As I’m sure you know, ‘a’ and ‘an’ are used before nouns, ‘an’ for those which start with a vowel (not actually the vowel, but a vowel sound) and ‘a’ for those which start with a consonant (the rest of the alphabet sounds). We all take this for granted, but why have 2 indefinite articles? It’s all about the smoothness of pronunciation.
Let’s look at what I’m talking about:
Say ‘a apple’, notice how it’s two distinct sounds with a small break between them, not very smooth. Now say, ‘an apple’, smooth as glass. The ‘an’ flows right into apple as one whole sound.
Now say, ‘an computer’, sounds a bit weird and feels a little strange on the tongue. By saying ‘an’, your tongue is left touching the roof of your mouth and has to totally change position to say the ‘c’ sound in computer.
Say, ‘a computer’, that’s better. When saying ‘a’ your mouth is basically in the default mode for speaking, mouth open in a natural position and your tongue at rest. It’s now easy to go into the ‘c’ sound in computer.
Say, ‘an umbrella’, all is well, it’s nice and smooth. Now say, ‘an university’, it feels and sounds quite a lot like saying ‘an computer’. The ‘uh’ sound in ‘umbrella’ is the actual vowel sound for the letter ‘u’, while the ‘u’ sound in ‘university’ is ‘yu’, a consonant sound.
So now we know why we use an ‘a’ before consonant sounds and ‘an’ before vowel sounds. But why is the difference between vowels themselves and vowel sounds important? Because in two cases, vowels don’t use a vowel sound and in one case, a consonant does.
When ‘o’ words begin with a ‘w’ sound like in the word ‘wow’:
a one-dollar bill
a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
And more commonly, ‘u’ words that begin with the ‘yu’ sound:
a United Nations delegation
For consonants, in words that begin with the letter ‘h’ where the ‘h’ is silent, the word uses ‘an’:
but not an helicopter
So, that brings us to the video lesson. Nowhere do these pronunciation rules matter more than when pronouncing acronyms (if you’re not sure what an acronym is, that is also explained in the video lesson). The lesson also looks at another article rule regarding acronyms and the use of ‘the’.
Link to the video on YouTube
After watching the lesson, you can come back and test your new-found knowledge with the quiz below.
How would you say the following organizations?
- FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations)
- YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association)
- CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere)
- PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers)
- ECHO (European Community Humanitarian Office)
- BMW (Bavarian Motor Works)
- NAPE (National Association for Protection of Environment)
- SAP (Systeme, Anwendungen und Produkte)
- RDF (Rural Development Foundation)
- KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken)
- SELDA (Social Education Language & Development Association)
- USAID (United States Agency for International Development)
- LED (Light Emitting Diode)
- CIA agent (Central Intelligence Agency agent)
- ICMB (Inter- continental Ballistic Missile)
- USDA inspection (United States Department of Agriculture inspection)
- HP computer (Hewlett-Packard computer)
- FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
- PC (Personal Computer)
- SLR camera (Single-lens Reflex camera)
- RAF pilot (Royal Air Force pilot)
- UPS truck (United Parcel Service truck)
- XBox (Video game console – the X stands for DirectX)
- NASCAR race (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing race)
- NCAA game (National Collegiate Athletic Association game)
- MD (Medical Doctor)
- FBI : The F-B-I (an organization which cannot be pronounced)
- YMCA : The Y-M-C-A (an organization which cannot be pronounced)
- CARE : care (an organization which can be pronounced)
- PWC : P-W-C (a company, so no ‘the’)
- ECHO : echo (an organization which can be pronounced)
- BMW : B-M-W (a company, so no ‘the’)
- NAPE : nape (an organization which can be pronounced)
- SAP : S-A-P (a company that can be pronounced ‘sap’ but is known by its initials)
- RDF : the R-D-F (an organization which cannot be pronounced)
- KFC : K-F-C (a company, so no ‘the’)
- SELDA : selda (an organization which can be pronounced)
- USAID : U-S aid (a hybrid, an organization where the first part is said letter by letter and the rest as a word)
- LED : an LED
- CIA agent : a CIA agent
- ICMB : an ICBM
- USDA inspection : a USDA inspection
- HP computer : an HP computer
- FAQ : an FAQ or faq (pronounced ‘fak’)
- PC : a PC
- SLR camera : an SLR camera
- RAF pilot : an RAF pilot
- UPS truck : a UPS truck
- XBox : an XBox
- NASCAR race : a nascar race (NASCAR can be pronounced)
- NCAA game : an NCAA game
- MD : an MD
Guest post from Rob who is co-founder and co-director of Story & Birch English Language Vacations Ltd. based in Nova Scotia, Canada. Story & Birch is a family-run company which specializes in short-term homestay English training holidays. Rob is an experienced teacher having taught in Slovakia and Germany for seven years before returning to Canada. You can also find Story & Birch on Facebook.
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