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Category : Mechanics

“A” versus “An”

“A” and “an” are indefinite articles used in the English language, whereas “the” is the only definite article used in the English language. To learn about proper overall article usage, see the blog post entitled Articles in English: “The,” “A,” and “An.”

As a brief recap of indefinite article use in English, you use “a” or “an” with a noun when referring to a member of a group or class. However, many people are slightly confused about when to use “a” and when to use “an.” An often repeated guideline is to use “a” when the word that follows starts with a consonant and to use “an” when word that follows starts with a vowel. Examples include “a book,” “an old book,” “an elephant,” and “a gray elephant.” Although this guideline will help you in most instances, it is not entirely true and will cause problems in some unique situations.

The actual rule governing the use of “a” versus “an” is related to the sound made by the first letter in the following word. More specifically, if the first letter of the following word makes a consonant sound, you should use “a;” in contrast, if the first letter of the following word is silent and/or makes a vowel sound, you should use “an.” This rule clearly still works for our previous examples, i.e., “a book” and “an elephant.” In addition, it also helps to clarify more difficult situations.

For example, let’s consider the word “hour.” It starts with an “h,” which is a consonant. However, the “h” in “hour” is silent; therefore, the first sound from this word is a vowel sound. Hence, a grammatically correct sentence would refer to “an hour,” not “a hour.” Yet, in other “h” words, the “h” or consonant sound is made, thereby requiring the use of “a.” Examples include “a history book” and “a hotdog.”

Also consider words starting with “u.” Some such words make a “y” or consonant sound (e.g., unicorn, unique, and ukulele); in such instances, you should use the article “a” (e.g., a unicorn, a unique store, and a ukulele). Others make a “u” vowel sound (e.g., umbrella, ugly, and uprising); in such instances, you should use the article “an” (e.g., an umbrella, an ugly dog, and an uprising).

Therefore, when you question whether you should use “a” or “an” in your writing endeavors, look at the word immediately following the article. Better yet, say the word aloud. If this word starts with a consonant sound, use “a.” If it starts with a vowel sound, use “an.”

Variations on Verb Tenses

Consider the following:

  • I live in a community that values education.
  • I am living in a community that values education.

These sentences are functionally equivalent. Their meanings are exactly the same. The only difference is that “am living” draws attention to the use of the present tense, via the progressiveness of “am” and “living”. In other words, “I am living” has a bit of added emphasis.

When to use one or the other:

In casual or informal settings, as in conversations or email exchanges, there typically is no reason to favor one of these constructions over the other. However, in formal written documents, I prefer the simple present (“I live”) over the present progressive (“am living”), simply because the former is more concise.

If it is necessary to note that something is in progress, use the present progressive. For example, if a colleague asks whether your presentation is ready, the most grammatically correct response would be, “I am working on it” (versus, “I work on it”). This implies that you are working on the paper and will finish it at some point.

If you want to emphasize that an activity is not only presently ongoing but was ongoing in the past, use the present perfect progressive – “has been”, “have been”. For instance, “I have been living in a community that values education” emphasizes the fact that the subject of the sentence has lived for an ongoing period in a community that thinks of education as important; “have been living” draws attention to the continuous nature of the residence, suggesting that it is significant. Such a sentence might be followed by, “Therefore, I know the importance of neighborhood involvement in educational affairs.” Here, it becomes obvious that because the subject has lived in a community that values education for some ongoing period, she is able to understand the importance of neighborhood involvement in educational affairs. Her ongoing residence in the community is directly relevant to this understanding.

Note that both of the foregoing sentences – “I have been living in a community that values education” and “Therefore, I know the importance of neighborhood involvement in educational affairs” – could be expressed in a single sentence:

  • Having lived in a community that values education, I know the importance of neighborhood involvement in educational affairs.

