10

Generally, we use the article "an" before the word "answer", because it starts with the sound of a vowel. But "a" is also used before this word:

  1. Above all things never show an inmate fear or your uncertainty of a situation! If you don't know a answer say "No" because it's easier to switch a no to a yes then a yes to a no later. And whatever you do, don't panic and stay firm on your answer. — Matthew Zamborowski

  2. The problem is that Trump isn’t enough of a answer-avoiding politician, said Carson.

My question is, are there any circumstances when "a" is used before the word "answer" instead of "an"?

Are the above cited uses of "a" correct?

  • 2
    @Mick That's not true. Do you say 'an University' or 'a University'? – Sakib Arifin Oct 22 '16 at 19:12
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    @Mohammad That's true. – Mick Oct 22 '16 at 19:15
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    @Mick the usual mistake between "starting with a vowel" or ".. a vowel-sound" ;-) – Stephie Oct 22 '16 at 19:20
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    To be more precise, an should always be used before a vowel sound. When discussing language, it's almost always more useful to define vowel and consonant in terms of sounds, not in terms of letters. University begins with a consonant sound, so we use a rather than an. @Stephie It's not really a mistake; vowel should really be understood as referring to vowel sounds. – snailcar Oct 22 '16 at 19:42
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    The Guardian (A British newspaper and therefore nothing to do with AAVE or AmEng) article refers to tweets. Who has never forgotten to capitalise a proper noun, or forgotten to add a semicolon, or wrote "a" instead of "an" because they were thinking of a different noun, changed their mind, and added a noun beginning with a vowel. The Guardian "a" is a typo, maybe they wanted to say "a politician who's good at avoiding answers". Carson said "a"? Means nothing, in speech we commit all sorts of minor imperfections. – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '16 at 13:18
5

In the dialect called "standard English", an is used before words that start with vowel sounds. This includes the word answer. The use of a answer is not in accordance with standard English.

It is possible that one, or even both, of the usages that you have found of a answer is a typographical error (or 'typo') for an answer. However, you should also know that in some dialects of English other than "standard English," the use of a before a word that begins with a vowel sound is acceptable. This is true in dialects found in both the USA and the UK.

For example, see the ELU Question A tendency to use “a” in place of “an” in American English.

For usage in the cosmopolitan city of London, England, see A Corpus-Based Sociolinguistic Study of Indefinite Article Forms in London English (brought to my attention by snailplane), which "reports on the analysis of the use of indefinite article forms (a/an) in front of vowel sounds in spoken London English" (my emphasis).

My point is that some native speakers do use a and not an before words that start with a vowel sound. This is a legitimate variation, and not a "typo." The only, actual, universal "rule" regarding the use of a / an is what native speakers feel comfortable saying. One or two hundred years ago, an university was the norm; today it is a university. Even today, some speakers say an hundred.

So, you shouldn't be surprised when you come across such usages as

The problem is that Trump isn’t enough of a answer-avoiding politician, said Carson.

(The Guardian)

They may be a typo, or they may be an accurate written representation of what the person would have said in spoken English.

You have asked specifically about a answer, but this usage is the same as a before other words, such as a apple. (It is easy to find examples in Google Books of a apple; it is much more time consuming to find additional examples (besides the two you found) of a answer because of the connection between the letter a and answer keys.)

The following piece mentions that a apple is found in AAVE (African American Vernacular English).

Evaluation of a Code-switching Composition Curriculum for Students who Speak ...

Again, see The Adventures of Harry Richmond (Complete) (1924) for three instances of a apple and Such Was the Season (2003) for two more examples of a apple.

This is authentic English, which often does not conform to the dialect called "standard English.

  • 2
    Isn't "a answer" actually pronounced a bit like "aye answer" with an emphasis on "aye"? – yo' Oct 22 '16 at 20:27
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    @yo' No, it is pronounced with a glottal stop berween the two words, as in the two i's in Hawaii (which is spelled by locals as Hawai'i). – Alan Carmack Oct 22 '16 at 20:49
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    Most likely, if a native speaker does say a answer they're still using the allomorph a before a consonant – they're likely to insert an epenthetic glottal consonant to resolve hiatus. – snailcar Oct 22 '16 at 20:49
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    For more information, see A Corpus-Based Sociolinguistic Study of Indefinite Article Forms in London English (Gabrielatos et al. 2010), which has a very nice references section with further publications on the topic. – snailcar Oct 22 '16 at 20:58
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    The Grauniad newspaper is a world authority on making typos, so that example doesn't count for much. A recent good one was "He was just an ordinary kid for whom the concepts of self-determination or shrugging off the Yankee yolk were as alien as nuclear physics" - egg on face, indeed. – alephzero Oct 23 '16 at 2:49
16

Usually the community would close this question as "based on a typo", but I think it warrants an answer.

You are correct in stating that before words starting with a vowel sound, a changes to an. That rule has not been suspended, not generally and not for a single word, even if you found two unrelated counter-examples before "answer".

Google Ngram confirms it: enter image description here

We may further assume that the books in the Google books corpus are better spellchecked than some random articles on the web - quickly written, even quicker forgotten.

