The rule that I usually use in such cases is that *an* precedes a vowel sound, while *a* is used before a consonant sound. I understand sound as different from letter - conventionally u would be called a vowel, but in unitary it actually sounds as [yu] ([ju], if we use IPA).

The question is:

  • do we deal here with a simple misuse (confusing the latter and the sound that it corresponds to, but possibly also me using the incorrect rule)?


  • is there a dialectal difference involved here, so that some people would pronounce u of unitary as [u], in which case using an would actually make sense? If this is the case, is this difference characteristic of a geographic region, social origin or something else?

I think the proposed duplicates do not really answer the question: some of them assume that [ju] is the "correct" pronunciation, whereas the other discuss the phonetic value of [j] as semivowel, that is conceivably perceptible as vowel - hence either a or an can be used. For background: my first language is Russian, which does have a separate letter й corresponding to consonant/semivowel [j], and a double set of vowel symbols: а/я ~ [a]/[ja], о/ё ~ [o]/[jo], etc. So for me [u] and [ju] are two distinct possibilities. Thus the question remains: are these indistinguishable to an English speaker OR does using one or the other is a matter of one's dialect/sociolect?

Update 2
The question has been now answered in the Linguistics community (and migrated back to English language and usage) with the reference to article A Corpus-Based Sociolinguistic Study of Indefinite Article Forms in London English. I cite below the abstract:

This article reports on work carried out as part of the project Analysis of Spoken London English Using Corpus Tools, namely, an analysis of the use of indefinite article forms in spoken London English in a corpus of transcribed interviews, combining methodologies from sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics. The authors find a relatively high frequency of a before words beginning with a vowel, where Standard English will have an. Social factors, in particular speakers’ age, ethnicity, and place of residence, are more important than linguistic factors affecting the use of a before vowels. The authors argue that the indefinite article a before vowels forms part of Multicultural London English, along with other phonological and grammatical features that have previously been documented. The indefinite article a before vowels seems to have undergone a process of reallocation in which its status has been realigned, possibly because of an increase in social acceptance of nonstandard forms.

(emphasis is mine)

  • 1
    @FumbleFingers You are confusing y, the letter, and y as sound, that is, jod, otherwise and more generaly written "j". So yttrium is /itr …/.
    – LPH
    Apr 20, 2023 at 11:06
  • 1
    Roger - I know we're supposed to back up everything we say with "evidence", but there's simply no comparison between myself and Lambie as competent native speakers claiming that "All Anglophones do this", and you claiming that we might be wrong! Apr 20, 2023 at 16:25
  • 3
    Yes, pronouncing unitary without the initial glide is indeed a clear marker of non-nativeness or a speech impediment. It is not a feature of any representative dialect of English. Of course, no one can speak categorically for all native speakers of a language. But imagine I asked whether the Russian word for ‘I’ is я or а based on a theoretical assumption that there may be some dialect that pronounces it as [a] instead of [ja]. If a bunch of Russians told me that there aren’t, and I then rejected that because no one can speak for all Russian-speakers, would you take me seriously? Apr 20, 2023 at 19:53
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers “For native Anglophones it's always a used car and an oozing sore, never the other way around” — Not necessarily the full truth. It will never the actual opposite, no, but don’t forget that there are many dialects where an has all but disappeared and it would be a oozing sore as well as a used car. But absolutely never an used car, you’re quite right there. Apr 20, 2023 at 19:57
  • 2
    → Not even the most extremely yod-dropping dialects mentioned in the Wikipedia article (e.g., Norfolk) extend their yod-dropping to initial position – that is in fact the only place where they consistently retain the /j/. Short of individually asking 400 million people, we can’t rule out that there may be some obscure speech community in a village somewhere that exhibits initial yod-dropping – you can’t prove a negative – but we can certainly say, based on several native speakers and the Wikipedia article, that no representative dialect does so. Apr 21, 2023 at 10:42