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A Union or An Union: Which Is Correct?

In some cases, it feels good to have options. Sometimes, however, only one choice is correct, and you need to know which one to choose. For instance, when you want to talk about a single union, do you say, “a union” or “an union”?

“A union,” with the indefinite article “a,” is correct. Although you might think that you should use “an” because “union” begins with a vowel, you must listen for the sound the word makes. Since union begins with a “y” sound (“yoo-nion”), you would say “a union.”

Using A vs. An

When you choose which indefinite article (“a” or “an”) you should use, base your choice on the first sound of the word instead of the first letter (source). If the first sound of the word is a vowel sound, use “an”; if the first sound is a consonant sound, use “a.” So, for instance:

  • A cat
  • A guitar
  • A light

And you would use “an” for these:

  • An orange
  • An instant
  • An eagle

Which Article Is Used With Union?

“Union”  begins with the vowel “u,” the sound it starts with is a “y”: “yoo-nion.” Because it starts with a consonant sound as opposed to a vowel sound — “uh-nion” or “ooh-nion” — you should use “a” with union for the indefinite article:

  • The electricians formed a union
  • The US is a union of 50 states

As we said before, the important thing to remember when choosing which indefinite article (“a” or “an”) to use, you need to consider the sound that the word begins with. 

Sometimes, the letter that the word starts with can confuse because the word can start with a vowel that makes a consonant sound, such as a “y,” “h,” or “w.” “Union” is one of these words. 

Other words might require some attention when you think about which indefinite article to use. Several other words beginning with “u” follow the same rule. For instance, you would never say “an university.” Instead, you should write “a university.” Other examples include:

  • A unicorn
  • A uniform
  • A utensil

In each of these examples, the words begin with a “u” that starts with a “y” sound (“yoo”), so they will take “a.”

What Is an Indefinite Article?

Before we go any further, we should probably stop to clear up what articles are. An article is a kind of word that pairs up with nouns and noun phrases to identify the noun as either specific or nonspecific. 

The indefinite article shows us the second; it refers to a person or thing that is not identified or specified (source). Consider the following sentence:

  • I saw a car outside.

The speaker does not tell us anything about the car, only that it is outside. The speaker may not even know who the car belongs to. Perhaps there is an unannounced visitor! If it were the speaker’s car, he or she would probably have said, “I saw the car” or “I saw my car.”

Let’s look at another example. What if someone were to say the following?

  • Hand me a book.

You would understand that they are not asking for a specific book. You can hand them whatever book is nearby.

When the noun is not specific, and it is the first time you’ve mentioned it, you should use the indefinite article (source). After that, you should use the definite article, which we will look at in a bit.

What Does Union Mean?

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The word “union” comes from the Latin word “unus,” meaning “one” (source). Thus, the English noun “union” means to be brought together as one. Take, for example:

  • The word “brunch” comes from the union of “breakfast” and “lunch.”

In this sentence, we learn that the word “brunch” comes from combining two other words, so it is a “union” of those two words.

The word “union” can have more specific meanings, as well. One common meaning of “union” is what we may refer to as a labor or trade union (source). These unions represent the workers within an industry. For instance:

  • Teachers’ union

For the use of the plural possessive and attributive nouns, you may wish to read “Worker’s or Workers’: Singular Possessive vs. Plural Possessive.”

The word “union” can also refer to a political entity. In this case, a “union” refers to a group of states or nations that operate under a ruling body. For instance:

  • The Soviet Union
  • The European Union

Even more specifically, the “Union” often refers to the United States, specifically around the time of the Civil War. This is to contrast it with the Confederate states:

  • The Union forces took Lookout Mountain

Why Don’t We Use “An” With Union?

Even though “union” begins with a vowel letter, it does not begin with a vowel sound, so we don’t use the article “an” to precede it. If we pronounce the word with a vowel sound, then we should use “an,” even if it doesn’t begin with a vowel letter.

The letter “h” is an example of a consonant that can sometimes take “an” when it begins a word. “H” can take either “a” or “an,” depending on whether it is aspirated or unaspirated. 

When we say the “h” is aspirated, we mean that we pronounce it with a hard, breathy sound (“ha”) as in “hard hat.” In these cases, you would use “a,” just like most words starting with a consonant (“a hard hat”). 

However, many words beginning with the letter “h” are unaspirated, meaning that people do not pronounce the “h.” For instance, you would say “it has been an honor” because “honor” begins with a silent “h” (ah-ner). Other examples:

  • An heir
  • An hour

Some words that begin with “h” can differ depending on whether they use “a” or “an” in American English and British English. Some important ones to remember are “historic,” “history,” “herb,” and “hotel.” For more information about using “a” or “an” with words that begin with “h,” check out our article “‘An Hour’ or ‘A Hour’: Proper Article Usage Before Hour.”

