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is it 'a usual' or 'an usual'? 'A usual' sounds more correct in my head ('Today was a usual day.') than 'an usual', but u is a vowel. Which one is correct and why?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Usual (pronounced /ˈjuː.ʒu.əl/ as in you) begins with a consonant sound and, as such, it should be preceded by a not an.

As an aside, I cannot help but point out that the sentence

Today was a usual day

is not usually heard in regular conversation.

Today was an unusual day

is what one might hear, instead!

Indeed, I rarely hear the construction a usual. The definite article is more commonly used, in my experience:

That's the usual thing.

In place of a usual, one would also be more likely to hear not an unusual:

  • Today was a usual day / Today was not an unusual day
  • This is a usual occurrence / This is not an unusal occurrence or This usually happens

You are right in saying that a usual sounds weird. As speakers, we tend to avoid constructions which, though correct, do not flow easily from the mouth. In sum, the following are valid and commonly used alternatives:

not [an] unusualthe usualusually

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Good answer. I think I agree on all points here. –  Noldorin Jan 15 '11 at 18:14
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I believe the usage depends on what the word sounds like it starts with. For example, "an homage," since the "h" is not pronounced.

I was going to say that "since 'usual' sounds like it starts with 'y', you'd use 'a' instead of 'an.'" But then - is y a vowel or a consonant? :)

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The vowels are usually ;-) listed as a, e, i, o and u. So y is a consonant (with an a). –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 15 '11 at 15:57
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As Jimi Oke points out, it doesn't matter what letter the word starts with, but what sound it starts with. Since "usual" starts with a 'y' sound, it should take 'a' instead of 'an'.

Also, If you say "today was an usual day", unless your pronunciation is extremely clear, you risk being misunderstood as "today was unusual day", which will only confuse your listeners.

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An hour is correct, because hour starts with a vowel sound. People seem to ask most often about words that start with the letters h and u because sometimes these words start with vowel sounds and sometimes they start with consonant sounds. For example, it is a historic monument because historic starts with an h sound, but it is an honorable fellow because honorable starts with an o sound. Similarly, it is a Utopian idea, but an unfair world.

The letters o and m can be tricky too. Usually you put an before words that start with o, but sometimes you use a. For example, you would use a if you were to say, “She has a one-track mind,” because one-track starts with a w sound. Similarly, “She has an MBA, but chooses to work as a missionary.”

Use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound. Other letters can also be pronounced either way. Just remember it is the sound that governs whether you use a or an, not the actual first letter of the word.

One complication is when words are pronounced differently in British and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced “erb” in American English and “herb” in British English. So the proper form in America is an erb, and the proper form in Britain is a herb. In the rare cases where this is a problem, use the form that will be expected in your country or by the majority of your readers.

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The technical definitions are: open vowel sounds or closed vowel sounds. All open vowel sounds such as, orange, envelope and image require the article "an" to bridge the two open sounds. Closed vowel sounds typically start with an unwritten "yu" consonant such as "a university" or "a united Europe, a Europe which is united" and therefore use the more common "a" article. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

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Grammar Girl's discussion of "a" versus "an" is at this URL, which says nothing about "open" or "closed" vowel sounds. The usual definition of "open" and "closed" vowels which I have seen is quite different. –  Peter Shor Apr 29 '13 at 19:12
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