'A historic' or 'an historic'? 'A FBI agent' or 'An FBI agent'? 'A AAA-rated hotel' or 'an AAA-rated hotel'?

English has just two indefinite articles and the choice between them is usually easy. “A” precedes a consonant sound: a cat, a truck, a man. “An” precedes a vowel sound: an idea, an octopus, an intelligent octopus.

Usually, a word starts with a vowel sound because it starts with a vowel — an umpire —or it starts with a consonant sound because it starts with a consonant — a referee. But not always. The word “university,” for example, starts with a consonant sound: Y. That’s why you say “a university” and not “an university.”

Even in these cases, “a” and “an” are easy for native English speakers.

Sometimes an indefinite article that comes naturally when you’re speaking can make you second-guess yourself when you’re writing. For example, some struggle with the question of which article to use before an abbreviation like “FBI.” F is a consonant and it stands for a word that begins with a consonant sound, “federal.” But when you say the letter F, you start with a vowel sound: “eff.” That’s why when you’re speaking, you say “an FBI agent” and not “a FBI agent.”

Whether speaking or writing, the rule is based on pronunciation. So you’d write “an FBI agent.”

People disagree on how to handle “historic.” But there’s no wrong answer. If you treat the H as silent or nearly silent, you can use “an historic.” People who prefer this method point out that, because “historic” puts the stress on its second syllable, “stor,” the first syllable is all but lost without “an” in front of it. People who pronounce the H use “a historic.”

The Associated Press Stylebook, which I follow in my editing work, says it’s “a historic.” So that’s how I do it. The guide for book and magazine publishers, the Chicago Manual of Style, is less rigid: “The word ‘historical’ and its variations cause missteps, but if the H in these words is pronounced, it takes an A (an hour-long walk at a historical society).”

The oddest case of all is the abbreviation for the American Automobile Association. Is it “an AAA” or “a AAA”? The answer in my recent column.

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