“A Usual” or “An Usual”: Which Article Should You Use?

“A,” “an,” and “the” function as articles appearing before nouns. “A” and “an” are both indefinite articles because they do not specify which one of anything, while “the” is a definite article indicating the author knows what the noun refers to. When applying indefinite articles, is “a usual” or “an usual” proper grammar?

A usual is correct because the article “a” is used before a singular noun beginning with a consonant sound. Although “an” is normally used before nouns beginning with a vowel sound and “usual” starts with the vowel “u,” it makes a consonant sound like “you” and not a vowel sound, making a the correct article to use.

Although our question specifically addresses the use of “a” or “an” with “usual,” continue reading. We also discuss the definite article “the” along with adjectives and adverbs. 

Which Article Is Used Before “Usual”: “A” or “An”?

Again, since “usual” begins with a consonant sound, “y,” we use the article “a” rather than “an.” The following sentences demonstrate which article is correct between “a usual day” or “an usual day.”

  1. It is a usual day at work. (correct)
  2. It is an usual day at work. (incorrect)
  1. It is a usual day on the playground. (correct)
  2. It is an usual day on the playground. (incorrect)

“Usual” as a Noun or an Adjective

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“Usual” functions as either a noun or an adjective, while “usually” is the adverb form of “usual.”

Adjective

As an adjective, “usual” describes something in a state of consistency. We use it to describe what someone does or what happens most often in a particular situation, such as something familiar or out of custom or habit. 

  • As usual, I went to church on Sunday.
  • I arrived at the church late, as usual.
  • I laid my keys in the usual place.
  • Jack had a usual day at the office.

As a noun, “usual” refers to something ordinary. For instance, a person may eat the same thing for lunch every day. In this case, we can use the definite article “the” since it refers to something specific.

  • Good afternoon miss, will you be having the usual today?
  • I’ll have the usual.

Notice how we can use the definite article “the” before the noun “usual” in informal situations, such as in a restaurant, where the person waiting on you knows what you have on a regular basis.

In addition to articles, we can place possessive determiners like “his” or “my” before “usual” to indicate possession.

“A” vs. “An” Plus “The”

According to Webster’s Dictionary, articles are a small group of words or affixes, particularly “a,” “an,” and “the.” Therefore, when we use these articles with nouns, they limit or give determinacy to the application (source).

Knowing whether to use “a” or “an” before the word “usual,” or any noun for that matter, is not as grammatically straightforward as you may think. So let us first examine the rules for article usage.

AAnThe
Goes before nouns, abbreviations, acronyms, or letters that begin with a consonant sound.Goes before nouns, abbreviations, acronyms, or letters that begin with a vowel sound.Goes before a noun indicating the reader knows the identity of the noun. 

Once again, we use “a” before nouns containing a consonant sound, such as “a boy,” “a book,” “a parrot,” “a university” (sounds like “you”), and “a man.” In this case, “a” goes before singular or noncount nouns and does not specify which one you’re talking about.

The general rule for using “an” is to put it before nouns beginning with a vowel sound, such as “an elephant,” “an hour,” “an ocean,” and “an octopus.” As with “a,” we use “an” in front of singular count nouns (source).

Definite and Indefinite Articles

Both “a” and “an” are indefinite articles and do not refer to any particular one of anything. The following examples will clarify the above rule (source).

  • “A boy” signifies any boy.
  • “An hour” implies any hour.

In contrast, “the” is a definite article as it communicates a particular person, place, or thing. 

  • “The umbrella” indicates a specific umbrella.
  • “The horse” specifies a particular horse.

In this sentence, John is referring to a particular cat, and he might mean his cat or a friend’s cat. In the second sentence, Mary dreams about a particular cow living in a particular pasture.

  • John hopes the cat will return home. 
  • Mary often dreams the cow in the pasture is hers.

“Unusual”: “A” or “An”?

Let’s take a look at the word “unusual” as it is related to “usual.” “Unusual” is the opposite of “usual,” meaning something that is very different from what you may generally find or experience. In other words, you don’t see them every day. The difference between the two words lies in the prefix “un,” which means “not.” 

Furthermore, unlike “usual,” which begins with the consonant sound <y>, “unusual” begins with the short vowel sound <u> such as in umbrella, so we know to use the article “an.”

  1. We found an unusual fish in the pond. (correct)
  2. We found a unusual fish in the pond. (incorrect)
  1. The shell you found is an unusual color. (correct)
  2. The shell you found is a unusual color. (incorrect)

Is It “A Usually” or “An Usually”

This question has a straightforward answer; it is neither because “usually” is an adverb. To understand why it doesn’t take an article, let’s begin by defining an adverb.

Adverbs are words or phrases that modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs. In addition, adverbs also modify a word group that states an interaction of place, manner, time, circumstance, cause, and degree, including “quite,” “then,” “there,” and “gently.” 

  • Mary uses adverbs to spice up a verb or adjective in her writing.
  • Grammatically, adverbs are quite versatile.

Adverbs are generally easy to detect due to the addition of -ly at the end of the word. However, there are exceptions (source).

  • Mary usually attended church.
  • He usually played basketball on Tuesday.
  • Howard usually played golf at Lake Monticello.

