Today’s grammar tip: Indefinite articles.

Time for a quick note about indefinite articles!

Remember when your first grade teacher told you to use “a” before words starting with a consonant and “an” before words starting with a vowel? I do. (If she could see me now . . .) This rule got us through most of our English classes just fine, but it really isn’t as simple as that.

If you’ve ever said “a hour” or “an unique” and thought it was weird, you know what I’m talking about. As it turns out, what we should pay attention to is the sound made by the first letter (or letters) of a word rather than the letter itself. Because “hour” has a silent h and sounds like “our,” we need to use “an.” Similarly, because the u in “unique” has a y sound (like “yew”), we need to use “a.” (I could write a whole other Grammar Hammer Time on the letter y and its sounds, and someday I might. Be thankful today is not that day.)

Here are some other examples:
“Pass me an oar before I drift away in this canoe!” vs. “You’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It’s an honor to meet you.” vs. “Biting my nails is a habit I need to break.”
“What an unusual-looking plant.” vs. “I swear on my life I saw a unicorn!”

Indefinite articles can also get tricky when they come before abbreviations. Again, it depends on the sound made by the first letter (or letters) of the abbreviation. But we have an added element of confusion: abbreviations can be pronounced as initialisms (said letter by letter), as acronyms (said as a whole word), or as combinations (some letters are said and the rest is said as a word, like “CPAP” → “cee-pap”). Knowing how the whole abbreviation should be pronounced helps determine the indefinite article we should use. For example, we should say “she is studying to get an MBA” because we pronounce the initialism letter by letter (“em-bee-ay”), and the first letter starts with a vowel sound. In contrast, we say “we’re touring a US Navy battleship” – both “US” and the spelled-out “United States” use the indefinite article “a” because they start with a “yew” sound.

And not to add ANOTHER layer to this, but depending on personal preference or your organization’s preference, abbreviation pronunciations can vary. Consider the file type “JPG”: some people pronounce it “jay-peg” and others pronounce each letter separately. Either is valid, as long as you’re consistent. If you’re not sure how something should be pronounced, Google it! Don’t be like me, thinking the World Health Organization was running around calling itself “WHO” like an owl this whole time. Nope, that one should be pronounced letter by letter.

Here are some more examples of abbreviations with indefinite articles:
“He is working with an NAACP lawyer.” vs. “Her role model growing up was Sally Ride, a NASA astronaut.”
“Is this an FDA-approved drug?” vs. “I’m watching a FIFA tournament – don’t interrupt!”
“They’ve never heard an R.E.M. song.” vs. “We dream when in a REM phase of sleep.”
“I can’t believe this highway doesn’t have an HOV lane.” vs. “We need to install a HEPA filter.”

There you have it! My “quick note” turned into a full-fledged post.