We've all been taught in primary school how we're supposed to use 'an' instead of 'a' when we talk about an object whose name starts with a vowel, in its singular form.

-> An Apple
-> An Ostrich
-> An Elephant

But when we refer to one university, universe or even adjectives like useless, we use 'a' instead of 'an'.

-> A University
-> A Useless Boy
-> A Unique sight

Why is that so ? I get the fact that we use 'an' for words which start with consonants occasionally, for words like 'Hour','Honor', because the 'H' is silent. But what of the exceptions in the case of words starting with A,E,I,O,U ? Or is the just for certain words that start with 'U' ?

  • You might want to look at these two questions on English Language and Usage: Is it “a uniform” or “an uniform”?, When should I use “a” vs “an”? – sumelic Dec 4 '15 at 11:33
  • I'm sorry @StoneyB, I said i was clear with the whole "An hour or A hour" concept. But that was not my question. – Varun Nair Dec 4 '15 at 11:34
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    Read the accepted answer there: "If a word begins with a vowel sound, then the correct article is an; otherwise, if it begins with a consonantal sound, the correct article is a." A 'vowel' is a sound, not a letter, and the critical consideration is sound, not spelling. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 4 '15 at 12:11
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    Usage by native speakers changes over time (this should be remembered regarding every aspect of any language). In the past, an was used before words such as university and use, as well as hundred. At some point in the last generation or two the 'rules' (that is, usage) about this changed. – Alan Carmack Apr 5 '16 at 15:20

OALD on 'vowel':

a letter that represents a vowel sound. In English the vowels are a, e, i, o and u.

This is clear.

But then, the articles 'a' or 'an' depends on 'how do we pronounce' the words.

Now, your concern of why do those words take an indefinite article 'a' and not 'an'.

Check this:

Use 'A' before words such as "European" or "university" which sound like they start with a consonant even if the first letter is a vowel. Also use 'A' before letters and numbers which sound like they begin with a consonant, such as "U", "J", "1" or "9". Remember, it is the sound not the spelling which is important. For example, "1" is spelled O-N-E; however, it is pronounced "won" like it starts with a "W".


She has a euro (sounds like "yu-ro")
That number is a "1" (sounds like "won").

So, because of their consonant sound we use 'a' instead of 'an'.

University is 'यूनिवर्सिटी' and there you have 'यू' to pronounce. It is not pronounced with vowel a(अ), e(ए), i(ई,आई), o(ओ), or u(अ).

  • This was very helpful Maulik. But I've seen in many places that 'Y' is also considered as a vowel (rarely). Does this rule apply to words with 'Y' too ? – Varun Nair Dec 4 '15 at 11:37
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    It's a typical Indian education system error! Pardon my French though! :) – Maulik V Dec 4 '15 at 11:39
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    Yes, same rule depending on whether y is pronounced as a vowel or a consonant. A yacht but an yttrium atom (forgive the obscure example but there aren’t many English words beginning with vowel ‘y’!). – Aant Dec 4 '15 at 16:49
  • It's the layman's definition of a "vowel" that causes the trouble. – Nihilist_Frost Dec 4 '15 at 19:41
  • An example of the converse case - a word that starts with a consonant but takes an rather than a - is honor, because the h is silent. – Esoteric Screen Name Dec 4 '15 at 20:33

Initial "u" has two pronunciations. It can be /ju/ as in uniform and you say a uniform.

It can be a short vowel as in hut, eg umbrella and you say an umbrella.


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