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“A” vs “An”

This morning I received an email from a friend who knows a lot about grammar and punctuation. I was surprised that her message included the phrase “a MS word specialist.”

It should have been “an MS word specialist” because “MS” is pronounced “em ess.” Words that begin with a vowel sound should be preceded by the article an–not the article a. Examples:

an application
an estimate
an idea
an overcharge
an unobstructed view

Some abbreviations begin with a consonant, but the consonant is pronounced with an opening vowel sound. These also are preceded by an:

an MBA
an HTML newsletter
an LCD projector
an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope)

My friend’s use of “MS Word specialist” fell into that category.

In contrast, some words begin with a vowel–but not a vowel sound. These are preceded by the article a.


a uniform (begins with a “y” sound, like this: “yooniform”)
a Oaxacan gallery (begins with a “w” sound, like this: “wahacan”)
a URL (pronounced U-R-L)

After reading my friend’s message, I was thinking about writing this post about a and an. But I had some other work to do first, revising our website. Working on that project, I couldn’t believe what I found: an a/an error in my own site!

One page included the phrase “a 85-page manual.” Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

What had happened? How had I made that mistake? It was easy. You see, the manual used to be 70 pages long, and it was written like this: “a 70-page manual.” When I last updated that web page, I changed the page number, but I forgot to change the article to an. It should have read “an 85-page manual.”

Drat! An error! A mistake! And an MS Word grammar and spellcheck would have caught it if I had only completed one.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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