Especially the second one, a transcript of a live event. Those need to be written fast and as humans are involved often contain minor typos that the random reader will either not notice or ignore, especially as it does not change the general meaning.

Conclusion: You found two typos.


But thanks a lot for the interesting question!

  • -1 There are no rules except what native speakers actually say. You jump to the conclusion that these are typos, yet typos are generally fixed within hours of publication. These uses may not conform to the rules that you were taught, but they are authentic native uses. – Alan Carmack Oct 22 '16 at 20:24
  • @AlanCarmack I can't imagine anyone but a baby saying "a answer", I'm pretty sure I've never heard a native speaker say it (though possibly when imitating a baby), and Stephie addresses both the fact that it is extremely rare (nGram) and why the typo would persist (low standards for web articles). I think typo is a very good explanation here. – Paul Oct 23 '16 at 0:24
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    @AlanCarmack Actually, I'm partially wrong. There are some dialects where "uh answer" sounds right, but those are generally low prestige dialects and would not be used in a formal written context like those quoted, so I still think this is a typo situation. – Paul Oct 23 '16 at 0:31
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    @గణేష్ రెడ్డి Yes, before silent h, as in an hour, an honest... and some people also use an before words such as an historical, because the first syllable is not stressed. See ELU's a versus an before a word beginning with h – Alan Carmack Oct 24 '16 at 15:46
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    @గణేష్ రెడ్డి The use of a, an is determined only by the word immediately after the indefinite article. So native speakers will say and write a spectacled Oxford graduate. See this answer by ELU's nohat, which mentions the myth or misplaced "rule" that it should be an before spectacled Oxford graduate. – Alan Carmack Oct 24 '16 at 16:02
2

[Addendum: @AlanCarmack points out that this was a paraphrase, not an actual quote from spoken usage. So, in fact, it may have been a mistake on the part of the Guardian author. It's possible that the author was writing the paraphrased quote as he thought it would have been spoken, but this is probably a stretch.]

"The problem is that Trump isn’t enough of a answer-avoiding politician, said Carson."

This is not an error or a typo, but an intentional usage in standard spoken English.

The purpose of using "a" instead of "an" here, when speaking out loud, is to help the listener parse the sentence correctly in real time, as it's being heard.

There's probably a slight glottal stop (or at least a momentary break) between "a" and "answer". In contrast, "answer-avoiding" is pronounced continuously in one breath.

The speaker wants to avoid a likely real-time mis-parsing of "an answer" as a syntactic unit, the putative object of the preposition "of"; the listener would then have to re-parse quickly after hearing the rest of the sentence, after "answer".

The use of "a", with a glottal stop afterward, makes it clear, as the listener is hearing it, that the noun phrase that the indefinite article applies to isn't just "answer", but is something longer (which turns out to be "answer-avoiding politician").

I don't know how much research has been done on this phenomenon, but here's one source: The Glottal Stop in English: A Descriptive Study, by Majda Sabri Faris. This paper states:

"Prosodically, a glottal stop or a glottal approximant may in many languages including English be used for emphasizing the next word or a prosodic boundary. Word-initial vowels are more frequently glottalized (i.e., glottal stops or approximants are produced) at major prosodic boundaries (Pierrehumbert and Talkin 1992:112)."

The bibliographic reference given there is to: Pierrehumbert, J. and Talkin, D. (1992), "Lenition of /h/ and glottal stop", in: Docherty and D.R. Ladd, eds., Papers in Laboratory Phonology II: Gesture, Segment, Prosody, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, pp. 90-117 (which I unfortunately don't have access to).

  • 1
    Welcome to ELL, and thank you for a very thoughtful and interesting answer. If you haven't done so yet, you might take a few minutes to read our tour and Help Center pages. We look forward to more useful answers! – P. E. Dant Oct 22 '16 at 23:17
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    This is a good read. But notice a answer-avoiding politician is a paraphrase of what Dr Carson said, not a direct quote. You can listen to Dr Carson's remarks on the CNN video that The Guardian is talking about. Thus, this usage is in the written English of The Guardian, not in spoken English. – Alan Carmack Oct 23 '16 at 0:00
  • @AlanCarmack You're right -- I should have looked at the original text. I assumed that it was an actual quote. The prosodic division may possibly have been in the writer's head, but that's something of a stretch. For what it's worth, I think a paraphrase should be written as <Carson said that ...>, not <..., said Carson>, but it's true that the Guardian didn't use quotation marks. – Mitchell Spector Oct 23 '16 at 1:25
  • This is an interesting proposition, but in AmE I've never seen this usage and would be completely unaware of the intention if it were used. Do you have a citation that makes it clear that glottal stops using "a" instead of "an" exist, as opposed to simply choosing words that end with a vowel sound? – Nathan Tuggy Oct 23 '16 at 13:55
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    @NathanTuggy I have never seen this usage either in AmE, but people do use slight pauses frequently in spoken English to delineate phrases (prosody). I don't have a good citation unfortunately; I referenced the best one I could find in my answer. There has been research done on prosody, but I'm not very familiar with it. – Mitchell Spector Oct 23 '16 at 16:45

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