Many students know the difficulty of writing an essay with the necessary dates to mark important events. Is it “a year” or “an year?” Which article comes before the word “year,” and when is it appropriate to use a different article?
In the word “year,” the “y” is used as a consonant, so “a” would be the correct article to precede it. “A” is not the only article that you can use before “year,”. The rule of using “an” before a word is dependent on the vowel sound of the word that follows. The letter “y” functions as both a vowel and a consonant, conditional on its usage.
Despite articles being short one- to three-letter words, they provide a lot of information about the subject or object in your sentence. Keep reading to discover when to use “a,” “an,” and “the” before the word “year.”
Is It “A” Year or “An” Year?
We have gone through quite a few rules thus far, and these should also be applied to the word “year.”
First, you need to examine the spelling of the word. “Year” begins with the letter “y,” and “y” is a consonant. The letter “y” is only considered a vowel when it helps to create the sound of a syllable that is not provided by traditional vowels (source).
Examples of “y” used as a vowel are in words like gym, system, candy, and acrylic. When “y” is used to start a sentence, it always functions as a consonant, as the sound created is different from its use as a vowel.
Second, you need to listen to the sound that begins the word to decide if the word needs an “a” or “an” article.
According to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the word “year” is pronounced /jɪɹ/. That means that it starts with a “ye” sound. Once again, the sound matches the rule of consonants and does not function as a vowel.
Third, we refer to article usage. A year is a singular count noun, and, therefore, it should be preceded by “a” or “an.” This rule is imperfect as the usage of “year” can change depending on the context.
We now have two grammatically correct reasons for why the word “year” should be preceded by an “a” instead of “an.” Therefore, the correct phrasing will always be “a year” and not “an year” in a case where there is no reference to a specific year.
The word “year” is not the most complicated point in the article debate. As mentioned earlier, words that begin with consonants should take the “a” article.
Still, what should you do with a noun that begins with a consonant letter but is pronounced as though it begins with a vowel or vice versa when the word begins with a vowel but we pronounce it with a consonant letter?
The Oxford New Essential Dictionary is a wonderful resource to keep track of all these words, along with their pronunciations. It can be found on Amazon and is worth every penny.
When using “a” and “an” the pronunciation of the word takes precedence over the spelling. Therefore, there are certain words where the first letter is not pronounced and the correct article would thus change.
Some examples are words like “hour,” “honesty,” and “homage.” Even though all of these words begin with a consonant, their pronunciation forces us to utilize “an,” given the initial vowel sound.
The word “hour” is pronounced like “our.” The “h” in “honesty” and “homage” is silent as well, pronounced “onesty” and “omage,” respectively.
- He is an honest man.
- It is going to be an hour before we get home.
- This painting is an homage to my muse.
Some variations to this rule exist, depending on regional accents. For example, in American English, and generally all over the world, the word “hotel” is pronounced with a strong “h” sound.
The word “hotel” originated from the French word and was initially pronounced without the “h.” This pronunciation is considered archaic now but is still used in some parts of Britain, especially with the classic “Cockney” accent.
In this scenario, saying “an ‘otel” would technically be correct, but it might confuse listeners.
Another common place where “an” is correct is for initials that begin with M or N. Since initials need to be pronounced by using each individual letter, M is pronounced “em” and N is pronounced “en.”
Acronyms like NBC and MP3 would be preceded by “an” because their pronunciation begins with a vowel sound.
In contrast, there are quite a few words that begin with a vowel but are pronounced with a consonant sound. Words that begin with “u” and “eu” generally fall under this banner as they are pronounced as “yu.”
- A uniformed officer walked in.
- A pound is a unit of measurement.
- She was in a euphoric mood.
For native English speakers, the “a” and “an” article rule is easy to follow, even though the reasoning behind it may be effusive. When “a” and “an” are used incorrectly, it simply sounds wrong.
But for anyone who struggles with this, have a look at the handy table below.
|Rule||Pronunciation||Examples||Correct Article to Use|
|Irregular words where the first consonant letter is silent||The first consonant is silent.||Hour, Honest, Homage||An|
|An initialism that begins with M or N||Em and En||MP3, MA, NBA, NGO, NHS||An|
|A word that begins with “u” or “eu”||Yu||Unit, Uniform, Unicorn, Euthanasia||A|
You should have developed some understanding of “a” and “an” now, but that is not the only article that can be used before “year.”
Dreyer’s English style guide is another excellent resource for those nitpicky writing issues that all of us experience. The convenient guide is available on Amazon.
Is It “A” Year or “The” Year?
“The year” versus “a year,” which one is correct? Both, actually. But the usage is dependent on context. The word “year” refers to the unit of time it takes for a planet to travel around the sun. It is a noun.
