The rules for English can range from the obvious to the confounding. Some, such as knowing when to use definite or indefinite articles, are seemingly simple but can be confusing. For example, it’s not always apparent whether to use “a” or “an,” which is why many people ask if we should say “a apple” or “an apple?”
“An apple” is correct because “apple” begins with a vowel sound. The general rule is that “a” precedes words beginning with a consonant sound while “an” precedes words starting with vowel sounds. “A” and “an” are both indefinite articles that show the noun refers to a general thing and not a specific one.
In this article, we will explore definite and indefinite articles so you can understand the difference between “an apple” and “the apple.” We’ll focus on indefinite articles and learn how sound plays a role in choosing between “a” and “and.”
We will also briefly consider the exceptions to the rules and abbreviations while discussing how to choose the right indefinite article for each of them.
Articles are determiners — that is, they signal or determine that a noun will follow. They are merely function words and do not modify the meaning of the following noun as adjectives do. Instead, articles simply let readers and listeners know that a noun will follow soon (source).
Dictionaries define the noun “apple” — when not referring to the company Apple or its products, or to the city of New York (as in the Big Apple) — as a round, edible fruit having a red, green, or yellow skin, or the tree on which it grows (source).
Since “apple” is a noun, and we use articles in phrases and sentences to signal that a noun will follow, it makes sense that we use an article before the word “apple.” Note that there are always exceptions, as we will learn in a later section.
Which Is Correct: “A Apple” or “An Apple”?
English speakers often ask whether to use “a” or “an.” The answer to this question is simple — well, it sounds simple at least, with “sound” being the operative word here — the sound of the following word determines the choice between the indefinite articles (source).
We use “a” for clarity when the following word begins with a consonant sound and use “an” when the next word starts with a vowel sound.
- A dog ran across the road. (dog → consonant sound)
- We saw an antelope in the woods today. (antelope → vowel sound)
Keeping the above rule and examples in mind, let us consider the noun “apple.” Since it begins with a vowel sound, it follows that we should use “an” before it. Therefore, “an apple” is the correct choice.
- Do you want an apple?
- I ate an apple for breakfast.
What Is the Difference Between “The Apple” and “An Apple”?
Now that we know “an” is the indefinite article to use with “apple,” let us look at how and when we use “the” with the noun. We use “an” to refer to one of many or to something in general. Meanwhile, we use “the” before nouns when the noun refers to something specific or definite.
For example, in the below sentence, I am saying that I ate an apple, and it could have been any apple in general.
- I ate an apple for breakfast.
In a scenario where there was only one apple that the speaker and listener know of, then “the” makes sense, as both know the specific apple I am talking about here. So, the sentence “I ate the apple for breakfast” makes sense.
Which Article Is Used With Apple?
So, to wrap up, when we are referring to any apple in general, we use “an” since “apple” begins with a vowel sound. However, when discussing a specific apple or an apple someone previously mentioned, we use “the.”
- He gave me an apple. The apple was delicious.
Sometimes, you can skip the article before the word “apple,” depending on usage and context.
- When life hands you a bushel of apples, make apple juice!
A and An: A Guide to Indefinite Articles
Lexico, powered by The Oxford English Dictionary, defines the indefinite article as a determiner that we use to introduce a noun or noun phrase and implies the thing it refers to is nonspecific (source).
Nouns themselves can be countable or uncountable. Countable nouns refer to things we can count, and they can be singular or plural. For example, bat/bats, kite/kites, yak/yaks, etc. Conversely, uncountable nouns refer to things that we cannot count. Examples include air, furniture, joy, and water (source).
“A” and “an” are both indefinite articles, and we use them chiefly in the following scenarios (source):
Before countable singular nouns:
- A girl/a cookie/an umbrella/an apple
To show a person’s profession or a thing’s group:
- She’s a teacher.
- Jack owns a BMW.
Instead of one and for quantities (time, price, and others):
- He earns a hundred dollars an hour.
- a gallon/ a minute/ an hour
Before a name to say someone is like somebody (known):
- He fancies himself an Einstein.
Before uncountable nouns followed by a phrase or specified by an adjective:
- She experienced a happiness she never had before.
- She has an excellent command of English.
It Is All About the Sound
Let us now look at the relation between sounds and the two indefinite articles “a” and “an” in more detail.
As we mentioned earlier, the basic rule for indefinite articles is that we choose between the two based on the sound of the following word. Thus, we use “a” preceding nouns that start with consonant sounds and “an” preceding vowel sounds (source).
Note that we should not focus so much on whether the first letter of the following word is a consonant or vowel but rather on how it sounds.
- John is an engineer.
- The dog chased a squirrel.
- An apple a day is good for you.
