a/an and the : pronunciation

Lorena from Venezuela writes:

How and when do you differentiate the pronunciation of a, an and the?

Roger Woodham replies:


The is pronounced with an e sound, as in bee or flea, before a noun or adjective beginning with a vowel or a vowel sound, so we would say:

  • In the ark, the angry ants, the antelopes, the elephants, the iguanas, the ostriches and the unhappy hippos all knew that the hour had come. It was time to go to sleep.

The is pronounced with an er sound, as in mother, father, brother, before a noun or an adjective beginning with a consonant or a consonant sound, so we would say:

  • The bank and the post office are in the High Street next to the university building.

Now practise these sentences, each of which contains two pronunciations of the with the e sound and two pronunciations of the with the er sound.

  • The Irish and the Welsh forwards were fitter and faster than the English and the Scots.

  • In the qualifiers for the World Cup the Argentine team was the only one to win all their matches. Is this true?

  • The FBI agent and the FIFA official were arguing about the best tickets for the Italy and the Brazil match. (Note that the F in FBI starts with a vowel sound, as in when or then, whereas the F in FIFA starts with a consonant sound as it is pronounced as one word)

  • Neither the one-pound coin nor the two-pound coin could be used in the amusement arcade at the airport. (Note that the o in one is pronounced as a consonant sound as in won.)

  • The RSPCA and the NSPCC are concerned about the protection of animals and the prevention of cruelty to children. (Note that the R in RSPCA starts with a vowel sound as in car or far and that the N in NSPCC also starts with a vowel sound as men or hen.)

  • The RSPCA is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the NSPCC is the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Did you notice how much easier it is to say the, as in see, rather then the, as in brother, when a vowel sound follows, the Irish, rather than the Irish? Note how the first pronunciation just flows off the tongue, whereas the second one doesn't.

Note that all abbreviations said as individual letters which begin with A, E, F, H, I, L, M, N, O, R, S, or X are pronounced as vowel sounds. They are therefore preceded by the as in see and an, rather than a, see below.



A is normally pronounced unstressed as er as in mother, father, brother.

  • Can I use a pen or a pencil on this form? ~ A pen is best. You should use a ball-point or a fountain pen.

If we wish to stress it, we can pronounce it as ay, as in say or day, though this is rather unusual:

  • It was a breathtaking performance!
    It was a magnificent achievement!

We might stress a in this way if the circumstances are unusual and we want to savour every syllable.

A or an?

Whether we use a or an depends upon the pronunciation of the following adjective or noun, not on the spelling. If the adjective or noun starts with a vowel sound, even if it is written as a consonant, we use an:

  • What did you have for lunch today? ~ I had an apple, an orange and an enormous pizza.

  • If you want to do an honest day's work you will need to be at your desk for longer than an hour and a half.

  • An MP at Westminster paid for his lunch with an IOU the other day as he had neither money nor credit cards in his pocket.

An MP is a Member of Parliament and an IOU is an I-owe-you. Note how in pronunciation the n in an flows on to, and almost becomes attached to, the following adjective or noun. An MP becomes a Nem P, an honest day's work becomes a nonest day's work.

If the adjective or noun starts with a consonant sound, even if it is written as a vowel, we use a:

  • A university education for a child coming from a one-parent family was unusual.

  • A European network of contacts for a successful businessman is essential.

If you would like more practice more please visit our in the You, Me and Us part of our website.