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Suppose I want to add a qualifier to a noun that isn't necessary for understanding, so I decide to put it in parentheses. If the adjective in parentheses would change whether I use "a" or "an" as an article, which one is correct?

For example, as in the title, I want to mention that a problem is obvious. Without the qualifier it would be "a problem", with it "an obvious problem". Would it be "an (obvious) problem" or "a (obvious) problem"?

I suspect the first one to be correct, but is that true? My understanding of parentheses is that the sentence should make sense with or without the part between them, but in this case one option sounds weird when including it and one sounds strange when leaving it out.

Edit: Please note that this is not a duplicate of a / an - adjective - noun . There, the question is about an adjective directly following the article without any parentheses. I'm asking whether the special case with parentheses changes anything. Also, this is basically a nitpicking question: I know how to rephrase the expression to avoid the issue, but I want to know what is correct.

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    In this specific case, I believe that you should use an (obvious) problem. You can read more details in MετάEd's answer to the question “A/An” preceding a parenthetical statement, and in a blog post on Stack Exchange English Language & Usage. Reworking the wording--such as removing the parentheses entirely or rephrasing by moving the parenthetical part after the noun: "a problem (an obvious one)"--is also another option. – Damkerng T. Sep 24 '15 at 9:33
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    I'm afraid not. However, I've posted a brief answer summarizing the information for you. ;-) – Damkerng T. Sep 24 '15 at 9:44
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    What about a(n obvious) problem? – Rob Sep 24 '15 at 14:59
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    Thinking about changing the title to "A/An (interesting) problem with articles". Anybody got a better pun? ;-) – anderas Sep 24 '15 at 15:04
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    @Sempie: That appears to be about interposing an adjective, while this is about adding parentheses. – Nathan Tuggy Sep 25 '15 at 5:31
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In this specific case, I believe that you should use:

an (obvious) problem

As MετάEd wrote in the question “A/An” preceding a parenthetical statement: "A parenthesis is a remark which you insert into the middle of a sentence as if you are interrupting yourself. A parenthesis contributes to the meaning of the sentence but interrupts and stands outside its syntax. In writing, we typically use curved brackets, dashes, or commas to mark a parenthesis."

Your example, a/an (obvious) problem, is not interrupted by the word obvious, i.e., this obvious functions as an adjective modifying problem, and thus the phrase is not parenthetical.

On the other hand, this is parenthetical:

Here is a (oh, you know I'd say that it's obvious!) problem.

Having said that, I believe that reworking the wording is another good option; for example, you can remove the parentheses entirely. You can also write the parenthetical part (which is more usual in formal writing) after the noun: a problem (an obvious one).


See also: Articles: “A” vs. “An” on Stack Exchange English Language & Usage

  • I think the most important point here is the distinction between parentheses and parenthetical statement. I didn't know/think about the details of the difference, that's probably the reason for my question. – anderas Sep 24 '15 at 13:06
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    In the end, the difference is whether you would read it aloud or whether you wouldn't. I would read "an obvious problem" and "here is a problem". And you write the A/An the same as you read it. – gnasher729 Sep 24 '15 at 14:05
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    One (obvious) rephrasing is to use "one" instead of "a/an" (though such presents a different tone and may not be appropriate in all cases). – Paul A. Clayton Sep 25 '15 at 0:13
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The usage of "a" vs. "an" always relates to the pronunciation of the word immediately following it. The grammatical structure (or even spelling) of that word, or the word that "a" actually modifies if it is not immediately after it is irrelevant. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_articles#Distinction_between_a_and_an. The word "an" as a distinct word from "a" exists solely for the purpose of easing pronunciation.

In this case, the parentheses are irrelevant because they are not pronounced when speaking. "Obvious" starts with a vowel sound and immediately follows the "a/an" when spoken, so "an (obvious) problem" would be correct.

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an (obvious) issue

If you sidestep the question entirely, you don't need to worry about readers thinking you're getting it wrong (regardless of whether you did or didn't).

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    That doesn't really answer the question though. What happens when the author wants to say something like "an (obvious) ploy", and there's no synonym that happens to take "an" instead of "a"? – ColleenV parted ways Sep 24 '15 at 22:23
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    This is a clever, one-time workaround, but the O.P. is asking about the grammatical rule, not for advice on how to skirt the issue. – J.R. Sep 24 '15 at 22:58
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The rule of 'a/an' is based on the following word's pronunciation. So, I think it's how you read and not how you write! Here, an adjective is an additional information that you don't read but put it into the brackets.

Hence,

A (obvious) problem!

In other words, in writing, ask yourself - which word is following the indefinite article? It's 'problem' (because the word in parenthesis is optional). So, indefinite article 'a'.

So, to summarize,

If you are reading it

An obvious problem (of course you don't pronounce 'brackets')

and, in writing

A (obvious) problem

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    I disagree. You seem to be asserting that the word in parentheses somehow doesn't exist except when the word is read out loud but I don't see any basis for making that claim. And what about internal speech? How is the reader supposed to know whether they feel that the word "obvious" is important enough to read, without actually reading it? – David Richerby Sep 24 '15 at 10:29
  • @DavidRicherby how do we decide 'a/an'? It's in reading i.e. pronunciation. Reading or internal reading, as I said in my last sentence, it's 'an obvious problem' – Maulik V Sep 24 '15 at 10:36
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    I'm confused, this answer is completely opposite to what I learned in school and later. I learned that the writing of a/an always follows the pronunciation of the (in whatever way) successive word, it is not distinct. – mafu Sep 24 '15 at 13:10
  • The rule is definitely "A or An depends on the next spoken word". If Maulik reads this sentence has "A problem!" and omits the "obvious" then A is correct. I myself would read it aloud as "An obvious problem" with "An". – gnasher729 Sep 24 '15 at 14:03

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