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Indefinite articles used with acronyms starting with U
February 12, 2010 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Why do we precede acronyms starting with the letter U with 'a' instead of 'an', e.g. "a USB key" or "a UFO"? Acronyms starting with a consonant are frequently preceded by "an" because consonants' names have a different spelling than the letters themselves, e.g. M as em and H as aitch, therefore "an HIV outbreak" or "an MRI". However, U's name is spelled u, and acronyms that start with other vowels are preceded by 'an', e.g. "an ABC license". What's the deal?
posted by BigSky to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Because phonetically, "U" begins with a y?
posted by Oktober at 9:41 AM on February 12, 2010 [19 favorites]


U's name is arguably spelled "you" - I think any word that starts with a consonant sound gets an "a" and any word that starts with a vowel sound gets an "an."
posted by harperpitt at 9:42 AM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it has to do with the way the acronym is pronounced. The U dipthong is pronounced similarly to a Y, and we don't say "an used car" or "an yellow submarine."
posted by Balonious Assault at 9:42 AM on February 12, 2010


English convention is to (mentally) sound out words before deciding how to precede them. "Uh you-ess-bee key" sounds better than "an you-ess-bee" key; similarly, "uh aich-eye-vee outbreak" gives you two guttural "uhs" in a row, and "ann aich-eye-vee outbreak" is much easier to say.
posted by Shepherd at 9:42 AM on February 12, 2010


Yes, like Oktober says, it's the sound rather than the actual letter.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:43 AM on February 12, 2010


Quick followup - I just asked my Canadian boss who pronounces H as "haitch" and he would say "a HTML lesson" as opposed to "an HTML lesson." So it's all relative in terms of accent, too, probably.
posted by harperpitt at 9:44 AM on February 12, 2010


Because the "y" sound that the name of the letter "U" begins with is sensed in English as a consonant. We (at least I do) also say things like "a yellow submarine," "a Yorkshire terrier," "a ukulele," "a urethral inflammation," etc.
I remember in grade school reciting the vowels as "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y." Well the other times, it's a consonant.
posted by feelinggood at 9:49 AM on February 12, 2010


Yes, like harperpitt says, it depends on how you say the word. I'd say "a hotel" but others might say "an hotel" if they don't aspirate the h. (This came up yesterday in the "how to spell 101" question)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:49 AM on February 12, 2010


I'm a Canadian and wouldn't say a HTML lesson but an HTML lesson.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:50 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I just asked my Canadian boss who pronounces H as "haitch" and he would say "a HTML lesson"

That's totally believable, but I'd bet he's either francophone, first-language French, or brought up in a predominantly French-language region like Quebec or Acadia. Francophones tend to over-aspirate the h sound in English, because it's one of the strongest differences they hear between English and French. Haitch is how most francophones say aitch.
posted by bonehead at 10:03 AM on February 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's interesting how often this comes up. Sometimes it seems like a whole generation of English students were taught the wrong rule for "a" vs "an".
posted by smackfu at 10:13 AM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Just want to point out that the pronunciation of the English names for the letters 'h' and 'm' start with vowels, not consonants.

English has a very deep orthography, meaning that the correspondences between the spelling and the pronunciation are complex (not more one-to-one, like Spanish, which has a shallow orthography). What you see is not what you get.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:18 AM on February 12, 2010


In chemistry people have fun with Yttrium and Ytterbium.

The linked Wikipedia pages say they are pronounced /ˈɪtriəm/, /ɨˈtɜrbiəm/ (so go with "an") but many chemists pronounce them /ˈjɪtriəm/, /jɪˈtɜrbiəm/ (going with "a")

According to Google Scholar 4,580 articles use an yttrium but 3,840 use a yttrium
posted by doiheartwentyone at 10:18 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for clarifying, @You Should See the Other Guy (probably pronounced as rhyming with Pie, not Flea), and @bonehead (probably pronounced as 'Bone-Head', not BAW-ne-Heed), there are indeed Canadian variants, most notably with French Canadian English dialect.

I too am a Canadian who does not aspirate the H, and therefore say "an HTML lesson", and also An SLP position, and A UFO, and An MSN ..., but A TSN program. It's because of how the vowel/consonant is pronounced.
posted by kch at 10:24 AM on February 12, 2010


Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed., 15.9:

When an abbreviation follows an indefinite article, the choice of a or an is determined by the way the abbreviation would be read aloud. Acronyms are read as words and, except when used adjectivally, are rarely preceded by a, an, or the ("member nations of NATO"). Initialisms are read as a series of letters and are often preceded by an article ("member nations of the EU").

an HMO
a UFO
a NATO member
a LOOM parade
an NAACP convention
an NBA coach
an HIV test
an MS symptom (a symptom of multiple sclerosis)
but
a MS by (a manuscript by)

An initialism such as AAA, normally pronounced "Triple A," should not follow an indefinite article; resort to rewording (e.g., "a map from AAA," not "a AAA map").
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:27 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


The "a/an" sandhi rule in English is purely phonetic, and because (as iamkimiam pointed out), English spelling and pronunciation are barely second cousins at best, the choice of article depends on your pronunciation.

