A Year or An Year - Which one is grammatically correct?

grammar Jan 31, 2022
a year or an year

A year or an year - Detailed Explanation

The words "a" and "an" are called indefinite articles. You probably know what a newspaper article is and maybe you've heard someone say "an article of clothing". But if you don't know what the word "article" means in the context of English grammar, let me explain. Articles are a class of words we use with noun phrases.

The word "the" is called a definite article and refers to something the speaker has already mentioned or something that is uniquely specified. On the other hand, "a" and "an" are indefinite articles that do not refer to a specific identifiable entity and are used to introduce a new noun phrase that can be referred back to later.

A year ago vs An year ago

The main confusion between the phrases "a year" and "an year", as well as phrases like "a year ago" and "an year ago", is that the letter Y is considered both a consonant and a vowel simultaneously in English. Consonants are letters like B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, etc. And when a school teacher asks a pupil which letters are vowels, the rule is "A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y". No wonder it's so confusing!

Most school children and adults who study English in language schools around the world learn the following rule:

  • "a" comes before a consonant and "an" comes before a vowel

But there are two problems. First of all, that's not the real rule - it's just a simplified version of that rule. Second of all, we still don't know if Y is a consonant or a vowel.

Article before year 

The article we put before the word year depends on the first sound of the word.

  • If the first sound of any word is a consonant sound, then we should put "a" before it, and if the first sound of any word is a vowel sound, then we should put "an" before it. The rule about which article goes before which word depends on the first sound of the word, not the first letter of the word.

So, is the letter Y a consonant or a vowel? And does it make a consonant sound or a vowel sound?

In the word "day" it makes a short "e" sound /ɪ/, which is a vowel sound. But in the word "yellow" it makes the /j/ sound, which most English speakers would call "a Y sound", and which is a consonant sound.

Why don't we use “an” before “year”?

In the word "year" the letter Y makes a consonant sound. The rule of indefinite articles is that the word "a" goes before consonant sounds and the word "an" goes before vowel sounds. Since the letter Y makes a consonant sound in the word "year", we should use the word "a" before it, not the word "an".

How does Oxford Dictionary explain this?

There are many different dictionaries that can be used to check this rule and North American English, British English, and Australian English all agree on this rule. The Merriam-Webster dictionary is one of the most popular dictionaries in North American and the Oxford dictionary is one of the most popular dictionaries in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The Oxford dictionary agrees that "a" is used before consonant sounds and "an" before vowel sounds. When saying abbreviations like "FM" or "UN", use "a" or "an" according to how the first letter is said. For example, F is a consonant letter, but begins with the sound /e/, which is a vowel sound, so it's correct to say "an F".

Example sentences

My favorite examples of how the rule with "a" and "an" works focus on words that people often make mistakes with.

  • an MP3 (the first sound of M is /e/)
  • an hour (the H is silent)
  • a European (the first sound of the word is /j/)
  • a university (the first sound of the word is /j/)

Here are some example sentences:

  • I've just downloaded an MP3 to my phone.
  • The speed limit on this road is 20 kilometers an hour.
  • I'll see you at the café in an hour!
  • I met a European man yesterday.
  • Is there a university in your city?