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Is it A or An?

I’m a graphic designer and a customer wants the sentence: “I’m a M&M peanut.” I say it should be an because even though vowels preceed consanants, the sound dictates. It’s not mother or mouth, but “EM” the sound of the letter. That makes it a vowel to me.

  • January 28, 2004
  • Posted by chuck
  • Filed in Usage

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yep, you're right 'an M&M'

oli January 28, 2004, 3:00pm

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YES! I thought so. I had half a dozen co-workers all saying that out loud. No one could say for certain. Man, being right rules!

Chuck January 28, 2004, 9:05pm

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i think it's definitely 'an' M&M

because M, as every scrabble player knows, is pronounced "em" (it's a scrabble word, used often lamely and pathetically)

usually the choice of a/an goes with the sound of the following word, not whether or not there is actually a vowel at it's beginning.

for example, you would always say
"i'll be back in an hour"
not "a" hour,
even though h is certainly a consonant.


silvana February 4, 2004, 12:43am

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since silvana mentions "an hour," can someone explain why, in the last few years, people have started saying "an hotel" instead of "a hotel" -- it was always one, now the other, and it sounds weird!

carriegood February 4, 2004, 2:57pm

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Jesus, are you kidding? I thought that pronuciation went out in the Elizabethan era. For what it's worth, I think "an hotel" is an affected pseudo-Englishism favored by American Anglomaniacs.

speedwell2 February 5, 2004, 8:26am

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I'm AN M&M peanut

louise February 5, 2004, 2:32pm

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To say "I'm a M&M peanut" to me sounds like ebonics.

LiMing February 8, 2004, 5:40pm

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He's simply hung up on the spelling. Fix your customer's cognitive dysfunction this way:

Tell him about the different dashes in typesetting. He probably won't know whether you are talking about an "N" or "en" dash, or an "M" or "em" dash, since English is obviously not his strong suit. Ask him which sounds better, "a" or "an" en dash or em dash.

If he is a Cockney and persists in calling the smallest dash "an 'yphen," you are lost. Give up.

speedwell2 February 10, 2004, 9:42am

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Not just hotel. I often (well, not TOO often) hear people referring to "an hallucination".

Anonymous April 7, 2004, 3:31am

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An M&M. An hotel. An hallucination. Unless I'm in the company of those who already feel under-educated. In which case I use 'a M&M' in order to better communicate with them.

M Stevenson April 11, 2004, 2:10am

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MS, in Australia you don't pronounce the initial H in hotel or hallucination, do you?

speedwell2 April 12, 2004, 11:30am

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hehe.... just get the client to sign off on the proofs and let him have what he wants.... :P Hopefully someone higher up the ladder at his company will send him off on a series of horrible courses to learn how to speak the English language properly.

Martin June 28, 2004, 11:51pm

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An historic moment?

Jun-Dai June 29, 2004, 7:30pm

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Definitely "AN" M&M. Of course, by pointing this out to your client, you risk insulting her and/or losing the job. If it were me, I'd do it, just because I can't abide ignorance - especially when the person should know better, because she's getting paid a boat-load of money.

You might also point out that doing it correctly now will save M&M Mars the expense of an "answer" campaign, such as the "Us Tarryton smokers would rather fight than switch." - "What do you want? Good grammer or good taste?" campaigns that took place probably before you were born.

Personally, I want good grammer AND good taste.

Good luck!

Lorraine September 3, 2004, 10:17pm

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What is this "AN hotel thing" ? I have never ever in my whole life heard anyone say "An hotel"!
This grammar error is a huge pet peeve of mine.
There are exceptions such as "an hour" (I hear people say "a hour" all the time though how long did it take? "a hour and a half" oh look another one, "a half" not "an half")

Anonymous September 4, 2004, 12:55pm

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Anonymous, there are no exceptions. It's exceedingly simple. A word that begins with a consonant sound is preceded by "a." A word that begins with a pronounced vowel sound is preceded by "an." No need for the sturm und drang.

speedwell2 September 4, 2004, 6:30pm

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Speedwell - Your comment is utterly incorrect. Apparently you skipped grammar when you were in grade school. Here are the correct grammar rules for using "a" or "an" in any given situation:

If the next word begins with a consonant
If the next word begins with a consonant sound (for example, "y" or "w") when we say it, for example, "a university," not "an university."

