December 17, 2015
Dr. Jennifer C van Velkinburgh, Filipodia Publishing
In the English language, use of the indefinite articles “A” and “An” before a noun (i.e. a person, place, or thing) is determined by the letter (a consonant or a vowel respectively) with which the noun starts as well as the sound of that letter made in speech when the noun is spoken.
The general rule is:
“A” is used for words beginning with consonants, such as “a patient.”
“An” is used for words beginning with vowels, such as “an animal.”
BUT remember, the choice of “A” vs. “An” for a written word is also dependent on the sound of that letter made in speech when the noun is spoken. For example, the nouns “day” and “hour” both start with consonants, suggesting that the indefinite article to be used in your writing should be:
“A day” and “A hour” …but only the first one of these (a day) is correct!
Many words in the English language start with silent letters, but the letter itself is not always silent for every word.
Lets think of the following words starting with “H”:
These words are pronounced in spoken English as:
Our (the “H” is silent, making the word start with a vowel)
Erb (the “H” is silent, BUT this rule is differential for American (USA) vs. British (UK) English, with the Brits more commonly using the H-erb pronunciation)
For those words that are written with the first letter as a consonant, but which are pronounced with the first letter as a vowel, such as “hour” and “herb,” the correct way to present them in a written document (e.g. your scientific manuscript written in American English) is: “An hour” and “An herb.”
The grammatical rules for use of the indefinite articles “A” and “An” in English represents the complex influence of spoken English grammar on written English grammar. In these cases, a native English-speaking editor will be able to readily identify and correct mistakes in a scientific manuscript written by a non-native English speaker who is not yet fully experienced with the rules guiding both the written and spoken language.