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I got a question when reading this text:

The name of the decorator should be prepended with an @ symbol.

Should we write "a @ symbol" or "an @ symbol"? As "@" is in fact "at", I would think "an" should be used to avoid the coexistence of two vowels one after the other.

More generally, what is the general rule to know if we have to write "a" or "an" before other symbols like "€", etc.? Is it based on how the symbol is read?

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@Neeku Not really a duplicate of those two. They deal with acronyms, which are at least letters, and as such are expected to represent distinct sounds. Symbols are slightly different in that they might correspond to a conventional pronunciation, or they might not. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 14 '14 at 10:10
@JanusBahsJacquet If you read through all the answers in those links, you'll find out that they say you'll decide on using a/an based on the first sound you hear pronouncing the word, so it doesn't matter if it's an acronym or a noun or whatever, because the choice of a or an is determined entirely by pronunciation. – Neeku Jul 14 '14 at 10:13
@Neeku Tell me, then, if it’s a ❦ or an ❦. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 14 '14 at 10:14
On the other hand, the symbols the OP asks about, @ and € do have a conventional pronunciation, so it would follow that it is an @ and a €. For symbols without a conventional pronunciation, I would use a, but I don;t really have any good argument to back that up... – oerkelens Jul 14 '14 at 10:21
@AndrewLeach - The OP mentions a quote about decorators in a programming environment. The common pronunciation of @ in that environment is certainly at. Although, surely, it can also be dubbed monkey tail or squiggly thingee or any of the other inventions of people that found themselves in need of reading their e-mail address out loud, in the context of formal writing about a programming language, I would assume it safe to stick with at. – oerkelens Jul 14 '14 at 11:00

1 Answer 1

up vote 44 down vote accepted

The article to use does indeed depend on how you pronounce the symbol when speaking out loud.

Since @ is usually read out loud as ‘at’ /æt/ in English, it takes the prevocalic article an, as you surmise. (It can also be called the commercial at, but that is rarer, and I would not write a @ unless I’d already specified that it was intended to be pronounced as ‘commercial at’ in the context.)

The symbol would most commonly be read as ‘euro sign’, which means it begins with a (consonantal) [j] sound, and would thus take the preconsonantal article a.

Difficulties arise when you reach symbols that either have multiple conventional pronounced counterparts or no conventional pronounced counterparts at all.

The symbol # is a good example of the former: it is varyingly called a number sign, a pound sign, and a hash (all of which begin with a consonant, indicating a #), but also an octothorpe (which would indicate an #). As such, you could write either a # or an # and be ‘correct’—but you’ll likely find readers who stumble at either, because they’re used to calling the symbol by a name that doesn’t fit the article you choose to use. Another example is the ornamental symbol ❦ whose Unicode name is floral heart, but which is traditionally called either an Aldus leaf after the Italian Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius or a fleuron. The latter is technically a more generic term that describes the function, rather than the shape, of the character, and a few other symbols are also used as fleurons (mostly florettes, of which only ❀ and ❁ are encoded in Unicode); but the Aldus leaf is by far the commonest, and fleuron is usually synonymous with Aldus leaf—or indeed floral heart.

The latter group is rather larger and contains an enormous array of shapes and forms:

  • letter-based symbols like ℳ (Unicode name script capital m, no known traditional name that I’m aware of)
  • ambiguous cases like ᐄ (it could be letter-based U+1404 Canadian Syllabics ii, or it could be mathematical U+29CA triangle with dot above. Neither has any widely known traditional reading)
  • purely graphical forms like ╊ (U+254A box drawings left light and right vertical heavy—definitely no common name for such cases)
  • CJK glyphs in general—would you, for example, write a 囊 because the character 囊 is pronounced náng in Mandarin, but an 昂 because the character 昂 is pronounced áng?
    (And what if the symbol is actually quoted in a Cantonese context, where it’s pronounced ngòhng?)

I have never seen any style guide or guidelines mention this latter case at all. In the absence of a conventional pronunciation, there is no real way of deciding what article to use. In the rare instance that you need to use an indefinite article with such a symbol at all, my own personal preference would be to simply use the simplest form of the article, a. But there is no logical reason that an should not be equally correct.

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+1 In this particular case replacing a/an with the might resolve some issues, leaving the reader to decide whether to say 'the' or 'thee'. – Frank Jul 14 '14 at 10:51
+1, although I wonder how many people really stumble at a # because they read it octothorpe... I think they had it coming for using that word :P Then again... a SQL-statement or an SQL-statement? – oerkelens Jul 14 '14 at 11:05
@oerkelens: When two pronunciations are possible, the author chooses the article that matches their pronunciation, and readers who use the other pronunciation get annoyed, but such is life. I get annoyed when people write "an historical". – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 14 '14 at 13:30
@BogdanAlexandru I'd be surprised if many people in the UK used “pound”, since we already have the ‘£’ symbol. If anything, it'd be the other way round. Note that ‘#’ appears on US keyboards where ‘£’ is on UK keyboards. – James Wood Jul 14 '14 at 14:40
@BogdanAlexandru : octothorpe was the the first thing I thought of as a problem when I read the question ... and based on this answer, I wasn't the only one. If you don't like that example, * can be 'asterisk' or 'star' (eg, '*69' on the phone), so has the same issue. – Joe Jul 14 '14 at 16:01

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