If the next word begins with a vowel
If the next word begins with a vowel sound when we say it, for example: "an hour," not "a hour."

Amy October 7, 2004, 4:13pm

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you're not really contradicting speedwell, though you are either contradicting yourself or being incredibly redundant.

If by "begins with a consonant" you mean "begins with a consonant sound," then you've committed two egregious redundancies, and have anyways said the same thing as speedwell did.

If, on the other hand, "begins with a consonant" means something different from "begins with a consonant sound"--the difference presumably being that "begins with a consonant" refers to any word that begins with what is normally understood to be a consonant letter, e.g., "h"--then you've contradicted yourself, because a word like "hour" meets both your first criterion ("begins with a consonant"--in this case, and "h") and your fourth criterion ("begins with a vowel sound"--in this case the phoneme roughly equivalent to the utterance "ow"), which means that it requires both an "a" and an "an" before it.


Jun-Dai October 7, 2004, 5:43pm

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LOL. I think I know what happened. Amy read my post and had what we in Texas affectionately call a "brain fart." She saw "vowel" and thought "consonant," and saw 'consonant" and thought "vowel," and decided then and there to set me "straight." She probably died of embarrassment when she realized what she posted. I know the feeling. I've done it too.

speedwell2 October 8, 2004, 8:10am

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"itemed" and "item" - a VERB according to Scrabble V2...

Webster agrees with me -"item" is a noun.

"itemize" is an action word (vt).

I'm tired of the slang, the abbreviations, and the ridiculous grammar.

Does anyone know of a Scrabble fix?

oloremalle at nls dot net

frustrated scrabble April 10, 2006, 9:46pm

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Maybe your customer is treating M&M as an acronym and thinks it's pronounced "MMMMMMMNNNNMMMMMMM."

Consider, "this is a NASA project". "NASA" is usually pronounced "nasuh".

Now consider "this is an NEA project". "NEA" (National Endowment for the Arts) is pronounced "en-ee-ay", the letters spelled out.

If someone wanted to, they could say "this is an NASA project" and say it as "this is an en-ay-ess-ay project".

If you saw it written rather than hear it spoken, it would be have to be inferred that the writer intended on NASA being spelled out one letter at a time; unusual, but not necessarily incorrect.

Similarly, someone could say "this is a NEA project", pronounced "this is a nee-uh project".

Of course, M&M is not actually an acronym. It is pronounced: "em and em" or maybe "em an' em", so, of course, you are correct, not your customer.

By the way, George Carlin once said "if you have 24 odds and ends on a table, and 23 fall off, what do you have left, an odd or an end?"

My retort is "if you have 24 M&M's on a table and 23 fall off, what do you have left? an M or an M?"

porsche April 11, 2006, 6:07pm

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The reason why people say things like "an historical event" and "an hallucination" is that the first syllables in each is unstressed. That causes the whole thing to collapse into a schwa, which is a vowel rather than a consonant, so the [n] gets dropped in. Note that people don't say "an history," because in that case the first syllable is stressed. So actually people are following the rules when they use "an."

David Fickett-Wilbar April 15, 2006, 11:28pm

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Dave, that is an interesting observation about unstressed vs. stressed, but I have a small disagreement about collapsing into a schwa. The first syllable of historical, at least the way everyone I know pronounces it, starts with a short "i" vowel sound, not a schwa, and the "h" is aspirated.

When I was in gradeschool (long ago) I vaguely recall learning that saying "an" instead of "a" before an aspirated "h", was less common but completely acceptable in all cases. I'm sure that are many that will disagree or have alternate rules that I am not familiar with.

porsche April 16, 2006, 10:35am

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As I understood it (and I could be very, very wrong) where the word originates from French and starts with "h", you use "an", otherwise you use "a".

simbo August 9, 2007, 3:30am

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Interesting, simbo, and, at least plausible, as I believe the French don't generally aspirate their h's.

Anonymous August 9, 2007, 4:57am

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Just a small explanation to Silvana--the use of "em" as a word in Scrable is neither lame nor pathetic. Both "em" and "en" are words used extensively in design and layout with reference to the size of space between words. Perhaps your Scrabble companions are involved in the publications business....

amazed August 9, 2007, 1:50pm

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jun-dai-- "anyways"??? Talk about incorrect and/or inappropriate!

amazed August 9, 2007, 1:52pm

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Yes     No