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An Uncle or a Uncle: Which is Correct?

A wise person once said, “An Uncle is like a Dad, only cooler.” Maybe you agree, or perhaps you don’t. But still, you’ll need to know how to refer to your parent’s brothers and your aunt’s husband.

“An uncle” is the correct way to refer to your uncle or someone else’s uncle. This is because “uncle” is a singular noun that starts with a vowel sound. When you write singular words that begin with a vowel sound, you’ll need to use the article “an.” You only use the article “a” with singular words that begin with a consonant sound.

“A” and “an” are articles that change use depending on the noun that follows them. That may seem a bit confusing, so keep reading to learn more.

Understanding Determiners and Articles

You will typically put a determiner before the word “uncle.” You use determiners before a noun to show quantity, ownership, or specificity. There are four types of determiners:

  1. Articles (a, an, the)
  2. Demonstratives (this, those, that, these)
  3. Possessives (my, her, his, ours, yours, etc.)
  4. Quantifiers (much, many, few, etc.)

If you’re asking about “a uncle” versus “an uncle,” the plural form doesn’t matter because “a” and “an” are articles that you’ll only use before singular nouns, such as “uncle.” 

Using Articles With Nouns

Articles are one of the four determiners, and there are two types of articles: definite articles and indefinite articles.

In English, we have only three articles. The first two are indefinite articles (“a” and “an”), while the third is the definite article (the) which you’ll use to refer to something specifically. 

Articles also fulfill two of the purposes of determiners — they can show quantity and specificity, and, sometimes, they show both. This is the case with both “a” and “an.”

“A” and “An” are what we know as indefinite articles. This is because, unlike the definite article “the,” they don’t refer to anything specific. 

“I’d love the dress” refers to one particular dress. Conversely, “I’d love a dress” refers to wanting any dress, not a specific one.

“A” and “an” are unique because you can only use them in the singular tense. So the nouns following “a” or “an” cannot be plural.

  • They were like a uncles to me. Х
  • He was like an uncle to me. ✔

 This is different from “the,” which you can follow with either a singular or a plural noun. 

  • The uncle in movies is always evil. ✔
  • He meant more to me than all the uncles in the universe. ✔

This raises an important question, however. If “uncle” is singular, how do you know whether to use “a” or “an”? Well, that depends on the sound following it. And in English, there are two overarching categories of sounds.  

Using Articles With Vowel Sounds vs. Consonant Sounds

You will always use “a” before a consonant sound and “an” before a vowel sound, which is why “a uncle” is incorrect while “an uncle” is correct. 

Let’s look at vowel sounds first because there are fewer vowel sounds than consonants.

Vowels may already be familiar to you. In English, there are five vowel letters, including “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” “u,” and, at certain times, “y” can function as a vowel. These letters generally produce vowel sounds, and any letters that are not vowels are consonants.

You make vowel sounds when you say letters without restricting your airflow — i.e., you won’t end up closing your mouth (source). Try practicing with the sounds below. 

IPA SymbolSoundExamples
eE(h)Send, Bed, Rent
æA(h)Pass, Flat, Happen
ʌUCup, Uncle, Love
ʊOuWolf, Good, Could
ɒAwWant, Hot, Sausage
əUhSpecial, About, A (unstressed)
iyEeFreezer, Reason, Ski
ɪIBit, Build, History
AiFamous, Train, Straight
uwOoFood, Fruit, Neutral

In short, vowel sounds typically begin with a vowel. The word “uncle” begins with the vowel “u,” which produces a vowel sound. 

However, there are some exceptions. For example, think of the word “hour.” It begins with a vowel sound while still starting with a consonant letter, “h,” so you will always write “an hour,” not “a hour.”

There are also words that you wouldn’t use “an” for because, despite the word beginning with a vowel, it may not begin with a vowel sound. These nouns typically begin with the letters “j” or “w” in the phonetic alphabet.

You can find “ju” (a “yoo” sound) at the start of words like “university” and  “euphoria” and “w” at the start of “one” and “ouija.” This means that you would precede these words with the article “a” instead of “an:” 

  • He was a university student.
  • It was a euphoric moment.

Even though the above words begin with a vowel letter, the initial sound is a consonant sound, and the sound is what matters when making the determination to use “a” versus “an.”

Image by Gift Habeshaw via Unsplash

Understanding the Various Uses for “Uncle”

The word uncle is likely one you’re very familiar with. If you say “my uncle,” you’re referring to either:

  1. Your mother or father’s brother
  2. Your mother or father’s sibling’s husband

When you use “uncle” in this way, there are two types: maternal and paternal.

Maternal means that the uncle is from your mother’s side of the family, while paternal shows that the uncle is related to your father instead. You may notice this pattern in other words in the English language, such as maternity, paternity, matriarch, patriarch, etc.

However, you can use “uncle” in other ways as well. 

For example, you may refer to an important older male figure in your life as an “uncle” because you’re trying to show this person is close to you and you have a familial relationship:

  • Uncle Peter isn’t really my uncle, but that doesn’t change anything.

