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When should I use “a” vs “an”?
“a” or “an” for words that don't start with vowels but sound like they're starting with a vowel

On some forum today I referred to myself as a English nerd. Now I'm wondering whether maybe I'm an English nerd.

My gut feeling tells me that there is a slight nuance in meaning between the two phrases and that even though the general rule is to use an in front of a word starting with a vowel, I think a is more appropriate in this case.

The a in a English nerd refers to the word nerd and the adjective is only added to denote the type of nerd that I am.

Whereas using the phrasing an English nerd would imply that I am a nerd who happens to be English (I'm not).

Now, my question is: Did I analyze this correctly and is there in fact a nuance in meaning? Or should I have used an English nerd to comply with the general "a versus an" rule?

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marked as duplicate by Matt Эллен, MετάEd, waiwai933 Sep 21 '12 at 4:16

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

1  
This reminds me of the problem shown in xkcd.com/37 –  smithco Feb 16 '11 at 2:40
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I don't think this question is exactly like the one you link @kiamlaluno, because this question asks about meaning differences associated with a/an. This question could potentially be considered too localized, though, because I don't think any major dialect exhibits any sort of pattern as described here. –  Kosmonaut Feb 16 '11 at 3:19
    
Related: use-of-a-versus-an –  Tragicomic Feb 16 '11 at 7:06
    
"a English nerd" is ungrammatical, but I would actually prefer it just to show how much of a nerd I am. (maybe use the /eɪ/ form for emphasis). –  Xantix Sep 13 '12 at 17:52

2 Answers 2

up vote 18 down vote accepted

There is no different nuance in meaning as you describe in any dialect of English I am aware of.

The a/an pattern is a purely phonological pattern; using one or the other has no impact on meaning. The use is simply governed by the sound of the following word. So, we say:

  • A boy ("boy" starts with consonant sound)
  • An old boy ("old" starts with vowel sound)
  • An hour ("hour" starts with a vowel sound)
  • A used automobile ("used" starts with a consonant sound)
  • An extremely tired man ("extremely" starts with a vowel sound)

Whatever sound comes directly after the indefinite article determines whether it takes the a form or the an form. It doesn't matter if this is a noun, adjective, adverb, or anything else.

Now, there are some dialects that do things differently, but that difference amounts to allowing a more often (usually with free variation). Again, semantics does not come into the picture.

If there is any true nuance in meaning for you, then it is something that (as far as I know) is attested only in your idiolect.

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2  
There is a nuance, but not one that changes the meaning of the sentence. The nuance is entirely related to class and dialect when used in dialogue, as when Dickens has Bumble say, "the Law is a ass!" Bumble is being shown to be of a class distinctly below the respectable Mr. Brownlow & co. –  bye Feb 16 '11 at 15:50
    
@Stan Rogers: Well, as I said, there are some dialects that do things differently, which would be the register difference you are talking about. –  Kosmonaut Feb 16 '11 at 18:19

The general rule is that an is used when the following word starts with a vowel sound. The rule is also valid for English.

  • an eagle
  • a young boy
  • a young animal
  • an elephant
  • a young elephant
  • an English man
  • an English airport

Nobody gives a different meaning to a English nerd and an English nerd; they see the first as not grammatical.

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Note that "an" requires a vowel sound rather than a vowel letter, so we have "an hour" and "a union". –  Dan Feb 16 '11 at 3:04
    
@user744: That is why the answer says the following word starts with a vocal sound; it doesn't say starts with a vocal. –  kiamlaluno Feb 16 '11 at 3:10
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I think your answer would be clearer if you used vowel instead of vocal. –  gpr Feb 16 '11 at 4:50
    
@gpr: Indeed. I sometimes write vocal when I mean vowel. vocale is the word in my first language; it means vowel. –  kiamlaluno Feb 16 '11 at 21:10

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 13 '12 at 8:39

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