A vs. An: Which one do I use?

In English, there are two articles that mean the same thing but are different by one letter: “a” and “an”. These articles are used to show that there is one thing of something. It is also used to show that you’re not talking about something specific.

Examples:

  • Can you give me an apple?
  • I would like to buy a dress.
  • We went to the grocery store to find a box of cereal.

Notice that in these examples, there is only one thing – only one apple, one dress, one box of cereal. Also, you do not know which apple or which dress. There are no details showing you which one. It could be any apple or any dress or any box of cereal.

I know that when you’re trying to learn the big things in English, these small words may seem insignificant. There are a few reasons to learn the difference between these two words and how to use them properly.

  1. Be fluent. When you’re trying to become fluent, you need to identify the small things that you say or pronounce incorrectly so that you can narrow down your errors and mistakes. This will help you get to the point where you’re using less and less mistakes.
  2. Pronunciation. Using these articles correctly helps with correct pronunciation, surprisingly. Using the correct word before others will help you pronounce the following words correctly.
  3. Flow. In the same way that it helps with pronunciation, it also helps with the flow of your English. You will sound less choppy and more smooth when you’re speaking.

So what’s the difference? Which one do you use? Here are the rules:

Use “a” before a word that starts with a consonant. Use “an” before a word that starts with a vowel.

 

If you need a reminder of what a consonant or vowel is:

  • Consonant: all other letters that are not vowels
  • Vowel: the following letters – a, e, i, o , u

We use these articles in the following pattern: “a” or “an” + noun (or phrase indicating a noun) or object.

A/AN + NOUN

Examples of this pattern

  • an apple
  • a desk
  • a bottle of water
  • an elephant
  • an object
  • a piece of cake
  • an umbrella

In each example there is first the article (a/an) and then an object (or noun).

Examples of this pattern with sentences

  • Can you toss me an apple?
  • I just need a desk to work at.
  • She took a bottle of water to work.
  • An elephant is very large.
  • It can be an object of any kind.
  • It is a piece of cake.
  • I really need an umbrella right now.

Notice that the following examples use “a” because the following word starts with a consonant.

  • I just need a desk to work at.
  • She took a bottle of water to work.
  • It is a piece of cake.

Notice that the following examples use “an” because the following word starts with a vowel.

  • Can you toss me an apple?
  • An elephant is very large.
  • It can be an object of any kind.
  • I really need an umbrella right now.

At first when you’re trying to use the right article – a or an – it may take a second to think about which one is correct. Or you may correct yourself after you say the words. That is perfectly okay! It will take time to get used to it. And after time, it will come without you thinking about it. Just practice and practice. Try to correct yourself as you’re speaking or writing.

Exceptions

As always in English, there are a few exceptions to the rules.

  • Use “an” before a word that sounds like it starts with a vowel, such as “an hour”. Notice that in this word, you do not pronounce the “h” so it sounds like it starts with a vowel.
  • Use “a” before a word that sounds like it starts with a consonant, such as “a university.” Notice that in this word, the “u” letter makes a sound that sounds more like it starts with the letter “y”.

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Another v. A Other

Many times in English, native speakers know which word to use but have no idea why. If something is confusing for you as a learner of English, and the English native speaker can’t give you an explanation, it becomes even more confusing! When you can’t find someone to give you an answer, you can become frustrated and easily give up on English. And we don’t want that for you!

So let’s look at one of those confusing sets of words. The difference between “another” and “other” can be confusing since the two words are so similar. The word “other” can literally be found inside the word “another”. Native English speakers switch between these two words without thinking about which one to use. If you pay attention and listen to lots of English, you may be able to do the same without learning the difference. But if you’re like most people, you need to learn the difference in order to know which word to use properly.

Another

The word “another” is used for singular and countable nouns. It almost always comes before a noun. And it refers to something that isn’t specific – simply another something.

Look at the following examples to notice which word has to come after the word “another”.

  • Can you give me another piece of cake?
  • We can do it another day.
  • The two girls still have to catch another train in order to get home.
  • I asked for another sandwich.
  • You can sleep for another hour.

Notice that in these sentences, “another” always comes before a noun (piece, day, train, sandwich, hour) and the noun is singular and countable.

The following examples are INCORRECT.

  • Can you give me another pieces of cake?
  • We can do it another days.
  • The two girls still have to catch another trains in order to get home.
  • I asked for another sandwiches.
  • You can sleep for another hours.

Notice that in the incorrect examples, the nouns are plural. “Another” always refers to one thing (singular).

 

Other

The word “other” is used for plural or uncountable nouns. It almost always comes before a noun. And the noun does not refer to something specific.

Look at the following examples to notice the situations when to use “other”.

  • Other people don’t always notice me.
  • Steve has other information.
  • We can visit my other daughters.

