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A, An, & And

Commonly Confused Words

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A, An, & And

Attributed to Mark Twain, Robert Frost, and others

Use the indefinite articles a and an before nouns: a before a noun that begins with a consonant sound (a doctor, a horse, a university); an before a noun that begins with a vowel sound (an envelope, an hour, an umbrella).

And is a coordinating conjunction: use it to join words, phrases, and clauses.

See also:

Examples:

  • Every minute felt like an hour, and every hour felt like a day.

  • "Love is not a feeling. Love is an action, an activity." (M. Scott Peck)

  • For lunch she had an apple, a carrot, and a European oyster.

  • Betty is an honorary member of the Lollipop League.

  • Shyla and I were sitting at a table with an energetic clown and a rowdy little girl.


Usage Notes:

  • People worry about whether the correct article is a or an with historian, historic, and a few other words. Most authorities have supported a over an. The traditional rule is that if the h- is sounded, then a is the proper form. . . . This is not a new "rule." Even the venerated language authority H.W. Fowler, in the England of 1926, advocated a before historic(al) and humble.
    (Bryan A. Garner, "a. A. Choice Between a or an," Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford, 2003)


  • A minor complication arises with some abbreviations. Do you write, "He received a M.A. degree" or "an M.A. degree"? Do you write, "a N.Y. Central spokesman" or "an N.Y. Central spokesman"? The test is how people say or read such designations. "M.A. registers with most people as alphabetical letters, not as "Master of Arts"; hence, "an M.A. degree" is proper. On the other hand, "N.Y. Central" is instantly translated by the mind into "New York Central"; it would not be read as "En Wye Central." Therefore, a "N.Y. Central spokesman" is proper."
    (Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, Simon & Schuster, 1965)

Practice:

(a) Writing is just having ______ sheet of paper, ______ pen, ______ not a shadow of ______ idea what you are going to say.

(b) ______ good coach is ______ understanding tyrant ______ a hard-headed friend.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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