Be aware, however, that because this sentence does not use the present (“I live”), present progressive (“I am living”), or present perfect progressive (“I have been living”) tenses, it is unclear whether the subject’s residence in the community is presently ongoing or was ongoing for some period in the past. The speaker could be referring to a bygone time during which she lived in a community that valued education. Note that, in this context, the use of “values”, versus “valued”, makes no difference to whether the subject’s living in the community is or was ongoing. This is because it is possible that the subject lived and moved away from somewhere that continues to value education – making “values” appropriate. However, in this scenario, “valued” would also be appropriate, as the past tense wouldn’t signal that the community no longer values education; it would merely signal more clearly that the speaker no longer lives there.

To “the” or not to “the”

A mistake I see often is the use of “the” where none is needed – or where a definite article is optional. Which raises the question: to “the” or not to “the”? Below, examples of both situations:

  • Scholars of feminism have argued that the modern woman faces a dilemma when trying to explore her sexuality and, at the same time, break with “traditional” notions of women as sexualized beings.
  • Scholars of feminism have argued that modern women face a dilemma when trying to explore their sexuality and, at the same time, break with “traditional” notions of women as sexualized beings.

The previous sentences are functionally equivalent. Neither is more correct than the other. The primary difference is that “the modern woman” refers to an abstract concept. Here, “the modern woman” represents all women living in modern society – and, therefore, also faces the challenges that modern women face. In the second sentence, “modern women” refers, generally, to all women living in modern society. This phrase does not suggest the existence of a prototypical modern woman (as “the modern woman” does). However, it does imply that many women in modern society share certain characteristics (of which the sentence goes on to name one – the difficulty of exploring sexuality while trying to break with notions of women as sexualized beings).

Note that “the modern women” is not correct in this context. The addition of the definite article “the” (to “modern women”) implies a specific group of modern women – say, Modern Woman A, Modern Woman B, and Modern Woman C. It does not suggest the existence of a prototypical modern woman, like “the modern woman”, because it uses the singular – “women”. The phrase “the modern women” would be correct in an instance such as the following:

  • Carol Culliver, movie critic for The Women’s Magazine, contends that the modern women depicted in the movie Sex and the City set an ambiguous moral example for young ladies today.

Consider this example, too:

  • When American incomes rose after the Second World War, American citizens started buying more goods and experienced higher standards of living.
  • When the American incomes rose after the Second World War, the American citizens started buying more goods and experienced higher standards of living.

“The American incomes” and “the American citizens” imply a specific set of American incomes and a specific set of American citizens. This makes the use of the definite article “the” inappropriate because the sentence refers, generally, to a broad phenomenon (increasing incomes and standards of living after World War II). Compare the use of “the” in the previous example with its use in the following example:

  • The American citizens who had been living in the apartments at Baab al Shebaab and Al Farouk Streets decided to move when their landlord upped their rent to an unreasonable rate.

Here, “the American citizens” are a handful of specific citizens – say, Citizen A, Citizen B, and Citizen C – who live in a specific place.

  • The American incomes listed in the registry of global incomes for the period 1963-1968 shed new light on Wei-li’s study of global inequity.

Here, “the American incomes” refers to a specific set of figures – say, Figure A, Figure B, and Figure C – that are found in a specific place (a registry of global incomes for the period 1963-1968).

One more example:

  • At the end of the nineteenth century, American manufacturers took advantage of new technologies to industrialize production. In so doing, the manufacturers aimed to reduce costs.

There are two points to be made here: First, it isn’t necessary to use “the manufacturers” in the second sentence; this is redundant. It is better to use “they”. Second, even if we were to repeat the word “manufacturers” (i.e. say “In so doing, the manufacturers aimed …”), we would do so without the definite article “the”. “The manufacturers” implies a specific group – as in, Manufacturer A, Manufacturer B, and Manufacturer C. Note that the type of specific group suggested by this phrase is not the same as the specific group suggested by the phrase “American manufacturers”. While “American manufacturers” is specific in that “manufacturers” is denoted as “American”, it is not as specific as “the manufacturers”. Hence, a better way of phrasing the above example would be:

  • At the end of the nineteenth century, American manufacturers took advantage of new technologies to industrialize production. In so doing, they aimed to reduce costs.