When I was a kid I was taught that Article An should be placed before nouns starting with a Vowel letter, but now i got to know that it's actually the sound of vowel we should focus not the letter.

For eg. Apple(A) , Orange(O) , Ice(A)

Here Apple makes a vowel sound A, Orange O and Ice Aa-eice

But then there are words University, Unit etc. That sounds Vowel to me (yuni) yuni makes sound of U. Why is it considered that it makes a consonant sound and thats why we place "A" before them?


1 Answer 1


A vowel is a "syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract" (Wikipedia). Although the word "university" starts with a "u," the sound is the same as the sound in "you." Say that word out loud and note that you have to use your tongue to make it. It isn't a vowel sound, so we would say "a university."

Contrast this with the word "ugly" which starts with the sound "uhhhh." You don't need to use your tongue or teeth or any other "stricture" to make this sound. It is a vowel, and we would say "an ugly duckling."

As you said, the choice of "a" or "an" is all about the initial sound, not the initial letter, and in English, some letters can sound like vowels or consonants depending on the word.

Why do we use "an" before vowel sounds? Because English speakers don't like glottal stops, where you cut off the flow of air at the throat, as in "uh-oh." Glottal stops are only used rarely in English and they interrupt the smooth flow of a spoken sentence. To say "a ugly duckling," you would have to make a glottal stop to prevent the "a" sound from blending in with the "u" ("uhh") sound. To avoid this, we insert the "n" consonant to separate the vowels without a glottal stop: "an ugly duckling." It just sounds smoother to an Anglophone's ear. Understanding this may help you decide when to use "an" or "a."

  • just to reinforce, the distinction may be that, for English speakers the beginning of the "yu-" sound is considered a consonant sound, which may be different from what OP's native language considers a consonant.
    – katatahito
    Jun 24, 2019 at 6:28
  • I understood what you explained above but there are still some doubts left in my head, If 'U' does not actually makes a vowel sound then why is it not a consonant? And also I tried making 'E' sound and noticed i actually used my tongue and teeth to produce that sound just as 'U'. Can I say that words starting with a vowel sound(A, I, and O) is a vowel sounding word and rest are all consonent sounding words(including E and U)?
    – Rishabh
    Jun 24, 2019 at 7:40
  • @Rishabh Don't confuse letters with sounds. In English, a letter does not always make the same sound. It's very important to keep that in mind. We often say that A, E, I, O and U are "vowels" but that's confusing: a vowel is a sound, not a letter. A "u" can make a vowel sound (as in "ugly") or a consonant sound followed by a vowel sound (as in "university"). As for E, it can also make several different sounds. If you mean /i:/ as in "feet," that's still a vowel: you may be putting your tongue in a specific position to get the right mouth shape, but you aren't moving your tongue.
    – TypeIA
    Jun 24, 2019 at 8:30
  • @TypeIA Thank you!
    – Rishabh
    Jun 24, 2019 at 11:29

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