When adding an indefinite article to English nouns, you either select a or an depending on the sound of the first letter of the noun that it precedes.

In some languages vowel sounds occur that do not exist in the English language, like ui in Dutch or ы in Russian. I know Russian doesn't have any words starting with ы, but I would still need an article if I discuss a/an ы vowel.

If I use a foreign noun in English language, like when I explain this word in English, does "an" only occur for vowel sounds that also exist in English, or does "an" apply to all vowels, regardless of its existence in English?

For example, which of the following is correct: - A uitzondering is an exception. - An uitzondering is an exception.

  • Please can you provide a link to a recording of the sound? It is impossible to tell from the written form alone. If it sounds like a vowel (rather than, for example a 'w') then it will require 'an'. Aug 29, 2015 at 9:51
  • For ы youtu.be/AGpuarTwbBQ?t=25s and for ui en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nl-ui.ogg
    – Plankje
    Aug 29, 2015 at 9:58
  • Both of those need 'an'. I'll write an answer. Aug 29, 2015 at 10:07
  • You do the best you can, based on your understanding of the pronunciation.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 29, 2015 at 13:03
  • 1
    The rule in English is.... well, you know it. So if the foreign word, as pronounced by an English speaker, starts with a 'yuh' or 'wuh' sound then it is 'a'.
    – Mitch
    Aug 29, 2015 at 13:31

1 Answer 1


Having listened to the links you gave in a comment, I would say that both sounds need to be preceded by 'an'. As far as I can tell there is no closure of the airflow by the lips or the tongue.


  1. In most cases apart from when emphasising them, we use a schwa (ə) for 'a' and 'an'. Examples: This is ən apple. and This is ə book.

  2. In English we could say, e.g. 'This is a apple.' and the schwa sound would be distinct from the 'a' sound. Sometimes children do exactly that. Usually they are corrected for doing so.

My explanation

Note that I have just come up with this explanation in response to your question. I have not done extensive research to verify it.

The schwa can be considered a weak vowel and the others strong vowels. By that I mean the schwa often follows but doesn't naturally precede a strong vowel in a diphthong.

Let's see if anyone can think of an exception.

  • Yes, Russian ы is a vowel and would require an. So would any other Russian vowel, and any German vowel, and any vowel from any language, whether it's in English or not. Some vowels (like voiceless vowels before voiceless consonants) might be hard to perceive. Aug 29, 2015 at 16:37

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