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I have a foreign word that begins with the letter "u", and don't know whether to use "a" or "an". The word is "unitario". It's a word used mainly in Argentina to describe a T.V. show comprising unrelated fictions which are broadcasted weekly and are usually an hour long. So I guess it comes from "unit". But in Spanish the word is pronounced with the vowel sound "u" as in "uzi", only shorter. So, what's the rule here? Should I say "an unitario" (as in "an uzi") or "a unitario" (as in "a unit")?

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    Why wreck an innocent Spanish word by pretending it was spelled in English? It starts with a vowel, so use an and /ði/. – John Lawler May 13 '15 at 23:13
  • One could also use the Spanish article with it and avoid the issue :) "...*un unitario* (an hour-long Argentinian TV show broadcast weekly comprising unrelated fictions)." – TRomano May 13 '15 at 23:25
  • The rule is pretty simple: If a word starts with a vowel sound you use "an". But, as you point out, the "U" in "unit" is not treated as a "vowel sound" (while the one in "uzi" is). My old high-school Spanish would have me pronouncing "unitario" with the same leading sound as "uzi", and hence a "vowel sound". – Hot Licks May 15 '15 at 0:57
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Since you're referencing a word used in a different language that isn't a loan word, you should "respect" that language's pronunciation. So since unitario as used in Argentina isn't pronounced beginning with [j] (y sound as in you in English), you need to say an unitario.

Additionally, it is helpful if you let the reader know the word is foreign. This is usually done by italicizing the word.

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    Yes: italicise the word. If you don’t, most readers (who aren’t familiar with the word) will almost certainly read it as beginning with ‘uni-’ [juːnɪ-] and will be distracted by an as the article. By italicising the word, you’re signalling up front that this word is going to distract them, so they are ready to backtrack and reinterpret their initial assumption about its pronunciation, if necessary. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 14 '15 at 1:12
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It all depends on weather you start the word with a "y" sound like "you" or an "uhh" sound like "oops". If you feel your lips back for the "y" as you say it, then use "a". Given, however, that in both Spanish and Italian the word is said with the "oo" sound then if you want to pronounce it correctly you should be using "an".

In fact, the Spanish themselves use "un unitario". (With a "ooh" sound.)

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    What article the Spanish use is quite irrelevant. They would also say un yunitario if it started with a [j] sound in Spanish. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 14 '15 at 1:10

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