Count and Noncount Nouns: “A,” “An,” or “The”?

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A noun is a word we use to refer to a person, place, or thing and is either singular or plural. Grammarians further break down nouns into the following categories: count nouns and mass nouns (noncount nouns).

To further understand the definition of count nouns, they have an infinite quantity beginning with one. Count nouns appear in both singular (just one) and plural (many) forms. For example, we can only use “a” and “an” with count nouns that do not specify anything in particular (source).

However, we can use “the” with either count nouns or noncount nouns, but we cannot pluralize noncount nouns.

Consider the following rules to help you determine which article to use.

Rules for Using “A” or “An”

Use the indefinite article “a” or “an” before a singular count noun, as in the following examples.

Use “a” or “an” when referring to one member of a group or category.

  • I believe an elephant is on the porch.
  • That woman is a liar.
  • Kieran will soon be looking for an apartment.

If you need to indicate that you have one in number rather than more than one, use “a” or “an.”

  • I own a car and two horses.
  • I have a swimming pool and two floats.

Only use “a” before a consonant sound.

  • A toy
  • A hammer

Use “an” before a vowel sound.

  • An umbrella
  • An ear

If you find yourself using the plural form of a noun, “an” or “a” is incorrect. In this instance, you would use the determiner “some,” the plural form of “a” and “an.”

  • An orange
  • Some oranges

There are times when an adjective finds its way in between the article and noun. In this instance, the rule we learned above holds fast but applies to the adjective. Use “a” if the adjective starts with a consonant sound. Likewise, use “an” if the adjective begins with a vowel sound.  

  1. An orange rose (correct)
  2. A orange rose (incorrect)
  1. A happy man (correct)
  2. An happy man (incorrect)   

Rules for Using “The”

When the speaker knows the identity of something, then use “the” whether or not the noun is singular, plural, count, or noncount.

Use “the” if you previously mentioned the noun.

I participated in a pie-eating contest. The coconut custard pie was my favorite.

Use “the” before nouns with a clear or restricted identity.

  • The girl next to me never puts down her phone.
  • I appreciate the gardening advice you gave me.

Use “the” before a noun when denoting that something or someone is unique.

  • Albert Einstein won the Nobel prize.
  • The fiscal budget for next year looks grim.

Rules for Omitting an Article

If you are speaking about something in a general or a broad sense, whether the noun is a count or noncount noun, you will not need to use an article at all. 

  • Flowers bloom in spring. (all flowers)
  • I’m not too fond of tea. (any tea variety)
  • Trees are living beings. (all trees)

To choose the correct article, remember the following: “a,” “an,” and “the” only appear before a noun or adjective. 

Also, take into consideration if the noun is a count or noncount noun. When you know the specific identity of the noun, you use “the.” If the specific identity is unknown, use “a” or “an.” If referring to everything or speaking in general, articles are not necessary (source).

Adjectives and Articles

Adjectives are words that describe both nouns and pronouns. Generally, adjectives describing nouns and pronouns answer questions like “What kind?” “Which one?” and “How many?” (source).

Additionally, the article use follows the same rules that apply to nouns. When the adjective begins with a consonant sound, use “a.” When the adjective begins with a vowel sound, use “an.” If the adjective refers to something with a clear identity, use “the.”  

QuestionAdjective + NounArticle “a,” “an,” “the”
What kind?Big + dog = big dogA big dog chased me. 
Which one?Easy + test = easy testMy teacher gave us an easy test.
How many?Two + dogs = two dogsThe two dogs chased each other.

Problem Words: “A” vs. “An”

As with virtually any rule in English grammar, there will be exceptions, including words beginning with “h,” such as “hour,” “heredity,” and “heir.” The article you use, “a” or “an,” is solely dependent on how we pronounce the word. For instance, the word “hour” begins with a vowel sound, so we use “an.”

  1. Hurry; we only have an hour to get to the restaurant! (correct)
  2. Hurry; we only have a hour to get to the restaurant! (incorrect)

On the other hand, “heredity” begins with a consonant sound.

  1. Flat feet are a hereditary trait. (correct)
  2. Flat feet are an heredity trait. (incorrect)

For more information and clarification on using “an” or “a,” read our article “An Hour” or “A Hour”: Proper Article Use Before Hour. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

When you find yourself unsure about whether to use “a” or “an” before acronyms, this also depends entirely on pronunciation.  Acronyms are words formed from the first letters of a series of words, while initialisms are abbreviations using the first letters of each word of a phrase.

  1. An FBI Agent just came through the door. (initialism)
  2. The policeman had a radar gun. (acronym)

With the advent of the computer age, you may also question which article to use before a URL. I’m sure you’ve already guessed “a” as “URL” begins with the long vowel <u>.

Final Thoughts

This article covered a great deal of information regarding the use of the indefinite articles “a” and “an,” and the definite article “the,” with the word “usual.” In addition, we addressed adverbs, adjectives, and problem words, such as those beginning with the letter “h,” as they relate to article use.

While we spoke about exceptions, the rule that pertains to the sound, vowel or consonant, of the first letter of the word will almost always determine the article you use. If you’re still unsure, say the word plus the article out loud. It sounds crazy, but we can often determine the correct article because it “sounds” correct.

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