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I've noticed this crop up with other non-vowel words and wondered what the story is with it, e.g.:

As an SME, we're unfortunately not able to take the time to train on the job and would ask for at least one year's previous experience.

Obviously the rule is 'an' before words beginning with a vowel, so why do I want to say 'an' and not 'a' before the acronym SME?

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No. The rule is not 'an' before words beginning with a vowel.

It's about the sound, not the letter. The rule is to use the one that's easier to say.

S is pronounces ess. So it's easier to say an than a.

We say a uniform for the same reason: It's easier than saying an uniform.

(By the way, lots of British editors and linguists cringe (or attack) whenever someone suggest that rules exist at all. There are traditions, tendencies, habits, and even conventions, but the English language is ultimately (they insist) whatever we make of it.

To see what I mean, find copies of the American Chicago Manual of Style and the British Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and compare them. One is rules, the other is descriptions.)

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  • "Easier to say" is somewhat subjective, especially for non-native speakers. I prefer simply "If it starts with a vowel sound (like "apple" or "es.em.e") use an. If it starts with a consonant sound (like "bus", or "uniform", use a. – Colin Fine Apr 17 '20 at 15:21

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