A mp3 or an mp3?
March 25, 2008 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Grammar Filter: A mp3 or an mp3? I can't make myself say the former!

The rules of grammar in regards to the indefinite articles a/an are pretty straightforward (with a few exceptions of course): if a word begins with a consonant - use a, if it begins with a vowel - use an. However, lately I've been catching myself saying "an mp3" instead of "a mp3," which, under the rules as I understand it, is incorrect. But...I've tried saying "a mp3" and I always end up spitting out "an mp3" instead. The former just sounds so unnatural to me. I'm thinking it has something to do with the fact that you say the letter 'm' directly instead of combining it with some other sound - "a marine" for example (which I have no trouble saying as such), and that perhaps 'm' is next to 'n' in the alphabet.

So my question is - what do you say? Mp3 is a relatively new word so I've been unable to find any grammar examples referring to this. And a google search on both phrases reveals people using both phrases...English is my native language btw.
posted by tastycracker to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I say "an mp3". For sure. I have never heard "a mp3".
posted by lohmannn at 6:36 AM on March 25, 2008


"an". Link.
posted by Leon at 6:38 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


IANAG (grammaticist), but I think when it's an abbreviation, and/or there is a vowel sound at the beginning of a word, you use "an". So it would be "an mp3".
posted by Grither at 6:38 AM on March 25, 2008


I do it exactly the same way as you. It's not how it's spelt, it's how it sounds.

Does it feel more comfortable if you write it like this: "An emm pee three"?

I'd also say "An SQL database" and "An NVQ"
posted by Magnakai at 6:38 AM on March 25, 2008


An mp3. Use "an" when the word begins with a vowel sound, even if the first letter is a consonant.
posted by donajo at 6:38 AM on March 25, 2008


It's not "If it begins with a vowel use 'an'" but "If it begins with a vowel sound use 'an.'"

An ending. An honor. An MRI. An mp3.

A hippo. A mouse. A cat.
posted by sjl7678 at 6:40 AM on March 25, 2008


The grammar rule I was taught is: " if a word begins with a consonant sound- use a, if it begins with a vowel sound- use an."

Thus: "an em pee three"
posted by majick at 6:40 AM on March 25, 2008


An Emm Pee Three.

The word Emm begins with a vowel, doesn't it?

I saw an Eff Sixteen (An F-16) fly over.
posted by bondcliff at 6:42 AM on March 25, 2008


The rules of grammar in regards to the indefinite articles a/an are pretty straightforward (with a few exceptions of course): if a word begins with a consonant - use a, if it begins with a vowel - use an.

It should be: if a word begins with a spoken consonant

As opposed to a written one, and as in mp3: when spoken, it starts with an "e". So "an mp3" is correct, even it starts with a consonant in written form.
posted by uncle harold at 6:42 AM on March 25, 2008


MP3 is an acronym, not a word. The M makes a sound (emm) which begins with a vowel, so using 'an MP3' is fine.
posted by iconomy at 6:44 AM on March 25, 2008


Spelling is irrelevant. It's all about how it sounds.
posted by oaf at 6:50 AM on March 25, 2008


Yep, if it starts with a vowel sound, you use an. "m" starts with a vowel sound.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:56 AM on March 25, 2008


MP3 is an acronym, not a word.

To be a stickler: an acronym is a word (like scuba or FEMA); MP3 is an initialization (like R.E.M.), which is why tastycracker got hung up in the first place. It's all in the pronunciation, not the spelling.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:02 AM on March 25, 2008


Yes; that's the rule : go by the pronunciation. But remember that there are lots of us out there that tend to pronounce glottal stops instead of an 'n' before (stressed, lax) vowels, which is why you'll see both 'a mp3' and 'an mp3'.
posted by wfitzgerald at 7:51 AM on March 25, 2008


Think of the simple example of 'an historic'. Even though 'historic' starts with a consonant it is grammatically correct to use 'an' because of the vowel sound. The same rule applies to things like 'mp3'.
posted by mcarthey at 7:53 AM on March 25, 2008


Aha 'm' is pronounced like 'em'. It's much easier seeing it in writing now. Thanks, y'all.
posted by tastycracker at 7:54 AM on March 25, 2008


Think of the simple example of 'an historic'.

Actually, "an historic" is one of the less simple examples available here; the whether and why of opting for an + silent h or a + aspirated h or the weird an + aspirated h is complicated both by regional/dialectal variations in the default pronunciation of the bare word "historic" and by the idiomatic nature of the "an historic" formulation. You can find plenty of discussion of (and arguments about) the issue via some googling, including an old thread on askme itself.
posted by cortex at 8:53 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


To be a stickler: an acronym is a word (like scuba or FEMA); MP3 is an initialization

I believe it's called an initialism.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:53 AM on March 25, 2008


I'd read that article before I made my comment, and I think this is one of those cases where Wikipedia is ambiguous and unhelpful--the way they describe it, "initialism" could refer to either category.
posted by kittyprecious at 10:01 AM on March 25, 2008


Usage of "liaison" should be based on the sound, not the spelling. Thus:

"Put an S at the end of that word."
"I downloaded an MP3."
"I made an herb salad."
"I'm a history professor."
posted by incandescentman at 10:22 AM on March 25, 2008


If you need a reference, Bill Bryson in Troublesome Words suggests using "an" in this situation for the reasons previous commenters have described.
posted by GuyZero at 11:27 AM on March 25, 2008


a MP3, a F-16... "There's a F-16 flying over" suits my ears better than "There's an F-16 flying over". "gimme a MP3", gimme an MP3". Generic categories (for me at least) violate the initial vowel sound rule. MP3 and F-16 are categories, they get an 'a' unless it sounds really bad.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:24 PM on March 25, 2008


"There's a F-16 flying over" suits my ears better than "There's an F-16 flying over".

That's because your ears are made of wrong.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:46 PM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


The only way I would accept "a mp3" is if you pronounce Mp like you would pronounce the Mc in the name McDonald.

Which I do for fun.

"It's a mup3 player"


Aha 'm' is pronounced like 'em'. It's much easier seeing it in writing now.

Tastycracker, can I ask how you have pronounced it in the past?
posted by tomble at 8:31 PM on March 25, 2008


I do pronounce 'm' like 'em,' it's just that I didn't realize that 'm' has an 'ehh' sound because I was thinking of the letter 'm' just as the letter 'm' if that makes sense...
posted by tastycracker at 8:15 AM on March 26, 2008


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