Grammar Tip – A or An With Abbreviations

Elfriede’s question: “When you are using abbreviations, how do you know whether to put ‘a’ or ‘an’ in front of them, e.g., ‘a MBA’ or ‘an MBA’? Please help. I’m in health care and we use abbreviations ad nauseam.”

BizWritingTip response: When it comes to using indefinite articles (a or an), it doesn’t matter whether you are spelling the word in full or using an abbreviated form; it is all about the sound – not the spelling.

Use “a” before all words beginning with consonant sounds, including sounded h’s, long u’s (pronounced like “yoo”), and o’s pronounced like w’s (as in the word one).

a day (starts with a consonant)
a union (prounounced as YOO-nion)
a European trip (pronounced as YOO-ropean)
a hotel (starts with a sounded h)
a CGA (starts with a consonant)
a one-week holiday (pronounced Won-week)
a UFO (pronounced as YOO-FO)
a USB key (pronounced YOO-SB)

Use “an” before all vowel sounds — except words that start with a long u (YOO) or a silent h.

an essay (starts with a vowel)
an hour (the “h” is silent)
an MBA degree (pronounced EM BEE A)
an x-ray machine (pronounced EX-ray)
an SOP form (pronounced ES-OP)
an MRI machine (pronounced EM-RI)
an HIV outbreak (pronounced AITCH-IV)

Note: In speech, both an historic occasion and a historic occasion are considered correct. It all depends on how the speaker pronounces the word “historic.” In writing, a historic occasion is more commonly used.