English Writing: to An or Not to An

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

As most of you know, there are canons about when to use “an” to supplant the “a” article. The rule is simplistic, but not simple. For example, a uninitiated foreigner might think that as long as the word begin with one of the vowel letters a e i o u, then stick with “an” instead “a”, but, to foreigner's chagrin, 'tis not so. For example, an hour, a unit, are the correctly prescribed forms. As a consequence, the matter gets hairy, and has often confounded me as a matter of practice. To which i have concocted a plan from two principles: ① to hell with it. ② a scheme to thwart grammarians and their presence in society.

Of the two, ① is out of pragmatism. For, often i do not have a good time in figuring out which is right despite my intelligence. (because, there are complications, for example, in front of acronyms (e.g. “an FAQ” or “a FAQ”), and other times the pronunciation is not universal regarding whether the word begins with a vowel sound.) Therefore, i thought by simply sticking with “a” always, is a way towards efficient communication, with, the consideration of composer's value of time as well as his readership. Of the second reason ②, is a plan i had for a while, of which i think i have alluded to here and there in this forum in the past. This is a scheme i devised to check the harms done by the army of academicians and grammarians, to cause them headaches and pain as they have caused me and the populace.

Although my simple plan of sticking with “a” is sound, but i do find problems with it. Because, sometimes, if i post a short sentence involving the article (e.g. “Here's a article on xyz, check it out!”), people might get the idea that i'm rather cloddish because i used the incorrect form of the article, and thus perhaps forego of checking out xyz i wanted them to hit. Thus is my dilemma that i'm bringing attention here. To this dilemma, i have also devised plans against it. I haven't had it down precisely, but roughly the heuristic is:

Ⓐ If posting/publishing just a short sentence involving the said article that is traditionally to be a “an”, then use “an”. (therefore imparting a halo of elite authorship)

Ⓑ When publishing a long article or essay, stick with “a” throughout.

Ⓒ If the context or article is serious, then stick with the canonical rule. (as to avoid association with insincerity or divisiveness, e.g. when writing a love letter to a girl i really want)

As you can see, my second-tier principles are also sound, and does resolve my dilemma that resulted from my first-tier principles on the whole. However, one may not notice that this system is getting a bit out of hand. As, often i have to think about what are my audiences, their degree of erudition of English, or the purpose or context of my composition, and whether if it is a single sentence that might expand to a essay later. The one most egregious complication is that if for example, in a forum where i post multiple messages over time, some with just a single sentence that involved a “an”, then i may appear inconsistent, as if “a” and “an” are chosen at random. (not even considering the occurrences where i simply made unintended typos of “an” and “a”)

At the end of the day, frankly, i think in my writings it is this inconsistency one will find thru-out, especially of folks who have read many of my essays but not of sufficient quantity to realize that i have systemic beef with English, and consequently deem me a rube with regards to the fine points of English. I really do hate it. What do you think of it?