According to OALD the indefinite articles "a" and "an" have a "strong form" that deviates in pronunciation.

But what is the "strong form"? In which cases is it used?

Unfortunately, the dictionaries don't provide any further explanations or examples.

Furthermore, it's really weird that the British pronunciation of the strong form of "an" sounds like the American pronunciation of the 'normal' form of "an" and vice versa.


1 Answer 1


The "weak form" of "a" is an unstressed schwa /ə/, the strong form is stressed and pronunced as /ei/ (the same as the name of the letter) The strong form is used when the indefinite pronoun "a" is used in a contrastive way. The contrast can be either a/the contrast or a/many contrast

The UK will join a customs union, but not the customs union.

(pronunciation could be /ei/ and /ði:/. This is not mandatory and the stress can be made shown in other ways. The contrast here is between the indefinite and definite)

The weak form of an is unstressed /ən/ and the strong form is stressed /æn/ (the same sound as in "man") Again it is stressed to show a contrast.

I said I wanted an eclair. I can't eat 5!

In this case the contrast is between 1 and 5.

Not sure what you mean by British and American. The dictionary site you link gives American strong and weak forms as being the same as British strong and weak forms. (Phonemically the same, but the actual realisation of those phonemes is different)

  • In your second example "an" has the meaning "one". Can the strong form of "a" be used in this meaning, too? "I said I wanted a cake. I can't eat 5!"? Feb 6, 2018 at 17:23
  • British/American: yes, the transcription of the pronunciation is the same for BrE (British English) and NAmE (North American English) for the weak form: /ən/, and for the strong form: /æn/. But if you click on the speaker symbol to hear the actual pronunciation, you hear that the BrE weak form sounds like the NAmE strong from, just shorter; and the BrE strong form sounds pretty much the same like the NAmE weak form. Feb 6, 2018 at 17:27
  • @Min-SooPipefeet Not to my ears. The American speaker speaks slower, but uses an /æ/ phoneme for the strong form, and a more centred /ə/ phoneme for the weak, just like the British speaker. (als)o) Yes the strong/weak form of "a" can be used for the one/many contrast too.
    – James K
    Feb 6, 2018 at 18:35

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