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Last updated at 11:17 BST, Monday, 21 June 2010

Indefinite articles - 'an' or 'a'?


LPs - but is one 'an LP' or 'a LP'?

A question from Marta in Poland:
I am writing to ask about indefinite articles before a consonant sound. I know this is the reason we say 'a university' although 'u' is a vowel. However, none of my English friends is sure whether in the phrase ‘Share a LP’ we should use 'an' or 'a'.

Gareth Rees answers:

Click below to hear the answer:

Hello Marta. Thank you for writing in with your question about the use of the indefinite articles - namely the words ‘a’ and ‘an’. You ask whether we should say ‘share a LP’ or ‘share an LP’ (LP is the acronym for an old style of music recording: a Long Player vinyl record). The short answer is that we should say ‘share an LP’, just as we say ‘a university’ and not ‘an university’.

But, why do we do this, when it seems to contradict the basic rule about the use of indefinite articles? We often hear that we use ‘a’ before a word that begins with a consonant (a consonant is a letter like ‘b’, ‘k’ or ‘z’), and that we use ‘an’ before a word that begins with a vowel e.g. the letters ‘e’ and ‘i’. Some examples of this are as follows:

  • A dog
  • A big apple
  • An elephant
  • An interesting person

However, the rule that I just described should really be that you use ‘a’ before a word that begins with a consonant sound, and ‘an’ before a word that begins with a vowel sound. This means that the important thing is not how we spell and write the word, but how we say the word.
So, with regard to the word ‘university’, the initial sound is actually the consonant sound /j/, so we say ‘a university’. If we look at your original question, the word ‘LP’ begins with a vowel sound, /e/. That is why we say ‘an LP’.

Here are a few more examples: an hour, a UFO, a universal approach, an MP. Notice that this often happens before an acronym because many consonant letters are actually pronounced individually with an initial vowel sound, such as ‘F’, ‘L’, ‘M’, ‘N’ and ‘X’.

Interestingly, the most modern sound recording format demonstrates the same language rule as the old style format you use in your question. My grandmother may have an LP or two, but I have an MP3 player, which I think I’m now going to listen to, having answered your question.

About Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees has a BA (hons) in History and Philosophy of Science, CTEFLA, and DELTA. He has taught EFL, EAP and Business English in China, Spain and England, and he is the co-author of the Language Leader Elementary and Pre-Intermediate English language course books (Pearson Longman). He currently teaches English in the Language Centre at the University of the Arts, London.


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