Grammar Bleg

An exception to the general use of "a" and "an" is before a word like "used."  For example, we say "a used car" rather than "an used car" despite the fact that "used" starts with a vowel.  Is there a name or general rule for this exception?  My guess it is because "used" begins with the "y" consonant sound, so we treat "used" like we would "Yugo".

  • There's not really a name. But basically, the general rule for it is that the article used ("a" or "an") based on the sound of the word, not on the spelling. So yes, you are right that it's because "used" begins with the "y" sound.

  • My rule of thumb is to look not for the presence of an initial vowel, but an initial vowel *sound*. And in that case, the initial y sound in "used" is not an accepted vowel sound. An example of the initial vowel sound rather than initial vowel can be seen in the King James Bible in verses like Matt. 5:14 "A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid." I can see the scholars dropping their aitches in words like "hill" and putting "an" in front because of their accent.

    Of course, it's generally a bad idea to go back to four hundred year old documents when discussing modern grammar usage. 🙂

  • A more modern example similar to Captain Midnight's is "historic". Generally it is "an historic event", not "a historic event".

  • "An historic" is a Britishism.

    And a pretentious-Americanism. But mostly a Britishism. I think it has something to do with their being a bit more casual about pronouncing H's.

  • I will grant that "an hotel" or "an hospital" can sound old fashioned in carefully enunciated speech, but are still fine in conversational speech, but in either I think "a historic" would sound just plain wrong. Certainly not an anti-Americanism or pro-french thing either. And to prove it we pronounce the h in herb and the t in fillet (except for in "fillet mignon"). But then I'm from the right side of the pond...

  • nicole

    Linguist and copyeditor here to report that yes, the a/an rule has only to do with the sound of the word, not the spelling. Regular phonetic variations like this depend on the underlying sounds of a word, not the superficial spelling.

    "An historic" is chiefly a Britishism. Googling phrases like "a historic low" vs. "an historic low" gives about twice as many hits for "a".

  • dearieme

    It's a strange superstition, isn't it, that we have only 5 vowels in English, and that those 5 letters are only, always and purely vowels?

  • Historic came from French L'histoire etc. These constructs reflect the source of the words into English (French), and original pronunciations (google h-aspire) to see some of the background.

  • Jim Hall

    It's a unique situation.

    So it appears when "u" is pronounced like "uh", the "an" applies.

    But when "u" is actually pronounced like "u" (you), it all goes out the window.

    Interesting. One of those things I've never really thought about.

  • This also applies to acronyms, for example "an SOS" or "an MRI".

  • I was taught that the vowels are "a", "e", "i", "o", "u" and sometimes "y" and "w".

    Earlier commenters have rightly pointed out that, in the end, sound is the determining factor.

    I, for one, think that "an" should precede "historic", though "an helpful anecdote" sounds terribly like something Eliza Doolittle would have uttered before her training. English is a wonderful language -- so inconsistent, yet so successful. Reflects its native speakers, I suppose.

  • I agree with Craig, nicole, and others that adding an "n" is mostly done to ease the transition between spoken words. "An egg" is easier to say than "a egg." "A used car" is easier to say than "an used car."

  • markm

    "A used car"
    "An ugly car"

    Yes, it's the pronunciation. "An history" might sound right to the English, but in my midwestern American accent it's quite wrong. "An Hill" in the King James edition demonstrates that the English have been dropping their aitches for a long time.

  • la petite chou chou

    Precisely. "An historic" is a symptom of not pronouncing the "h." Of course then you have "an istoric" which goes right in line with the an before a vowel. I just sounds ridiculous to say "an historic" and especially when people tell you they use both, depending on how they want to sound. Actually, this is a subject that makes me really angry, being that I am an editor...

  • la petite chou chou

    I consulted the editor's bible: The Chicago Manual of Style (even though I already knew this, as do most of you). A precedes consonant sounds and an precedes vowel sounds. Since "historic" begins with a consonant "h" and only slurred Britons leave it off, "a" is the appropriate article, not "an." Conventions, no matter how small, allow us the ability to keep communicating.