'A' Versus 'An'

A lot of people learned the rule that you put “a” before words that start with consonants and “an” before words that start with vowels, but it's actually more complicated than that. For example, here's Matthew with a question:

I've been wondering if it is actually “a hour” or “an hour.” “An hour” sounds more correct, but “a hour” reads more correct to me. I'm just curious what it should be.

The rule is that you use “a" before words that start with a consonant sound and “an” before words that start with a vowel sound.

Should You Use 'A' or 'An'?

So to answer Matt's question, “an hour” is correct, because “hour” starts with a vowel sound. People seem to ask most often about words that start with the letters H and U because sometimes these words start with vowel sounds and sometimes they start with consonant sounds. For example, it is “a historic monument” because “historic” starts with an H sound, but it is “an honorable fellow” because “honorable” starts with an O sound. Similarly, it is “a Utopian idea,” but “an unfair world.”

The letters O and M can be tricky too. Usually you put “an” before words that start with O, but sometimes you use A. For example, you’d use A if you were to say, “She has a one-track mind,” because “one-track” starts with a W sound. Similarly, you’d say, “She has an MBA, but chooses to work as a missionary,” because “MBA” starts with a vowel sound and “missionary” starts with a consonant sound.

Use “a” before words that start with a consonant sound and “an” before words that start with a vowel sound.

Other letters can also be pronounced either way. Just remember it is the sound that governs whether you use “a” or “an,” not the actual first letter of the word.

One complication is when words are pronounced differently in British English and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced “erb” in American English and “herb...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

'A' Versus 'An'

A lot of people learned the rule that you put “a” before words that start with consonants and “an” before words that start with vowels, but it's actually more complicated than that. For example, here's Matthew with a question:

I've been wondering if it is actually “a hour” or “an hour.” “An hour” sounds more correct, but “a hour” reads more correct to me. I'm just curious what it should be.

The rule is that you use “a" before words that start with a consonant sound and “an” before words that start with a vowel sound.

Should You Use 'A' or 'An'?

So to answer Matt's question, “an hour” is correct, because “hour” starts with a vowel sound. People seem to ask most often about words that start with the letters H and U because sometimes these words start with vowel sounds and sometimes they start with consonant sounds. For example, it is “a historic monument” because “historic” starts with an H sound, but it is “an honorable fellow” because “honorable” starts with an O sound. Similarly, it is “a Utopian idea,” but “an unfair world.”

The letters O and M can be tricky too. Usually you put “an” before words that start with O, but sometimes you use A. For example, you’d use A if you were to say, “She has a one-track mind,” because “one-track” starts with a W sound. Similarly, you’d say, “She has an MBA, but chooses to work as a missionary,” because “MBA” starts with a vowel sound and “missionary” starts with a consonant sound.

Use “a” before words that start with a consonant sound and “an” before words that start with a vowel sound.

Other letters can also be pronounced either way. Just remember it is the sound that governs whether you use “a” or “an,” not the actual first letter of the word.

One complication is when words are pronounced differently in British English and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced “erb” in American English and “herb...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

'A' Versus 'An'

A lot of people learned the rule that you put “a” before words that start with consonants and “an” before words that start with vowels, but it's actually more complicated than that. For example, here's Matthew with a question:

I've been wondering if it is actually “a hour” or “an hour.” “An hour” sounds more correct, but “a hour” reads more correct to me. I'm just curious what it should be.

The rule is that you use “a" before words that start with a consonant sound and “an” before words that start with a vowel sound.

Should You Use 'A' or 'An'?

So to answer Matt's question, “an hour” is correct, because “hour” starts with a vowel sound. People seem to ask most often about words that start with the letters H and U because sometimes these words start with vowel sounds and sometimes they start with consonant sounds. For example, it is “a historic monument” because “historic” starts with an H sound, but it is “an honorable fellow” because “honorable” starts with an O sound. Similarly, it is “a Utopian idea,” but “an unfair world.”

