“a” or “an”?



A piece of cake for many, but not everybody. Over the years, it has become clear to me this is a common problem for native English speakers whenever I proofread something translated into English. Although the grammar rule is quite clear, I think I know what seems to be the problem.


If you go to any site that offers an explanation about this, you will find that:

“a” goes before a consonant.

“an” goes before a vowel.


Pretty easy, huh? Well, then why is it not correct to say a honest man or an university? First of all, because you should guide yourself by the sound only, not the spelling. Second, how do we know when there is a vowel following any of these two articles? Let’s get to the theory: a vowel is a sound where the air flows through your mouth freely, if there is an interruption of the air flow by any other part of your mouth, then it is a consonant. Try these examples and pay attention to the first sound:


Consonant                       Vowel


Uniform                             Honest

Unique                              Upgrade

European                          Unbelievable



Let’s look at the first column. For the first sound, you hear the mouth is semi-open and the tongue is in the middle, whereas in the second the mouth is wide open.



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