Notice that in these examples, “other” always comes before a noun (people, information, daughters) and the nouns are either plural (people, daughters) or uncountable (information).

Look at the following examples to notice the situations when NOT to use “other”.

  • Another people don’t always notice me.
  • Steve has another information.
  • We can visit another daughters.

Notice that in the incorrect examples, “another” doesn’t make sense because the sentences refer to more than one thing.

 

So remember: “Another” is used for 1) singular and 2) countable nouns. “Other” is used for 1) plural or 2) uncountable nouns.

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Grow Up v. Growing

The girl was growing while she grew up.

How can one sentence have two verbs that look exactly the same? And what does this sentence even mean? “To grow up” (grow up) and “to grow” (growing) are two more words that make up a pair of words in English that mean something different but look almost identical. Make sure to add it to your list!

The most importance difference between these two verbs is that one verb is a phrasal verb – “to grow up.”

Phrasal Verb: a verb that is made up of more than one word and changes the meaning when the combination of words is different

Read more about phrasal verbs and five important phrasal verbs to add to your vocabulary!

“To grow up” is a phrasal verb because of the addition of the word “up” at the end. That one word makes the meaning of this verb be different than the verb “to grow.”

Let’s look at each verb, what they mean, and how you can remember the difference between the two of them.

To Grow

“To grow” means to increase in size because of genetics. Things that we usually use with the verb “to grow” are plants and humans, although you may say that something grows in size. Remember: “to grow” is used for increase in size.

Examples

  • My plants grow really fast when I give them fertilizer with their water.
  • We can grow apples in our yard.
  • I grew three inches in one year.
  • The food is growing in size.
  • My baby is growing so fast!

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To Grow Up

“To grow up” means to increase in maturity, to change from one phase to another. We usually use the verb “to grow up” to talk about children, teenagers, or animals.

Examples

  • My children can’t grow up that fast! I’m not ready!
  • The puppy grew up and became a dog.
  • We can grow up and become adults.
  • My baby is growing up so fast!

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Differences

  1. Grow up is a phrasal verb. Grow is not a phrasal verb.
  2. To grow is to increase in size. To grow up is to increase in maturity.

Similarities

  1. We conjugate and use the two verbs in the same way.
  2. They use the same root word – grow.

 

Remember: “To grow” is to increase in size. “To grow up” is to increase in maturity, even though the word “up” would make you think that they’re getting larger.

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Awhile v. A While Explained

The English language is full of words that are almost exactly the same but since they’re spelled differently, they mean something different. They can even be pronounced the same but mean something different!

Two of the confusing words are “awhile” and “a while”. The only difference is a space between the “a” and the “w”. The only difference! And yet they mean something completely different.

Once you learn the difference between the two words, you’ll be able to use them properly. Note that there probably won’t be a difference when you’re using these two words in speech, since they are pronounced the same. The importance of knowing the difference between these two will be important when you’re writing. For example, if you’re writing an essay or an application for college, then the difference will be important.

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A While

First, let’s look at the word (even though it’s two) “a while”. Literally, the word “while” means a period of time. It is a noun, so you use it as a subject or object (usually object) in the sentence. You can replace “while” with the word “year” or “month” or any period of time.

Examples

  • It’s been a while since I’ve eaten ice cream.
  • For a while, you’ll have to stop eating ice cream.
  • It took a while to not want to eat ice cream.

Usually, these are the top three instances where you’ll use “a while”.

  • It’s been a while ….
  • For a while ….
  • It took a while …

Note that there is also the word “while” which acts as a conjunction (connecting two phrases). For example, “While she was sleeping, I ate ice cream.” In this case, it acts as a different word than “a while”. So be careful not to get confused!

If you’re ever confused or don’t know when to use “a while”, use it if you can replace it with the word “year” or “month” or “hour.”

Examples

  • It’s been a year since I’ve eaten ice cream.
  • For a year, you’ll have to stop eating ice cream.
  • It took a year to not want to eat ice cream.

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Awhile

“Awhile” means the same thing as “a while” – for a time, but it is not a noun. “Awhile” is an adverb, meaning that it is used to describe other words (describe verbs, adjectives, etc). Remember that “awhile” can’t follow a preposition. And you can replace “awhile” with another adverb.

Examples

  • Rest awhile before eating ice cream.
  • Awhile later, I started eating ice cream again.
  • Can you play awhile before eating more ice cream?

If you’re ever confused, use “awhile” if you can replace it with another adverb.

Examples

  • Rest quickly before eating ice cream.
  • Can you play quickly before eating more ice cream?

 

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A While v. Awhile

A while = noun, for a period of time

Awhile = adverb, for a time

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What helps you remember the difference between these two confusing words? Let me know in the comments!

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