The letters O and M can be tricky too. Usually you put “an” before words that start with O, but sometimes you use A. For example, you’d use A if you were to say, “She has a one-track mind,” because “one-track” starts with a W sound. Similarly, you’d say, “She has an MBA, but chooses to work as a missionary,” because “MBA” starts with a vowel sound and “missionary” starts with a consonant sound.

Use “a” before words that start with a consonant sound and “an” before words that start with a vowel sound.

Other letters can also be pronounced either way. Just remember it is the sound that governs whether you use “a” or “an,” not the actual first letter of the word.

One complication is when words are pronounced differently in British English and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced “erb” in American English and “herb...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

Grammar Quirks: Will Schwalbe on the Word 'Unique'

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Will Schwalbe: "Remarkable." The great thing about this word is that it proves itself true. If you declare something remarkable, by the very act you make it so. You’ve not only declared it worthy of attention, you’ve actually brought attention to it.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

WS: "Awesome." I overuse this word and others do too. Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe. It’s one of those words that is a product of our tendency towards hype and exaggeration. If we declare something interesting or good, we are damning it with faint praise. If we don’t say something is awesome, it’s as though we didn’t care for it at all.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

WS: I can never remember how to spell "independent." I always want to throw an "a" in there somewhere. I gather that at one time "independance" may have been a variant in English and that it has also been a common transcription error in historical documents. 

GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?

WS: "Arugalid." I think we need a new noun to categorize the type of person who is fresh and a bit peppery in a delightful way. So that’s one. "Independance." That’s another. So (see above) that way I wouldn’t be entirely wrong—perhaps we could define it to mean "dancing by oneself." 

Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

WS: I’m one of those people who just can’t bear any adverb before "unique." You either are or you aren’t.

GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?

WS: Lin Yutang, quoting the ancient scholar Yuan Chunglang, "You can leave the books that you don't like alone, and let other people read them." And also Lin Yutang on reading, "There is no proper place and time for reading. When the mood for reading comes, one can read anywhere...What, then, is the true art of reading? The simple answer is to just take up a book and read when the mood comes. To be thoroughly enjoyed, reading must be entirely spontaneous."

GG: ...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

Grammar Quirks: Will Schwalbe on the Word 'Unique'

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Will Schwalbe: "Remarkable." The great thing about this word is that it proves itself true. If you declare something remarkable, by the very act you make it so. You’ve not only declared it worthy of attention, you’ve actually brought attention to it.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

WS: "Awesome." I overuse this word and others do too. Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe. It’s one of those words that is a product of our tendency towards hype and exaggeration. If we declare something interesting or good, we are damning it with faint praise. If we don’t say something is awesome, it’s as though we didn’t care for it at all.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

WS: I can never remember how to spell "independent." I always want to throw an "a" in there somewhere. I gather that at one time "independance" may have been a variant in English and that it has also been a common transcription error in historical documents. 

GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?

WS: "Arugalid." I think we need a new noun to categorize the type of person who is fresh and a bit peppery in a delightful way. So that’s one. "Independance." That’s another. So (see above) that way I wouldn’t be entirely wrong—perhaps we could define it to mean "dancing by oneself." 

Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

WS: I’m one of those people who just can’t bear any adverb before "unique." You either are or you aren’t.

GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?

WS: Lin Yutang, quoting the ancient scholar Yuan Chunglang, "You can leave the books that you don't like alone, and let other people read them." And also Lin Yutang on reading, "There is no proper place and time for reading. When the mood for reading comes, one can read anywhere...What, then, is the true art of reading? The simple answer is to just take up a book and read when the mood comes. To be thoroughly enjoyed, reading must be entirely spontaneous."

GG: ...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

Grammar Quirks: Will Schwalbe on the Word 'Unique'

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Will Schwalbe: "Remarkable." The great thing about this word is that it proves itself true. If you declare something remarkable, by the very act you make it so. You’ve not only declared it worthy of attention, you’ve actually brought attention to it.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

WS: "Awesome." I overuse this word and others do too. Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe. It’s one of those words that is a product of our tendency towards hype and exaggeration. If we declare something interesting or good, we are damning it with faint praise. If we don’t say something is awesome, it’s as though we didn’t care for it at all.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

WS: I can never remember how to spell "independent." I always want to throw an "a" in there somewhere. I gather that at one time "independance" may have been a variant in English and that it has also been a common transcription error in historical documents. 

GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?

WS: "Arugalid." I think we need a new noun to categorize the type of person who is fresh and a bit peppery in a delightful way. So that’s one. "Independance." That’s another. So (see above) that way I wouldn’t be entirely wrong—perhaps we could define it to mean "dancing by oneself." 

Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

WS: I’m one of those people who just can’t bear any adverb before "unique." You either are or you aren’t.

GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?

WS: Lin Yutang, quoting the ancient scholar Yuan Chunglang, "You can leave the books that you don't like alone, and let other people read them." And also Lin Yutang on reading, "There is no proper place and time for reading. When the mood for reading comes, one can read anywhere...What, then, is the true art of reading? The simple answer is to just take up a book and read when the mood comes. To be thoroughly enjoyed, reading must be entirely spontaneous."

GG: ...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

Grammar Quirks: Will Schwalbe on the Word 'Unique'

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Will Schwalbe: "Remarkable." The great thing about this word is that it proves itself true. If you declare something remarkable, by the very act you make it so. You’ve not only declared it worthy of attention, you’ve actually brought attention to it.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

WS: "Awesome." I overuse this word and others do too. Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe. It’s one of those words that is a product of our tendency towards hype and exaggeration. If we declare something interesting or good, we are damning it with faint praise. If we don’t say something is awesome, it’s as though we didn’t care for it at all.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

WS: I can never remember how to spell "independent." I always want to throw an "a" in there somewhere. I gather that at one time "independance" may have been a variant in English and that it has also been a common transcription error in historical documents. 

GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?

WS: "Arugalid." I think we need a new noun to categorize the type of person who is fresh and a bit peppery in a delightful way. So that’s one. "Independance." That’s another. So (see above) that way I wouldn’t be entirely wrong—perhaps we could define it to mean "dancing by oneself." 

Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

WS: I’m one of those people who just can’t bear any adverb before "unique." You either are or you aren’t.

GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?

WS: Lin Yutang, quoting the ancient scholar Yuan Chunglang, "You can leave the books that you don't like alone, and let other people read them." And also Lin Yutang on reading, "There is no proper place and time for reading. When the mood for reading comes, one can read anywhere...What, then, is the true art of reading? The simple answer is to just take up a book and read when the mood comes. To be thoroughly enjoyed, reading must be entirely spontaneous."

GG: ...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

Grammar Quirks: Will Schwalbe on the Word 'Unique'

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Will Schwalbe: "Remarkable." The great thing about this word is that it proves itself true. If you declare something remarkable, by the very act you make it so. You’ve not only declared it worthy of attention, you’ve actually brought attention to it.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

WS: "Awesome." I overuse this word and others do too. Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe. It’s one of those words that is a product of our tendency towards hype and exaggeration. If we declare something interesting or good, we are damning it with faint praise. If we don’t say something is awesome, it’s as though we didn’t care for it at all.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

WS: I can never remember how to spell "independent." I always want to throw an "a" in there somewhere. I gather that at one time "independance" may have been a variant in English and that it has also been a common transcription error in historical documents. 

GG: What word (or semblance of a word) would you like to see added to the dictionary? Why?

WS: "Arugalid." I think we need a new noun to categorize the type of person who is fresh and a bit peppery in a delightful way. So that’s one. "Independance." That’s another. So (see above) that way I wouldn’t be entirely wrong—perhaps we could define it to mean "dancing by oneself." 

Very rarely are the things we declare awesome worthy of awe.

GG: Any grammar pet peeves we should know about?

WS: I’m one of those people who just can’t bear any adverb before "unique." You either are or you aren’t.

GG: Do you have a favorite quote or passage from an author you’d like to share?

