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When should I use “a” vs “an”?

I have recently seen this image:

enter image description here

Should "a" have been used instead of "an" in the "...an $100,000 apartment" part?

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You are correct; a should have been used as it is pronounced a one hundred thousand-dollar apartment. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jul 22 '12 at 16:28
Right, the text is in the image has an error there. –  Mitch Jul 22 '12 at 16:36
@jwpat7 I couldn't find that to link to for the life of me. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jul 22 '12 at 21:02
you could also say "a hundred thousand dollar apartment" –  DHall Jul 22 '12 at 21:12
The only close-to-native phrase I can think of to justify an here is an a-hundred-thousand-dollar apartment. Not great, but imaginable... –  Daniel Harbour Jul 22 '12 at 22:10
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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, Mitch, jwpat7, Mahnax, RegDwigнt Jul 23 '12 at 7:17

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5 Answers

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The /ə ~ ən/ rule, like the /ðə ~ ði/ rule, depends completely on the individual sound that follows. What word starts with this sound, or what its meaning or part of speech may be, does not matter at all.

The rules are very simple to state in their entirety:

/ə/ or /ðə/ before Consonants; /ən/ or /ði/ before Vowels

"5" is pronounced /fayv/, and that starts with /f/, which is a Consonant. Therefore use 'a'.

If it were "8" (pronounced /et/) instead, it would start with a Vowel, and one would use 'an'.

Note that this has nothing to do with spelling, and only refers to pronunciation.

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IOW, the writer of the poster is not used to pronouncing the h in hundred. "Why live in an 'undred thousand dollar apartment ..." :) –  coleopterist Jul 22 '12 at 17:19
@coleopterist: Cute, but I think the caption writer misunderstood the rule and spelled out "one", which starts with a vowel letter but is pronounced starting with the 'w' consonant sound. –  John Y Jul 22 '12 at 17:25
The /ðə ~ ði/ rule? I've never heard of it (until yesterday). Do you have a reference for that? –  Mitch Jul 23 '12 at 21:53
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Yes, I would use "a" as the article. I don't think it depends on the fact that it's a number that follows, but what the first sound of it is. You would use "a" before "one" (or 1), as in "a one-hour nap." For a number such as eight that starts with a vowel sound, use "an."

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Indeed, the wrong article is being used.

I wonder if the "an" was slipped in inadvertently because of the word "apartment" (i.e., "AN APARTMENT" became "AN 100,000$ APARTMENT," and the article wasn't changed like it should have been). That's just a theory, though, and I only mention it as an alternative to the other speculation in this discussion, such as the h in hundred and the o in one.

More significantly, though, the image has other errors. In addition to the wrong article being used, the dollar sign should go before the number, not after (it should be $100,000, not 100,000 $). Also, I think "five million dollar bridge" would be better than "5 million dollar bridge." (That one might just be personal preference as opposed to a true grammatical error, but the Purdue Online Writing Lab would back me up.)

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I noticed the second error too, if you see, in my example I automatically corrected –  ajax333221 Jul 23 '12 at 1:57
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Yes, 'a' should have been used here. Two rules that I would follow here:

  1. Choice of an article would never skip words (numbers are words too, when you speak them out), and would always depend on the word immediately after the article.

  2. Also, the article depends on the phonetics of the word, and not the spelling. So you have 'an hour', and 'a use'.

Going by these, you do not have 'an' before one, because the pronunciation of 'one' doesn't being with a vowel sound.

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While the use of an is generally limited to use before a word that begins with a vowel sound (regardless of the spelling), there is a notable, if not very common, exception.

Certain word that begin with an articulated "h" sound may take an as its preceding article:

an historic moment

an hysterical patient

These uses are not universal and not that frequent. I think they reflect an attempt at fluency where the "h" sound is only slightly emphasized and the consonance of an makes pronunciation easier.

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The traditional rule for this usage is that the "h"-syllable should not be stressed, so even if you allow this exception, it should still be "a hundred-thousand dollar apartment". –  Peter Shor Jul 23 '12 at 0:02
@PeterShor What do you mean that it should not be stressed? The syllable starting with the h sure comes off as stressed in “a HUNdred-THOUsand-DOLlar aPARTment” when I say it. –  tchrist Jul 23 '12 at 0:15
I mean the rule is that you use "a" when a word starting with "h" and with a stressed syllable follows it, like "a history", but "an" when a word starting with "h" and with an unstressed syllable follows, like "an historic". See this Ngram. –  Peter Shor Jul 23 '12 at 0:20
I was struggling to identify when the "h" words could use the an and I think Peter Shor clarifies it well –  bib Jul 23 '12 at 1:22
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