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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?

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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 Jun 13, 2015 at 8:31
  • More duplicates: a/an user, a/an uniform. Unicorn is not a unique case.
    – J.R.
    Jun 13, 2015 at 11:47
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    Please do not use ugly blue monospace backticks on ELU to indicate italics.
    – tchrist
    Jun 13, 2015 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, 2015 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, 2015 at 17:22

3 Answers 3

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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.

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  • It's great to see an inverse example, "an honor", thanks! Apr 13, 2018 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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