Using “a” and “an,” as we mentioned above, simply makes it easier to sound out the phrase or sentence. For instance, “an apple” flows more smoothly when we speak than trying to say “a apple.” You can try it out for yourself and see!
Similarly, using “an” before consonant sounds simply sounds awkward. Saying “an squirrel” just does not sound right, does it?
We are good to go as long as we remember that sound matters both while speaking and on the printed page. Thus, we are essentially applying a rule for spoken English to the written or printed page to figure out which of the two indefinite articles we should use.
To keep it simple, when in doubt, sound it out!
Indefinite Articles and Vowel Sounds
We use the indefinite article “an” only with a singular count noun whose identity is unknown or indefinite and begins with a vowel sound. For example, we would say “an elephant” and not “a elephant.”
In sentences where adjectives or adverbs precede the noun, we use the sound of those words to choose our article. For example, in the sentence, “It was an awesome gift,” we use “an” since the adjective “awesome” that follows the article begins with a vowel sound, even though the noun “gift” begins with a consonant sound.
As always, there are exceptions and problematic words. For instance, since we use phonetics or sounds for this rule, different pronunciations of the same word can impact article usage.
For example, the “h” in “herb” is silent in American English, while they emphasize or pronounce “h” in British English. So depending on who is speaking or writing, or maybe the audience, the article someone uses before “herb” could change.
Some examples of words where the initial “h” is silent include “honest,” “honor,” and “hour.” So we would use “an” before these words, like “an honest man” or “an hour and a half.”
Remember that abbreviations follow the same rules depending on their pronunciations. For example, we sound out MA by its letters, so we say “em-a,” and since it begins with a vowel sound, we would say “an MA.” Conversely, “BBC,” which we also sound out by its letters, begins with a consonant sound, so we would say, “a BBC show.”
The following table gives an overview of “an” with vowel sounds.
|Vowel Letter||Vowel Sound||Use “an”|
|An ant bit her.|
He saw an eagle.
Do you have an icebox?
She was eating an orange.
Don’t forget to take an umbrella today.
|Consonant Letter||Vowel Sound||Use “an”|
|Jack has an herb garden.|
Give me an hour to get there.
She is an honorable lady.
|He sent me an SMS.|
We watched an NBA game.
She is an FBI agent.
|Other examples||x-ray||eks-ray||An x-ray|
Key tip: for abbreviations that you sound out with their letters (like SMS), use “an” when they begin with A, E, F, H, I L, M, N, O, S, and X.
For more about using “a” and “an” with vowel sounds, read our article “An Hour” or “A Hour”: Proper Article Use Before Hour.”
Indefinite Articles and Consonant Sounds
We use the indefinite article “a” only with a singular count noun whose identity is unknown or indefinite and begins with a consonant sound. So, for instance, we would say “a bag” or “a zip line” since “bag” and “zip line” both begin with consonant sounds.
Again, there are exceptions, like with some words beginning with the letters “o” or “u.”
Consider the following sentence:
- The clown rode a unicycle onto the stage. (correct articles)
If we simply look at the first letter of the word “unicycle,” which is the vowel “u,” we might want to write the sentence as below:
- The clown rode an unicycle onto the stage.
However, this would be incorrect since we pronounce the word “unicycle” as “yü-ni-ˌsī-kəl” or “you-ni-si-kl.” This is a consonant sound (starting with the sound “y”); hence, we have to use “a” and not “an.”
Next, let us consider another example with abbreviations. For example, in the case of FIFA (an acronym for Federation Internationale de Football Association), we say, “a FIFA game” or “a FIFA player” since we pronounce it as “fi-fa” and not by the individual letters, like in FBI.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Use the table below to get an overview of “a” with consonant sounds.
|Consonant Letter||Consonant Sound||Use “a”|
|A bat flew past me.|
Can I have a jug?
He has a xylophone.
|She wrote a COBOL program.|
A FIFA referee
|Vowel Letter||Consonant Sound||Use “a”|
|“u” words||university||you-ni-ver-sity||He works at a university|
|Belgium is a NATO member.|
He is a UN agent.
|Other examples||one||won||It was a one-hit-wonder.|
Check out the article “‘A Usual’ or ‘An Usual’: Which Article Should You Use?” to understand more about indefinite articles with consonant sounds.
We’ve covered information on using the indefinite articles “a” and “an” and the definite article “the,” describing how they function with the noun “apple.” We also discussed using the article “an” with “apple” since “apple” is a noun that starts with a vowel sound.
In addition, we addressed exceptions, problem words, and abbreviations concerning indefinite articles.
To reiterate what we learned, “an” is the indefinite article to use with “apple.” Should you find yourself forgetting it, simply remember the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” While this statement does hold a lot of truth, it can also help us remember that “an apple” is the correct answer!