An versus A, I

Why It Should Not Take a Hour to Get to an Hospital

by Owen Fourie

Part One of ornets and ospitals

“An ornet’s nest!” cried my highly allergic Cockney friend.

“I’ve been stung,” he wailed. “Quick! Get me to an ospital; we must get there within an hour, or …”


“Fssst! Meowww!”

Really! Did he have to faint on my cat?

We made it to a hospital in much less than an hour. He’s fine now (so is the cat), but I have to deal with another hornets’ nest—the a-or-an-before-h kind.

Much has been written about this problem—not without some stinging!

As I wrote this, it became a little longer than I originally intended. Consequently, the a-or-an-before-h problem will receive attention in Part Two of this post.

In the first part, let’s prepare the way with a good grasp of the articles of the English language. They’re common, and we use them countless times each day, but do we use them correctly? Let’s find out.

Three little words and their pronunciation

English has three articles. In grammar, we understand that an article is a part of speech that points to the noun.

There is one definite article (the) and two indefinite articles (a and an).


The function of the is to indicate a definite thing: the hospital. It is the specific hospital that you know, the one that you will go to if there is a need to do so.

The opening sound of the word that follows the determines the pronunciation of the:

  • The followed by a consonant sound is pronounced thuh: thuh bee;
  • The followed by a vowel sound is pronounced thee: thee examination;


The function of a is to indicate an indefinite thing: a hospital. It is not the specific hospital that you will use, but any one of a number of hospitals.

This article is used before a consonant sound, not a vowel sound.

You pronounce a mostly without emphasis and only occasionally with emphasis.

  • Without emphasis, a becomes a schwa, a vowel sound that is lightly pronounced. The a in coma and comma is this sound.
  • With emphasis, a rhymes with bay and day. It is the same sound as the name of the letter A.

On our way to hospital, I saw that the gas gauge was indicating near empty. I might have said to my friend, quite casually and without emphasis, “We have a problem.” That would have been the sensible way of speaking.

To the contrary, I was affected by his stress and said, “We have ay problem.” In writing, it would still be, “we have a problem,” so it is in speaking that the emphasis is given.


The function of an is also to indicate an indefinite thing: an ospital (allowing for the Cockney accent). Being a visitor to the area, my friend wasn’t aware of a specific hospital.

This article is used before a vowel sound, not a consonant sound.

You might think that an should rhyme with can, fan, and man, and it does, except that its sound is shorter and crisper than the sound in those three words.

In rapid speech, the sound of an can be reduced to a schwa preceding the n. This will cause it to rhyme with the second syllable in Buchan (Sir John Buchan, 1875 – 1940, Scottish novelist, historian and politician).

Living without the, a, and an

Without these little words in your speech and in your writing, your listeners and readers will know that something is lacking.

People who use English as a second or foreign language are quickly identified by the non-use or misuse of the articles.

Even if you are a native English speaker, you will benefit by a closer look at these everyday words.

Perhaps you are having issues with the use of a and an. This post has prepared the way for you to resolve such problems as you read the concluding part of “ornets and ospitals” in the next post.


What problems have you experienced with the use of the definite and the indefinite articles? Do you need further clarification? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

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