One word, please: Indefinite articles | Opinion

Some time ago, when office work was still a thing and I was surrounded by people called “colleagues”, I wrote a sentence on a piece of paper and then walked to the offices of several colleagues. “Would you like to read this aloud?” I asked, then held up the paper marked with the words “the 1,100 square foot property is for sale”.

They looked at me like I had a hidden agenda, which I did. But they still made me happy.

“One thousand, one hundred square foot property,” some said. “The eleven hundred square foot property,” others said.

I had asked because I was editing an article with a similar, but not identical sentence. Instead of the definite article “le” before the number, the piece I was editing had an indefinite article, and I wanted to know if it should be “a” or “an”.

English has only two indefinite articles and choosing between them is usually easy. “A” precedes a consonant: a cat, a truck, a man. “An” precedes a vowel: an idea, an octopus, an intelligent octopus.

Usually a word begins with a vowel sound because it begins with a vowel – an arbiter – or it begins with a consonant sound because it begins with a consonant – an arbiter. But not always. The word “university”, for example, begins with a consonant: Y. That’s why you say “a university” and not “a university”.

Even then, “a” and “an” are easy for English speakers.

Sometimes an indefinite article that comes naturally when you speak can make you doubt yourself when you write. For example, some struggle with the question of which article to use before an abbreviation like “FBI”. F is a consonant and it represents a word that begins with a consonant sound, “federal”. But when you pronounce the letter F, you start with a vowel sound: “eff”. That’s why when you speak you say “an FBI agent” and not “an FBI agent”.

Whether spoken or written, the rule is based on pronunciation. So you would write “an FBI agent”.

People disagree on how to handle “history”. But there is no wrong answer. If you treat the H as silent or nearly silent, you can use “one history”. People who prefer this method point out that because ‘historic’ emphasizes its second syllable, ‘stor’, the first syllable is virtually lost with no ‘an’ in front of it. People who pronounce the H use “a history”.

The Associated Press Stylebook, which I follow in my editing work, says it’s “historical.” So that’s how I do it. The guide for book and magazine publishers, the Chicago Manual of Style, is less rigid: “The word ‘historic’ and its variations cause missteps, but if the H of these words is pronounced, it takes an A (a hour walk in a historical society).

Not interested in what the style guides say? You can take inspiration from a dictionary. Merriam-Webster says “historic” is pronounced with an audible H. You can hear it out loud by pressing the little speaker button next to the word in its online dictionary entry.

My favorite a/an riddle also made the rounds of my colleagues’ desks on a piece of paper. I asked colleagues to read the sentence “Look for a hotel with a high rating of AAA.” Most didn’t say “a, a, a”. They said “triple a”. And because the indefinite article rule is based on pronunciation, not spelling, you would write “AAA rated hotel” not “AAA rated hotel”.

I was curious how the auto club did it, so I checked out the California AAA website. There at the bottom are the words “Become a AAA Authorized Auto Repair Center”. So they also pronounce it with T.

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know”. She can be reached at [email protected]