"A" or "An"

I recently saw a reference to “An White House enquiry”; I was brought up putting “An” in front of words begining with a vowel, “A” in front of others. For some historical reason which escapes me the letter “H” got the “An” treatment too, don’t tell me the letter “W” gets it as well, I’m going to get confused. What’s the deal?

Nah. Someone messed up. The “n” following the “a” is a way (when speaking) to separate vowel sounds because English has relatively few adjacent vowel combinations. (Try saying Laocoön three times, quickly. The last four letters work the way “cooperate” does, but the first three letters are pretty difficult for most speakers of English.) The “n” before “h” generally reflects different dialectic pronunciations in English and you can get some really nasty fights among purists of differing backgrounds. My tendency is to use “an” before “h” words when the first syllable is not accented (reducing the stress put on the “H”): “an historical” but “a history.” YMMV
The only excuse for using “an” before a word beginning with “w” would be if the “w” had more of the vocalic character of “u”–and I cannot easily think of an English word for which that is true. . . and “white” is certainly not one.


If the consonant is silent - use an.
The sound of the spoken words dictates the grammar. Or is that too simple for you two?

To me, an only sounds right if the following word starts with a vowel. THe An + H for me only would go before words with a silent H, like “Herb” (Although if youre someone like oh…martha stewart, you say herb with an H sound…)

OK, I didn’t C&P. Someone can go onto the flame thread and tell me how.

I learnt to say “an hotel” from the same fourth grade teacher who taught me to say “learnt.”

In some British dialects, the glottal and aspirant aitches are distinct, though they’re not in all British dialects, and I don’t believe ANY American dialects (can’t vouch for Boston, though.) You would use “an” before the aspirant aitch, and “a” before a glottal aitch.


My guess is someone typed ‘an enquiry’ and then added ‘white house’ without re-reading the entire phrase.

interesting that your question involves the white house; when we visited washington when i was a kids we bought a book about the white house subtitled something like ‘an historic tour’. i remember thinking this was incorect grammar (and i guess i still do).

Grammar as studied by grammarians is incapable of being incorrect: it is the study of the formation of language, a (mostly observational) science akin to economics. Prescriptive grammar, the nagging great-aunt of this science, is the one that forms rules for correctness and incorrectness.

My understanding is that in British English one says (and writes) “an” before any non-aspirated “h” and “a” before an aspirated one. In American English, folks usually use “a” all the time for H’s. I’m not certain about that.

As for grammar following the rules of spoken language, there’re two problems with that. First, language is spoken differently in different areas, and so such a rule doesn’t clarify the situation. Second, written language lacks a lot of the subtle nonverbal clues that spoken language has; folks wiser than either of us have created a bunch of rules, including especially punctuation (which has a real but tenuous relationship to the patterns of spoken language) to convey the information lost in translating the spoken word to the written word. Rules for spoken language do not always correspond to rules for written language.

Just my thoughts.

Lucky for me, sign language has no sign for
‘a’ ‘an’ or ‘the’ so no confusion.

Hey, Websters states AN is a, preposition, a conjunction & an indefinite article.

I’d vote it was just a typo. Unless it comes from the White House itself.

What does this have to do with one of Cecil’s columns?

Lots of languages don’t have articles in them (articles, btw, are A, An, and The). And explaining their usage to folks whose native language lacks articles is a real pain in the butt.

“An” can be a conjunction, but not in a real useful sense: it’s either short for “and” (“An then I went up to him, an then I sez to him what’s your damage, an then he…”) or it’s archaic for if (“An I hear thee speak again, I shall poke out mine eardrums.”) As an indefinite article, we all know what it means. But that’s pretty cool that it’s a preposition – I looked it up, and it’s a preposition in the sense of “to the” or “per”, as in, “Ravensblood costs five dollars an ounce at K-Mart.” That’s kinda like my favorite weird grammar factoid: “the” can be an adverb. In “the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” “the” modifies “bigger” and “harder”; only adverbs can modify prepositions.

Where’s Dan Quayle when we need him? He’d clear this up.

Ever try to teach English grammar to a majority-Chinese-speaking class? And the fun we had with the articles was nowhere near the fun we had with the passive voice…

Ouch – I’ve tutored a coupla Japanese & Chinese college students, ESL students from countries where the local lingo lacked articles. The problem is that everyone knows how to use articles – it’s not something you can explain. I had a devil of a time trying. Teaching the passive voice to folks who don’t know about it sounds like pure hell.

On a different note, Korean lacks prepositions; I once spent hours trying to explain to someone that when your plane lands “in” Boston, “on” the tarmac, you’ve arrived “at” your destination.

Most people have it right. To quote from the Associated Press stylebook (a pretty good measure of standard print usage):
“a, an: Use the article a before consonant sounds: a historic event, a one-year term (sounds as if it begins with a w), a united stand (sounds like you).
Use the article an before vowel sounds: an energy crisis, an honorable man (the h is silent), an NBA record (sounds like it begins with the letter e), an 1890s celebration.”

How 'bout this one, O wise ones: “an SASE” or “a SASE”? In spoken language, it should be “a self-addressed etc”, but if you pronounce the acronym it starts with an “ess” sound, which would seem to call for “an.” I deal with SASEs often, and am never sure.

“An SASE.” See previous citation from AP style.

Yes, I read the reply vis-a-vis the AP style booklet. Dandy. So how the *&$%# do I know which sound is being pronounced; vowel (“ess aye” etc, acronym) or consonant (“self-addressed” etc, full term) Does the AP style adress this issue of what the proper interpretation of “SASE” really is? My Strunk & White has let me down.

I’d go with what actually is written, or the way what is written usually is pronounced. I think you’re right that SASE would be pronounced ESS AYE ESS EEE. So that would use “an.” However, “self-addressed, etc.” written out would need an “a.”

OK, folks, I now proclaim myself the authority on this one. If what you’re saying starts with a vowel SOUND, then use “an”. But if it starts with a consonantal SOUND, then use “a”. Tom said the same thing a long time ago. There are a few words like “historical” which are pronounced with an initial consonant sound in some dialects and an initial vowel sound in others. Let’s not get too damn picky about the small stuff.

Bill12 is totally wrong. /t/ is a silent consonant. Would we say “an tree”? No.

Daniel, it depends on the dialect of American English. Some would say “an historical event”; others, “a historical event”. I would suggest not correcting anybody’s speech.

Max, I’d say “an SASE”, since, as others have pointed out, the letter S is pronounced “ess” and therefore starts with a vowel sound. However, of course, as others have also said, it’s “a self-addressed stamped envelope”, since the first sound in “self” is a consonant.

So just write it out rather than abbreviating it.

I usually hear the acronym SASE pronounced as if it were a word: “say-zee.” So either way, I give it the article “a”.