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I have noticed that a lot of native American speakers use the indefinite article "a" in front of words beginning with vowels, such as interesting, old, apple , etc. Is there any reasonable explanation?

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4 Answers 4

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I use a with such words and I am a native speaker of American English. The only sensible explanation is that language usage changes and that it sounds fine to me.

It used to be that people would use an in contexts where we, or not all native speakers (still) do, such as before some words starting with h- (an hundred) or other sounds, such as the yu- in eunuch. I don't talk much about eunuchs but when I do I say a eunuch, not an eunuch as some people, such as Shakespeare, does in Twelfth Night, performed first in 1600, give or take a year.

There's a theory that says there's a gottal stop between a and apple (etc) which "licenses" such usage. But I'm not self aware enough to determine if I employ one or not. I certainly don't say a educated man like I would Hawai'i with its prominent gottal stop.

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    Do you never use "an," or would you use both "a" and "an" indifferently before words that start with vowels? Or is there some conditioning factor, like word-initial stress, that makes the use of "a" more likely before only a subset of vowel-initial words?
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 4:16
  • @sumelic I can use an apple around people who might not well receive a apple. Other than that I haven't paid attention and analyzed my usage as a whole. Maybe I'll pay more attention. I do know it is not only in speaking but also in writing.
    – GoDucks
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 4:26
  • Got it. I did notice that you use "an indefinite" in your answer here: english.stackexchange.com/a/298746/77227 and "an example" here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/199904/… I asked because I have a similar experience (phrases like "a octopus" don't strike me as sounding terribly wrong, and I produce some instances of them in spontaneous speech) but I also definitely use "an" as well, and not just when I'm consciously trying to do so.
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 4:32
  • When I write on SE I usually consciously change any a + vowel to an + vowel. @sumelic.
    – GoDucks
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 15:07
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    A fiend of mine ordered “a English muffin” from room service at the pricey Pierre Hotel in NYC. She got eight English muffins and a bill to go with them. Licensed or not, it was a failure in communication.
    – Xanne
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 20:38
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This is mentioned in Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

There are signs that a is intruding into the proper territory of an in American English of various kinds. Two scholars presented substantial evidence of this phenomenon in both the unscripted and scripted speech of American politicians, entertainers, etc., pronounced both as /eɪ/ and /ə/ (a apple, a interesting, a ultimate, etc.). Also in representations of the speech of African Americans (e.g. He had a old Ford somebody gave him—M. Golden, 1989; My old dad lost one of his legs, had it bit off by a alligator this time he's fishing the rim canal—E. Leonard, 1994). This is not the same as the emphatic a.

As for other specific dialects, apparently this often happens in Smokey Mountain English, a dialect of English spoken in south Appalachia. According to Montgomery (2009):

Phrases like a axe, a ear of corn, and a uncle occur frequently in the CSME. Examples like a address (with a following unstressed syllable) are sporadic as well.

I found more information in the article Grammar and Syntax of Smoky Mountain English.

While I speak in an American dialect that's neither Appalachian nor AAVE, I also notice myself using "a" before vowel sounds sometimes.

I found A corpus-based analysis of indefinite article use in London English which also covers the subject, mostly focused on British English.

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  • I went to college in Appalachia and this is an immediately noticeable feature of the local dialect. Commented Jan 10 at 11:06
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There are many different accents in North American English. In some of those accents, it might be quite comfortable for the speaker to say “a apple.” Either because of the way they are putting their syllables together, or perhaps because they are from a region where people tend to speak very slowly. It might be “a [pause] apple.”

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Sorry, but that's poppycock. Can you cite any research article that backs that up?

  1. El-Koumy, A. S. A. (1998). Effect of dialogue journal writing on EFL students’ speaking skill. Retrieved from ERIC database (ED424772)

  2. Rokni, S. J. A., & Seifi, A. (2014). Dialog journal writing and its effect on learners’ speaking accuracy and fluency. Study in English language teaching, 2(1), 28-37.

  3. Kim, Y. (2008). The effects of integrated language-based instruction in elementary ESL learning. Modern Language Journal, 92, 432-451.

  4. Nation, I. S. P., & Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL listening and speaking. New York, NY: Routledge. [41]

  5. Newton, J. (1995). Task-based interaction and incidental vocabulary learning: A case study. Second Language Research, 11(2), 159-176

  6. Blake, C. (2009). Potential of text-based internet chats for improving oral fluency in a second language. Modern Language Journal, 93, 227-240.

  7. Sanchez, M. A. (2014). The effect of written input on young EFL learners’ oral output. Journal of English studies, 12, 7-33. DOI:10.18172/jes.2821

  8. Fathali, S., & Sotoudehnama, E. (2015). The impact of guided writing practice on the speaking proficiency and attitude of EFL elementary learners. The journal of teaching language skills, 7(1), 1-25. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.22099/jtls.2015.3456

“. . . almost all the above previous studies concluded that writing abilities affect speaking proficiency in a positive way (e.g., El-koumy,1998; Kim, 2008; Williams, 2008; Blake, 2009; Nation & Newton, 2009; Rokni & Seifi, 2014; Sanchez, 2014; Fathali & Sotoudehnama, 2015). Journal writing, integrated based instruction of speaking and writing, written input and output, and guided writing practice are likely to have a positive impact on learners’ speaking abilities. Hence, ‘writing to learn’ is proven by evidence from the previous studies to enhance spoken language.”

— Speaking and Writing Interconnections: A Systematic Review Fouad Akki, Mohammed Larouz Department of English Studies, School of Arts and Humanities, Moulay Ismail University, Morocco https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/3aad/04eb4c1f0fa690abc1aea4033d22cb961c4e.pdf

I have my own test:

A student who is taught to write, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Yesterday, I gave my teacher an apple, and today, my teacher gave me an apple” is highly unlikely to say even in casual speech, “A apple a day keeps the doctor away. Yesterday, I gave my teacher a apple, and yesterday, my teacher gave me a apple.” Ergo, correct writing influences correct speaking.

Of course, the exception might be the 60% of college freshman who have to enroll in remedial English courses, 95% of whom never go on to complete their degree. I don’t blame the students; I blame their teachers. And beyond the teachers, I blame those who might have influenced educational policy, such as those claiming, “Literacy means being to able to read, not speak.”

We reap what we sow.

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  • Looks like there might be a good answer about divergence between spoken and written communication hidden between those two posts. The two word answer didn't give any detail, and this one was more about arguing with other users than answering the question, so as currently shown it's well hidden for (and from) anyone looking for a justification to upvote. Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 9:45
  • I noted 7 of the 8 references are to ESL/EFL students, who would be trying to make sense of English in the context of their first language. If you are still leaning to pronounce words you can be expected to make mistakes with a/an. Also - to native speakers "n" is easy to insert between vowels that need to be separated, but this may not be the case for speakers of other languages.
    – Peter
    Commented Jan 10 at 6:25

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