There are a lot of grammar rules in the English language. (Actually, “a lot” doesn’t feel like an accurate description of how many rules there are.) Once you get the hang of them, writing with correct grammar becomes second nature, but getting there can be difficult. What if I told you that a grammar rule you were sure you knew was wrong? More specifically, there is one particular grammar mistake that almost everyone makes, and it’s a small one. The mistake in question is using the wrong article in their writing.
What is an article? Articles are a type of adjective; they describe the noun that they come before. There are 3 articles: the, an, and a. The is used when describing a specific noun, while an and a are used when describing a general one. For example, when you say, “I saw the show at the theater,” you are referring to a specific show at a specific theater. In this case, you could replace the general nouns with the proper ones by saying, “I saw The Sound of Music at The Wang Theater.” If you said, “I saw a show at a theater,” the person to whom you are speaking would not know what show at what theater from that sentence alone.
The obvious rule for a vs. an: The rule everyone knows is that you use a when the word begins with a consonant and an when the word begins with a vowel. For example, you say an apple and a computer, not a apple and an computer.
The rule most people don’t know: That is not 100% correct as you choose the article based on the sound at the beginning of the word. What I mean is that if the word begins with a vowel sound – even if it begins with a consonant letter – you use an, and if it begins with a consonant sound, you use a. For example, “When sworn in as a witness in a trial, you always give an honest answer.” Honest begins with h, but you say the word like there’s no h there. Since it begins with the sound of “on,” you use an.
This rule is also true when it comes to acronyms that you spell out. For example, an is used for any spelled-out acronym that begins with S because saying it aloud begins with an “ess” sound (see what I did there?). Another example comes when talking about the FDA, or Food and Drug Administration. You might say, “It is an FDA-approved medication.” Because we say FDA as Eff Dee Ay, we use an before it when called for.
I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any questions. For more grammar and writing tutorials, check out my e-book The Essential Grammar Handbook. If you would be interested in a paperback version, please let me know! I’m considering making a paperback version but will only do that if there is a demand for it. You can also check out all of my posts on grammar and (more specifically) all of my posts with grammar tutorials.