Articles With Count and Noncount Nouns

You will use an indefinite article with “union” because it is a count noun. A “count noun” refers to anything countable (source). For example, “book” is a count noun because you can say, “I have two books.” You can count books, and, therefore, “book” is a “count noun.”

Any time you have a singular count noun of unknown identity, you should use the indefinite article. For instance, if you wanted to say that you wore one hat, you could say, “I wore a hat.” Here are other examples:

  • She rode a skateboard.
  • I am petting a dog.
  • He threw a ball.

The opposite of count nouns is noncount nouns. These will not take an indefinite article.  Noncount nouns are nouns that we cannot break up into units, so we cannot count them. You will usually know them because they do not have a plural form. 

The noun “happiness” is an example of a concept that we cannot count. You would not say “a happiness.” You would simply say “happiness” without an article.

“Rice” would be an example of an item that we cannot count. You know that it is a noncount noun because it does not have a plural form with an -s ending. So, you would not say “a rice.” 

If you wanted to talk about rice as a single unit, you would do so by making it part of a prepositional phrase (“of rice”) and using the countable noun “grain” (“a grain of rice”). Other noncount nouns include “honesty,” “salt,” and “milk.”

Since the article always goes with singular nouns, you do not need to use one with plural countable nouns. So, while you would say “a union” to talk about one union, to talk about more than one union, you would say “unions” without the article. 

This also applies to talking about things in general, so when you say “unions represent workers,” you are talking about unions in general and don’t need an article.

Indefinite Articles With Abbreviations

You should pay close attention when you deal with abbreviations. An acronym is an abbreviation that you pronounce like a word, as in NATO, which stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 

An abbreviation where you pronounce each letter individually is known as an initialism. With initialisms, you should listen for the sound the first letter makes (source).

You will need to know how to pronounce the abbreviation to know whether to use “a” or “an.” For instance, you would say “a NATO representative” because you pronounce “NATO” as a word. 

On the other hand, you would say “an NFL representative” even though you would say “a National Football League representative” when writing it out. This is because the acronym “NFL” begins with an “en” sound. 

Other examples of initialisms that begin with a consonant but take “an”:

  • An NBA team (National Basketball Association)
  • An MBA (Master of Business Administration)

There are several letters to pay special attention to when dealing with initials: F (eff), H (aitch), L (ell), M (em), N (en), R (ar), and X (ex). Each of these letters is a consonant that begins with a vowel when you pronounce its name.

Articles With Adjectives

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One of the most recognizable sentences involving the word “union” comes in the preamble to the American Constitution. It says that the authors have written the constitution to establish “a more perfect Union (source).

Notice the words between the article and the noun “union”? Those words (“more perfect”) are adjectives.

An adjective is a word that gives more information about a noun. For instance, when we say the “American union,” we are describing the union as being American. Look at our article “Are Numbers Adjectives?” to find out more about adjectives.

However, when you add an adjective, what happens to the indefinite article? When you use an adjective, it goes in front of the noun it describes and after the indefinite article. Therefore, you should use the indefinite article that matches the adjective, not the noun. 

So, for instance, while you would say “a union,” when you add the adjective “American,” you would use the indefinite article “an,” so “an American union.” Here are other examples of how adjectives might change which indefinite article you use:

  • An angry dog (“a dog”)
  • A red apple (“an apple”)
  • An old man (“a man”)

In all the above examples, the indefinite article changed when we added the adjective. This happened because the beginning sound of the adjective was different from that of the noun.

Using the Definite Article With “Union”

As we said near the beginning, articles tell you whether something is specific or not specific. So far, we have covered how to show nonspecific union with the indefinite article. But how would you show that you mean a specific union? In that case, you would use the definite article.

The definite article “the” tells you that the noun that follows is specific. So, if you said “a union,” you might mean any union, while if you said “the union,” you have a particular one in mind. For example:

  • The union went on strike

The above sentence refers to a specific union that the writer presumes the reader to know.

If I said, “there’s a cat,” I might mean any sort of cat. Perhaps I saw a stray outside! However, if I said, “I saw the cat,” you would understand that I mean one specific cat, probably my pet.

Often, you will first refer to something with the indefinite article and then use the definite article with each following mention. This article was written for

For example, I might say, “I walked by a man today,” and then describe him by saying, “the man wore a yellow hat.” If I said, “I walked by a man” and then followed it with “a man wore a yellow hat,” you might think I referred to two different men.

Final Thoughts

Even if you are aware of the general rule that “an” goes with vowels and that “a” goes with consonants, you can still make a mistake if you only look at the word’s spelling. For example, in the case of “union,” using “an” would be incorrect, even though the word begins with a vowel.

Using the correct form requires you to pay attention to the sound the word makes, not just look at its spelling. Thus, if you note the sound of the word, then you will know how to use the indefinite article with “union” correctly.