WS: Lin Yutang, quoting the ancient scholar Yuan Chunglang, "You can leave the books that you don't like alone, and let other people read them." And also Lin Yutang on reading, "There is no proper place and time for reading. When the mood for reading comes, one can read anywhere...What, then, is the true art of reading? The simple answer is to just take up a book and read when the mood comes. To be thoroughly enjoyed, reading must be entirely spontaneous."

GG: ...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

Grammar Quirks: How Grammar Brought Two Writers Together

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer: Jason’s favorite is "disintermediation." He’s a business journalist, and always had a hard time finding the right words for this particular concept. It’s like when we hired Handy to find us a house cleaner, but then we just hired the house cleaner and cut Handy out of it. Then, one day, an entrepreneur told him there’s a word for this: "Disintermediation." Perfect! This is the beauty of language—when a complex idea can so elegantly be folded into a single word, and we can all communicate better because of it.

Jen’s favorite word is “gloaming” because it so aptly describes not just a specific, fleeting time of day—that brief blue-black period between dusk and night—but evokes the melancholic feeling of that moment.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

JM&JF: Jen hates, hates, hates, hates the word "panties." It’s a word that could easily have appeared numerous times in "Mr. Nice Guy," considering all the sex the characters are having. "Panties" just sounds gross. But it also infantilizes women, especially considering how important and basic underwear is for hygiene, comfort, and cultural norms. Men get boxers (tough, strong) and briefs (professional, academic). Don’t women deserve the same? "Underwear" is acceptable, as is "undies."

This is the beauty of language—when a complex idea can so elegantly be folded into a single word, and we can all communicate better because of it.

Jason hates phrases more than individual words, and his absolutely least favorite is "found himself/herself," as in, "After college, he found himself with a job in advertising." Writers use this phrase all the time in drafts that Jason edits, and he always takes it out, and then explains to the writer that, unless the subject literally went unconscious and then woke up with a job in advertising, the person did not find himself with a job in advertising!

GG: What word will you always misspell?

JM&JF: Real talk from Jason: He’s the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, but he misspelled the word “entrepreneur” in his email signature and left it there for like five months. It’s a hard word! These days, he’s perfected that spelling but still always screws up “bureaucracy.” (Also, real talk: He had to use spell check right now...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips

Grammar Quirks: How Grammar Brought Two Writers Together

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Jennifer Miller & Jason Feifer: Jason’s favorite is "disintermediation." He’s a business journalist, and always had a hard time finding the right words for this particular concept. It’s like when we hired Handy to find us a house cleaner, but then we just hired the house cleaner and cut Handy out of it. Then, one day, an entrepreneur told him there’s a word for this: "Disintermediation." Perfect! This is the beauty of language—when a complex idea can so elegantly be folded into a single word, and we can all communicate better because of it.

Jen’s favorite word is “gloaming” because it so aptly describes not just a specific, fleeting time of day—that brief blue-black period between dusk and night—but evokes the melancholic feeling of that moment.

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

JM&JF: Jen hates, hates, hates, hates the word "panties." It’s a word that could easily have appeared numerous times in "Mr. Nice Guy," considering all the sex the characters are having. "Panties" just sounds gross. But it also infantilizes women, especially considering how important and basic underwear is for hygiene, comfort, and cultural norms. Men get boxers (tough, strong) and briefs (professional, academic). Don’t women deserve the same? "Underwear" is acceptable, as is "undies."

This is the beauty of language—when a complex idea can so elegantly be folded into a single word, and we can all communicate better because of it.

Jason hates phrases more than individual words, and his absolutely least favorite is "found himself/herself," as in, "After college, he found himself with a job in advertising." Writers use this phrase all the time in drafts that Jason edits, and he always takes it out, and then explains to the writer that, unless the subject literally went unconscious and then woke up with a job in advertising, the person did not find himself with a job in advertising!

GG: What word will you always misspell?

JM&JF: Real talk from Jason: He’s the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, but he misspelled the word “entrepreneur” in his email signature and left it there for like five months. It’s a hard word! These days, he’s perfected that spelling but still always screws up “bureaucracy.” (Also, real talk: He had to use spell check right now...

Keep reading on Quick and Dirty Tips
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