Can't find it now, but I remember reading a blog post by someone whose girlfriend's mother was a native Spanish speaker, and needed the concept of a spelling bee to be explained to her. Makes sense, really--if there's a nearly bijective correspondence between spelling and pronunciation in your native language, a spelling bee would be very boring.
posted by tellumo at 10:37 AM on February 12, 2010


Haitch is how most francophones say aitch.

Also my (East) Indian friends say it this way.
posted by trinity8-director at 10:39 AM on February 12, 2010


Agreeing with what people said above. However, I'd note that you don't always use a with words that being with u-. Most notably, consider the prefix un-, as in understandable, unappreciated, etc.

u is just one of those funny exceptions in English that is near impossible to get right unless you're fluent. We all know which indefinite article to use, but it's hard to say why. And what it really comes down to is that we choose based on pronunciation, not any orthographic rules. I think you could argue that the whole a/an distinction is solely to resolve ambiguity is spoken language, where the choice is clear (assuming common accent).
posted by sbutler at 10:45 AM on February 12, 2010


Actually, I guess un- is not a prefix in understandable. You you all get my point :)
posted by sbutler at 10:48 AM on February 12, 2010


Same as what everyone else has said. It's a before words that start with a pronounced consonant or semivowel, and an before words that start with a vowel in pronunciation. The name of the letter U is pronounced "yoo," the same as ewe and you. The long U sound starts with a semivowel, so words that start with it are preceded by a not an. You say "a ewe," "a European city," "a union," but "an uncle," "an uninspiring lecture." Foreign words where U is pronounced "oo" instead of "yoo" are also preceded by an - "an Urdu text," "an umlaut," "an umami flavor."
posted by nangar at 10:58 AM on February 12, 2010


All that matters is how you pronounce it.

You say a UPS for the same reason you say a used car, because an comes before a yoo sound.

If you pronounced the acronym as a word, this could change. UNRAA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency) is pronounced un-rah and UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission) is pronounced uns-com, so you might have an UNRAA committee or an UNSCOM official.
posted by pracowity at 11:02 AM on February 12, 2010


I'm always baffled when people say "an historian," or maintain that "an" is the appropriate article in those cases. I can see where it might be more readily pronounceable with a heavy British accent of some sort, but otherwise, it's tough to say and makes you look pedantic.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:21 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


but many chemists pronounce them /ˈjɪtriəm/, /jɪˈtɜrbiəm/ (going with "a")

They're just ignorant fools. Both elements are named after Ytterby in Sweden where they were first found, and "Y" is a vowel in Swedish.
posted by effbot at 11:26 AM on February 12, 2010


Some people pronounce UFO as "oo-foh" and use "an" in front of it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:38 AM on February 12, 2010


"an historian," or maintain that "an" is the appropriate article in those cases. I can see where it might be more readily pronounceable with a heavy British accent of some sort, but otherwise, it's tough to say

Hm. 47-yr-old Minnesotan here [about the furthest thing from a heavy British accent]. To my ear, "an historian" is absolutely correct. "A historian" is hard to say and sounds completely wrong. To me.

The Ramsey County Historical Society appears to agree. So do the NY State Parks.

Regional thing, perhaps.
posted by chazlarson at 11:51 AM on February 12, 2010


Some people pronounce ukulele as "oo-koo-lay-lay" and use "an" in front of it.
posted by bink at 11:52 AM on February 12, 2010


"an historian," or maintain that "an" is the appropriate article in those cases. I can see where it might be more readily pronounceable with a heavy British accent of some sort, but otherwise, it's tough to say

Hm. 47-yr-old Minnesotan here [about the furthest thing from a heavy British accent]. To my ear, "an historian" is absolutely correct. "A historian" is hard to say and sounds completely wrong. To me.


Same here, generic USAian accent. I'll say "a history lesson" but then I'll also say "an historic lesson" as well. Don't know why but they both sound right to me.
posted by fuse theorem at 1:35 PM on February 12, 2010


"I have a urinary tract infection" vs. "I have an urinary tract infection"

Yep, it's all in the pronunciation, not necessarily the spelling.

(Newfoundlanders and Cape Bretoners are also known to pronouce aitch as haitch.)
posted by fso at 1:38 PM on February 12, 2010


As an Australian who says 'haitch', I would always say 'a HTML page', 'a HIV patient', 'an MRI'. more examples of u: 'a uniform', an understandable mistake', 'an ugly house', 'a unicorn', 'an umbrella'. 'a UTI'.
posted by jacalata at 2:31 PM on February 12, 2010


Some people seem to be making this out to be a lot more complicated than it really is.

Yep, it's all in the pronunciation, not necessarily the spelling.

This. With an acronym you use "a" or "an" depending on how you pronounce the acronym.
posted by InsanePenguin at 3:12 PM on February 12, 2010


They're just ignorant fools.

But they apply the rule correctly according to the way they pronounce the word. We're not going to get the "y" sound etymologically right anyway: Swedish vowels are tricky, and anyway a word is fair game after it's been borrowed.

Chemists who actually spell yttrium "yittrium" (990 hits) or ytterbium "yitterbium" (42 hits), on the other hand, should be shunned.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 4:09 AM on February 13, 2010


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