced with a silent "H" or not and the use a "A" or "an" depends on that.
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Old 12-01-2005, 11:21 AM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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Shagnasty essentially called it. In general terms, it's the initial sound, not the letter representing it, which calls for the use of "a" or "an" -- "A unique situation" because the word is sounded "yoo-neek" but "An uncle's bequest" because the initial sound is "uh." (I couldn't quickly come up with an unpalatalized initial long U -- "oo" sound.)

That said, there are some historic and customary exceptions to the rule. The use of "an" before words beginning with H+vowel seems to be extremely common, and not necessarily derived from the dropping of the H. Rather, it seems to be a policy based in not making the rule depend on whether local usage drops the H. So "an historic occasion" takes "an" even though I've never heard anyone not playing at being Cockney drop the initial /h/ from "historic," and those few people who sound an /h/ in "herbal" will also adhere to common practice and make it "an herbal ointment."

It's worth noting that there's a "metathetic N" in English. "A norange" was that carrot-colored citrus fruit grown in Spain and called a naranja there, but, influence by the House of Orange, there was a shift to "an orange." Meanwhile, the large piece of linen napery worn tied around the waist to avoid food spills staining clothing was once "a napron" (i.e., the big thing of which a napkin was the little thing). Again there was a shift from "a n---" to "an ---."
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Old 12-01-2005, 11:25 AM
Jonathan Chance Jonathan Chance is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
Shagnasty essentially called it. In general terms, it's the initial sound, not the letter representing it, which calls for the use of "a" or "an" -- "A unique situation" because the word is sounded "yoo-neek" but "An uncle's bequest" because the initial sound is "uh." (I couldn't quickly come up with an unpalatalized initial long U -- "oo" sound.)
How about from Dr Seuss, Poly?

'An Oobleck'?
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Old 12-01-2005, 11:30 AM
awldune awldune is offline
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an umlaut
an Uma Thurman film
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Old 12-01-2005, 11:35 AM
bordelond bordelond is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
Shagnasty essentially called it. In general terms, it's the initial sound, not the letter representing it, which calls for the use of "a" or "an" -- "A unique situation" because the word is sounded "yoo-neek" but "An uncle's bequest" because the initial sound is "uh." (I couldn't quickly come up with an unpalatalized initial long U -- "oo" sound.)
It's rare in English. Most all cases I can come up with are contrived:

A: Dammit! &*@#$%!!! &*@#$%!!! ... Sorry, man, didn't mean to drop it.
B: Sheesh ... an "oops" would have sufficed.

"The linguist Peter Ladefoged did fieldwork with an Ubykh speaker in 1968 -- the last Ubykh speaker, in fact."

"My dad still has an "U Thant" sticker from when he used to work at the United Nations."
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Old 12-01-2005, 11:45 AM
Acsenray Acsenray is offline
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It's actually a very simple rule and it's one you already know:

Use "a" before a consonant and "an" before a vowel. The rule is exactly as you were taught.

The problem is that you probably were not taught the correct meaning of "vowel" and "consonant" in this context. Vowels and consonants have nothing to do with letters. They are types of sounds.

"Unique" starts with a consonant -- yoo neek [junik]. Forget that it starts with the letter U. That has nothing to do with it.

The letters A, E, I, O, and U are not vowels. They are letters that usually represent vowels. In the case of what American schools call the "long U" sound, it is actually a diphthong that begins with a consonant.
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Old 12-01-2005, 11:58 AM
guizot guizot is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by acsenray
It's actually a very simple rule and it's one you already know:

Use "a" before a consonant and "an" before a vowel. The rule is exactly as you were taught.

The problem is that you probably were not taught the correct meaning of "vowel" and "consonant" in this context. Vowels and consonants have nothing to do with letters. They are types of sounds.

"Unique" starts with a consonant -- yoo neek [junik]. Forget that it starts with the letter U. That has nothing to do with it.

The letters A, E, I, O, and U are not vowels. They are letters that usually represent vowels. In the case of what American schools call the "long U" sound, it is actually a diphthong that begins with a consonant.
This is exactly the case. And the terms "long" and "short" vowels are deceptive. It makes it seem like there are only ten vowels, when in fact English has at least 23 vowels.
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Old 12-01-2005, 02:26 PM
Nametag Nametag is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
It's worth noting that there's a "metathetic N" in English. "A norange" was that carrot-colored citrus fruit grown in Spain and called a naranja there, but, influence by the House of Orange, there was a shift to "an orange."
Are you absolutely positive about this, Poly? My research indicates that the House of Orange was named after the town of Orange, France, which was once their principality. I haven't found any indication that the region was called "Orange" before the orange was introduced, and in fact it seems that the fruit and the region converged on the name simultaneously (Orange having once been called Arausio, and being called Aurenja in Old Provençal).

According to Wikipedia (which has also compiled the hard-won information above, dammit), the loss of the initial "N" actually took place before the word was adopted in English; the "une narenge" to "une arenge" to "une orange" theory is still possible, but it's likely that the "n" was dropped by the French in imitation of or, meaning "golden." In slavic languages, the word for "orange" is derived from Latin "aurantius" -- golden apple.
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Old 12-01-2005, 04:34 PM
smiling bandit smiling bandit is offline
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Regardless of whether or not the orange-Orange thing, English does have a Metathenic N.
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  #11  
Old 12-01-2005, 11:59 PM
Excalibre Excalibre is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by guizot
This is exactly the case. And the terms "long" and "short" vowels are deceptive. It makes it seem like there are only ten vowels, when in fact English has at least 23 vowels.
23?!

There's 12 in standard American English, and 13 in Received Pronunciation, or so I learned in my intro to linguistics class. English is not my area; I've no doubt that counts can vary by one or two, and of course some regions have more or fewer vowels than others, but I don't know the specifics. Nevertheless, I can - with great certainty - declare that there are not 23 vowels in any widely-spoken variety of English.

Anyhow, this is one of those examples of education in English actually confusing people (and thus making me feel ever more smug about my general dislike of prescriptive grammar.) People follow the usage of their speech community in spoken contexts without difficulty; no one has to stop and think whether it should be "an unique" or "a unique", "an uncle" or "a uncle" in speech, unless perhaps they've been thoroughly confused by bad elementary school teachers. This is an adjustment that people make quite automatically in speech, and if writing were taught by people who had a basic understanding of the English language, the simple explanation would be "Write 'an' when you would say 'an'". It's only when incompetent teachers teach the rule incorrectly that people start being confused about an issue that they previously understood. My elementary school teachers were no exception - confusing letters and sounds is not uncommon, and so it's frequently taught to children that certain squiggly marks on paper are "vowels" and other ones are "consonants", when in reality the words "vowel" and "consonant" are only meaningful when applied to sounds, not letters.

Incidentally, though, I believe dialects that use "an" before words beginning with H only do so if it's an unstressed syllable. Thus, you get "an historic event" but "a history of the world".

Oh, and Polycarp? "An oozing sore" is the first /u/ example that springs to mind. Perhaps I should watch fewer medical dramas on TV.
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