Tuesday, December 02, 2008

An Before Vowels

Some teachers blindly teach (and pupils blindly learn) the rule that the indefinite article an should be used before all nouns beginning in vowels.
This needs to be qualified: an is used before nouns beginning in vowel sounds — so the rule applies to pronunciation rather than spelling.
New Paper columnist Santokh Singh gets only one out of five attempts above (27 November 2008) right — a Eurasian, because the noun begins /ju/ and not in a vowel. Either he doesn’t know the correct rule or he pronounces Eurasian wrongly.


The basic of Grammar said...

Could you clarify what you meant by " so the rule applies to pronunciation rather than spelling". Thank you.

The Grammar Terrorist said...

When we say that something is a vowel or a consonant, we can refer to either (i) spelling/letter or (ii) pronunciation/sound.

Take the word 'hour'. The first letter is 'h', a consonant. At this point, we're talking only about spelling.

But the 'h' is said to be silent because the word is pronounced /aʊə/.

So the word begins in a consonant in the spelling, but a vowel in pronunciation. This is an important difference because we then use 'an' rather than 'a' before 'hour'.

The reverse happens with 'university'. Its spelling begins in a vowel, 'u', but it is pronounced with an initial consonant: /ˌju:nɪˈvɜ:səti/. Hence, it takes the article 'a' rather than 'an'.

Same with 'Eurasian' -- it begins in a vowel in spelling, but a consonant in pronunciation: /ju'reɪʒən/. Hence, we say 'a Eurasian'.

As you can see from the above, the rule governing whether we use 'a' or 'an' applies to pronunciation -- not to how the word is spelt.