“A year” is more appropriate when referring to the year generally. The year does not specifically have to be the current time period that the speaker or writer is presently in, although it can be.
“A year” can also be used to refer to the specific measurement of time — in our context, about 365 days.
- It has been a terrible year.
- What a year it has been!
- I guess I’ll see you in a year’s time.
“The year” is used to refer to a specific year, whether it is the current year or future and past years. When using “the year,” the reader or listener generally understands what year is referred to.
- This is the year when we’ll meet.
A reader would understand that in this context, the writer is specifying this particular year as the time when the action will take place.
- The year 2020 has been the absolute worst!
This sentence is technically correct, but it includes some tautology since the reader would understand that the number 2020 is referring to a year without prefacing it.
- It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
This sentence comes from the well-known Andy Williams Christmas carol. Listeners automatically understand that it refers to a specific time in any year.
The difference between “a year” and “the year” is a subtle one. The easiest way to tell them apart is to think of “a year” as a unit of measurement and a non-specific noun, while “the year” refers to a specific noun that the reader or audience would be aware of (source).
If anything else is confusing you about the word “years,” check out the article “What Is the Difference Between Years and Year’s?” to more fully understand the correct usage of the word.
The Form and Function of an Article
There are three articles: “a,” “an,” and “the.” An article is a part of speech that determines a noun. In layman’s terms, an article tells the reader or audience about its relationship to the noun.
An indefinite article refers to something unknown or general, while a definite article refers to something specific. When you use an article in conjunction with a noun, it creates a noun phrase (source).
“A” and “an” have the same functions, while “the” differs slightly.
Indefinite Articles: A and An
An indefinite article is used only when the noun is something that is unknown to the reader or when the noun is a general concept or status. “A” and “an” have several functions within language and can be used for specific lexical fields (source).
First, “a” or “an” should always be placed in front of jobs or occupations. When describing someone’s occupation, you need to use an indefinite article.
- She is a doctor.
- John is a writer.
- Sheila is an astronaut.
Trying to write these sentences without the article makes them sound silly. You will also notice that in the third sentence, we used “an” instead of “a.” This is because of the vowel sound that starts the word “astronaut.”
If you recall, vowels are “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” “u,” and in some cases “y,” although it is not strictly considered a vowel (source). The easiest rule of thumb here is that if a noun starts with “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” or “u,” then the article “an” should be used before it.
If the noun starts with any other letter of the alphabet besides a vowel, then the article “a” should be used instead.
Occupations are not the only words that need indefinite articles. Singular nouns are always preceded by an indefinite article unless they have another determiner, such as “my,” “his,” or “hers,” etc.
When referring to something which is unknown to the reader or audience or something that is part of a group, then “a” and “an” can be used.
|Singular Noun Sentence Examples||Plural Noun Sentence Examples|
|I played a game recently.||I played some games recently.|
|I can’t believe I’m going to become an aunt.||I can’t believe we’re going to become aunts.|
|A goose stole my lunch!||These geese stole my lunch!|
In all of these examples, the noun is singular and non-specific, as in a game and a goose, or part of a group, where an aunt is part of the family lexical field.
As soon as the noun becomes plural, the article either falls away or some other determiner/adverb is used to replace it.
Definite Article: The
The definite article “the” is utilized when the reader or audience knows the subject or object the writer or speaker is referring to.
- Sophia is going to the school dance.
- The cat is sleeping on the bed.
- Did you see where I left the book?
In all of these examples, the reader is already aware of the context surrounding the subjects or objects — which dance Sophia is going to, which cat is being referred to, and the book that’s been lost.
The table below is a quick way of checking when and whether each article should be used:
|Identity unknown/part of a group||A or An||An apple fell from the tree.||No article used||Apples fell from the tree.|
|Identity known||The||The man walked into the room.||The||The men walked into the room.|
|General things||No article used||I’d like some coffee, please.||No article used||Flowers are loveliest in summer.|
The only thing that can change the usage of “a” or “an” at a specific point is if the adjective used before the subject starts with a vowel or consonant.
For example, a correct sentence would look like this:
- That is an elephant.
Since “e” is a vowel, “an” is the correct article used. If you describe the elephant as huge, then the sentence would have to read, “That is a huge elephant.”
Although the subject begins with a vowel, the adjective does not. Therefore, the usage of “a” or “an” is dependent on the word directly after it.
Sentences like “Are you going to the party?” and “Have you ever been to a party?” may sound similar but have very different meanings.
Articles can tell us so much about the subject, as in this case – whether I have been invited to the party, or whether I’m aware of what happens at parties. Now, though, you definitely know the difference between “a year” and “an year,” so you’ll know exactly when that party is taking place!
Knowing the difference between articles, and the correct way to use them, ensures that your sentences will be both clear and correct.