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Why is it a unicorn instead of an unicorn. Unicorn starts with a vowel and so shouldn't it be an?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, Roaring Fish, J.R., tchrist, Andrew Leach Jun 13 '15 at 14:05

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    This has been answered so many times that it's embarrassing that people above a certain rep should re-answer. They should at least redirect to ELL, though the people there may not be too happy either. The clearest answer (though not the most obvious synonym for the question) is perhaps at "a" or "an" for words that don't start with vowels but sound like they're starting with a vowel – Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 '15 at 8:31
  • More duplicates: a/an user, a/an uniform. Unicorn is not a unique case. – J.R. Jun 13 '15 at 11:47
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    Please do not use ugly blue monospace backticks on ELU to indicate italics. – tchrist Jun 13 '15 at 13:57
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    It's tough to give a good answer, because it's not obvious that [j] should count as a consonant. In the SPE system, it counts as non-consonantal, phonetically, and I don't think the [j] is even there, phonemically. Evidently, what matters is that [j] is non-syllabic, but why is that what matters? (I would have answered this question, if I'd been able to.) – Greg Lee Jun 13 '15 at 16:32
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    @Araucaria, yes, that makes sense to me. The function of the "n" in "an" is to separate two syllabic sounds, and with [j] present to separate the syllabics, there is no need for the "n". – Greg Lee Jun 13 '15 at 17:22
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The article(a/an) that precedes a word is largely dependent on the way the first syllable of that word is pronounced, though many people follow the rule that words beginning with vowels must be preceded by 'an' and words beginning with consonants must be preceded by 'a'.

Here, unicorn begins with the vowel 'u' but it's pronounced more or less like 'yoo'. 'Unicorn' begins with a consonant sound, so we use 'a' before it.

Some other examples are: a user, an honour, a university, a European.

  • It's great to see an inverse example, "an honor", thanks! – Mark Maruska Apr 13 '18 at 0:35
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A unicorn:

When "u" makes the same sound as the "y" in "you," or "o" makes the same sound as "w" in "won," then a is used. The word-initial "y" sound ("unicorn") is actually a glide [j] phonetically, which has consonantal properties; consequently, it is treated as a consonant, requiring "a."

a union, a united front, a unicorn, a used napkin, a U.S. ship, a one-legged man.

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[|ju:nɪkɔ:rn]

when you pronounce 'unicorn' it starts with the symbol j not any other vowels. That's why:).

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