Why Do We Have Both A and An?

How English evolved to give us two indefinite articles ("a" and "an") and the odd mix of possessive pronouns that don't quite match.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
Episode #376

A and An

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how words such as “adder,” “apron,” and “umpire” originally began with the letter “n,” which was lost when phrases such as “a nadder,” “a napron,” and “a noumpere” were rebracketed as “an adder,” “an apron,” and “an umpire.” I also talked about how nouns such as “nickname” and “notch” originally didn’t begin with “n,” but gained one when phrases such as “an ekename” and “an otch” were rebracketed into “a nickname” and “a notch.” All these changes were possible because the indefinite article has two forms: “a” and “an.”

In addition to these common nouns, I talked about how some proper nouns such as “Ned” and “Nell” were created when the affectionate phrases “mine Ed” and “mine Ellen” underwent a similar rebracketing. 

If you go back a step though, you start to wonder why we have these alternative forms, “a” and “an,” and “my” and “mine,” that led to the rebracketings. And why do we still say, for example, “an apple” instead of “a apple,” when we don’t say “mine apple” instead of “my apple”? 

Also See: “A” Versus “An”

“An” Is Older than “A”

Of the two forms of the indefinite article, “an” is the older one. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it comes from the Old English word for “one,” which was pronounced something like “on.” However, when the word wasn’t stressed, the “ah” vowel was shortened, so that “an” was pronounced more or less as “un,” as it still is today. Unlike today though, “an” was used before words beginning with vowels and words beginning with consonants. The form “a,” which is what we now use before consonant sounds, came about as a phonetic simplification: Without the “n” right next to a consonant at the beginning of a word, pronunciation is easier. 


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg school board. You an find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.

The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.