And in some cultures, people often address males that are older as “Uncle (name),” “(name) uncle,” or just plain “uncle” (source). When they use it like this, the word can function in two different ways.

You can use “uncle” to refer to a male older than you who you don’t know well or don’t want to name specifically:

  • The boy’s uncle, who lives next door, can be mean.
  • The uncles had snuck off to watch the football match.
  • My dad invited some of our uncles over for tea.

Or, the word can refer to a specific individual:

  • Uncle Raj is my favorite.
  • Prem Uncle always bought gifts when he came to visit.
  • Uncle,” I said hesitantly, “the line starts over there.”

The word “uncle” is also a slang term that refers to pawnbrokers (source). A pawnbroker is an individual or business that offers a loan while keeping a personal item for collateral. However, “uncle” in this context only applies to an individual rather than the business as a whole.

While all these uses for the term have different purposes, they are each the same part of speech. This raises another question, is “uncle” a noun or an adjective?

Uncle: Is It a Noun or an Adjective?

Despite what it may seem, uncle is a noun. Some people get confused because often you’ll see someone referred to as “Uncle Kevin.” You may assume “uncle” is a descriptive word ahead of the noun “Kevin,” but “uncle” is functioning as a title. 

The noun then consists of two words. The complete noun is “Uncle Kevin.” It is not an adjective attached to the noun.

Keep in mind, when you use “uncle” as a title, it requires a capital “u,” making it a proper noun. Otherwise, if you’re using the word “uncle” alone, it will usually be lowercase. The only exception is when “uncle” is the first word in your sentence.

  • Uncle James had a strange way of seeing the world.
  • Uncles are like fathers but cooler!
  • I told my uncle to leave me alone.

Remember, too, that “uncle” is not just any noun. It’s a countable noun. This means that it has both a plural and a singular form. This is different from uncountable nouns which have no units — think of words like “sugar,” “tea,” and “happiness.”

Uncle, Uncles, or Uncle’s: Understanding Plurals and Possession

When it comes to the word “uncle,” the singular form is “uncle,” while the plural form is “uncles.”

You should make sure not to confuse “uncles” with “uncle’s.” “Uncle’s,” with an apostrophe, is a way to show possession when something belongs to your or another’s uncle. You can see this in the sentences below:

  • Her uncle’s house is every gamer’s dream.
  • I’d never been to my uncle’s farm before.

“Uncle’s” can also be a contraction of “uncle+is.” However, this isn’t something you would normally use while writing. Rather, it’s a contraction that only really comes across naturally while speaking.

Bear in mind, part of why you should avoid this use in writing is because it can be confusing. Think of the fragment below:

  • My uncle’s home.

If you use the apostrophe for a contraction, you are saying your uncle is at home. If you’re using it for possession, you’re saying he owns the home.

If you’d like to understand a bit more about the different uses of apostrophes and how to use them correctly, make sure to look at the article “Today or Today’s: Which Is Correct?”

Another point to keep in mind is that when you use “uncle’s” and “uncles,” there is rarely a name directly following. The only exceptions might be sentences like the ones below:

  • My uncles, Peter and Tommy, were prone to mischief.
  • Katy told me that her uncle’s deodorant smells like musk.

Remember, the word “uncles” (no apostrophe) is a way to refer to many uncles and is simply the plural form of the word:

  • All of my uncles made sure to visit that day.
  • Each of her uncles was crazier than the next.

Showing Possession with Plurals

You may be wondering how you show possession when dealing with a plural noun such as “uncles.” It is incorrect to write “uncless.” 

The way to get around that is through using an apostrophe. You’ll attach it to the end of a plural noun ending with an -s.

  • My uncles’ families were all stunning.

You’ll note that the only difference here is that when showing possession with a plural noun, the apostrophe does not appear before the -s but rather after.  

Review: Is It “an Uncle” or “a Uncle”?

In short, remember that the singular noun “uncle” begins with the vowel “u” and the vowel sound “ʌ” (which sounds like “uh”). 

If a singular noun begins with a vowel sound, you will always use “an,” regardless of whether or not the letter itself is a vowel. If the word begins with a consonant sound, you’ll use the article “a” instead. 

Idioms: Uncle as an American Idiom

An idiom that consists of the word “uncle” is to say or cry “uncle!” This is an American idiom. If you say/cry “uncle,” it means you surrender or admit defeat. Remember that idioms are simply phrases that are more an expression than a phrase that you can deduce the meaning of from its independent words.

  • Ron was the first to cry uncle in hide and seek.
  • I refused to say uncle, no matter how much they begged me.

This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

If someone wants you to say uncle, they want you to give up or stop what you are doing.  Usually, you would use this phrase in jest. You might hear a child cry “uncle!” if they would like their uncle to stop tickling them, for example. 

Final Thoughts

Remember that a word like “uncle,” which begins with a vowel sound, needs an “an.” While words starting with consonant sounds require the article “a.”

Articles can be confusing. There’s no question about it. So, before you decide what article to use, simply ask yourself a couple of questions.

Is the noun singular or plural? If it’s singular, you can use “a,” “an,” or “the.” If it’s plural, you’re limited to “the.”