Submitted by Speak England very delicious  •  November 27, 2012

Pronunciation of indefinite article “a”

Does anyone know if there are rules governing the pronunciation of “a”? It’s either “AYE” or “UH”, depending on the word following. My preference is dictated by how it sounds and how it flows off the tongue, but I have never been able to establish if actual rules exist.

Americans and Australians tend to use “AYE” all the time and sometime it just sounds ridiculous, like...”Aye man driving aye car stopped at aye traffic light”

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@porsche
Yes, I can relate to the chants from the crowd or the players.
Just sounds strange coming from the commentators.

My bridge partner and I have been known to quietly chant "dee fence dee fence" after cracking a redoubled contract. :-))

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In my experience (British English), it's usually pronounced "uh", the sound known as the shwa (/ə/). But it is sometimes pronounced "aye" (/eɪ/) when stressed. For example
"Can I have 'uh' biscuit?" (/ə/) - I'm given two biscuits - "But I asked for 'aye' biscuit, not two." (/eɪ/).

Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary gives (/ə/) as standard and (/eɪ/) as a strong form in British English, but both (/ə/) and (/eɪ/) as standard in North American English.

http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dic...

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Warsaw Will, thanks for your reply...very enlightening, and I do agree somewhat. Although it's definitely common usage in Australia, to the extent that the strong A often replaces "an" before a vowel, eg. "A elephant"

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Count me in with the "/ay/ for emphasis only" crowd: "That's A book, but it's not THE book we're supposed to read." If I heard someone saying "I saw /ay/ student reading /ay/ book" without emphasizing the articles, I'd assume that he was either a foreigner or an eccentric.

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@Ingebiorg Nordén - And the interesting thing with your example is that the same thing would happen with "the", which would change from the shwa sound / ðə / (thuh) to stressed /ðɪ :/ (thee), the same sound as we often also use before vowels.

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Would anyone care to explain the (apparently American) preference for the "aye" sound in Adolf, arab, and gala and the use of the "eye" sound in semi, anti, simultaneous?

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@Afzal - OK, I concede on Alistair Cooke's British birth; I made a mistake. I was a regular listener to Letter from America, however, and would maintain that he had gained a soft American accent, no doubt from his Harvard days - what the Oxonian Review called 'the hint of a Boston Brahmin accent '.

But that's really by the by, unless you can provide a link to what he said about the pronunciation of the stressed indefinite article. I have found an article by William Safire, in the NYT , where he certainly talks of Cooke deploring the strong pronunciation of weak vowels in names etc by radio and TV announcers - what Safire calls 'the subversion of the shwa', but it makes no mention of indefinite articles.

http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1356&...

On the other hand, I've also found a book where it is suggested that when presenting Masterpiece Theater, Cooke sometimes used AY (not a as in AT) where unstressed UH would have been more usual. Incidentally the book mentions only two pronunciations for a - UH and AY.

http://books.google.pl/books?id=YtojrMr0Ft4C&am...

People who can't say 'one'. Does there really have to be only one way to pronounce things? Is everyone who doesn't speak with an RP accent 'wrong'? Sorry, but that is linguistic nonsense.

And talking about people who mistakenly use a strong a instead of a stressed an is, I would suggest, simply confusing the issue.

I'm afraid your apology for 'pretentious illiterate idiot' is rather negated by the 'ad hoc asinanity', but never mind, I imagine it's par for the course.

So just to finish off, this is from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, also obviously run by a lot of asinine idiots, as they, like me, also distinguish between the pronunciation of strong a and strong an:

a - /ə/, strong form /eɪ/ - (i.e. as in day)
an - /ən/, strong form /æn/ - (i.e. as in pan)

The same strong form for strong indefinite article a is given at Oxford Online, Macmillan, Cambridge and Collins online dictionaries (and there seems to be no difference between BrE and AmE here), so where your idea that this is disastrous and that 'the emphatic is to be pronounced as in the sound in 'pat' come from, I have no idea, and I suspect not even Alistair Cooke. I think you're out on a limb on this one.

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That should, of course, have been 'idea ... comes from' and 'not even from Alistair Cooke'.

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@Afzal - I think you'll find that Cooke's complaint about the use of /eɪ/ (AY) was when the unstressed form /ə/ (UH) was more appropriate, regarding it as an affectation. I'd be very surprised if he pronounced the strong form of a as /æ/ as in PAN.

Incidentally, Cooke was on the panel of the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, which says that stressed a is pronounced ā, while stressed an is pronounced ă.

It would be so much easier if everyone just used the IPA, but the Free Dictionary gives ā as being pronounced as in pay, and ă as being pronounced as in pat.

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As 'a' is but a short form of 'an', itself a variant of 'one', and all one and the same in OE/ME it may not be worthwhile starting WWIII over this.

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@jayles - Language is never worth starting WWIII over, regardless of whether things were the same or not in OE or ME (I can't quite see the relevance of that comment, except to fly the Anglish flag) :). But we can still have our little discussions, can't we? Otherwise whither PITE?

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@jayles - Sorry, I regret parts of that last comment. It didn't come out the way I intended, and I certainly don't want to start WWIII with you. So, sorry again and please try an ignore my crassness.

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@WW Troilius and Cressida : Oon ere it herde, at tothir out it wente" Book 4, line 434.
The parsons tale: Of worldly shame? certes, an horrible homicide
The Knight's Tale : With bowe in honde, right as an hunteresse
My take on "a" is that it is a weak form of "an" (one), so the pron just varies over time and place. Much the same as "the" is by word-roots just a "weak" form of "this/that" as they all stem from the same roots, and again in today's English the pron is much a matter of upbringing and taste.

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@WW I must own up, all these years so focussed on when to use an article or not, i've never bothered much with the pron thereof. I often have heftier matters on my mind, like struggling with the audiobook of Zhivago and thinking that Pasternak's characterization of women really doesn't stack up, although I can't find a forum where this is discussed.:{

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@JimJ123

Have a look here :-
http://painintheenglish.com/case/4913

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@Warsaw Will
Another mystery which is perhaps only of interest to Scots is the pronunciation of names like McKay and Menzies (although the latter is probably excusable).
I would also dearly love to know the history behind the following:-
zed vs zee
the American pronunciation of buoy
the American emphasis on the "wrong" syllable in defence and offence

There are others but that should do for now.

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I can venture a guess about defense and offense. The accent on the first syllable is typically reserved for sports references and often when "defense" is referring to the actual collection of players. I'm not much of a sports fan, but I have heard "DE'-FENSE', DE'-FENSE', DE'-FENSE'..." chanted at games. It just wouldn't be sonorous for a crowd of fans to chant "de-FENSE', de-FENSE', de-FENSE'...", would it?

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@Hairy Scot - Menzies - I'm of the old school here, and pronounce it 'Ming-is’. I was very disappointed when the eponymous newsagents starting using the /z/ sound in their ads.

For those interested, there was a sound in Scots, akin to -ng or /ŋ/ which was seemingly rendered in manuscripts by a 27th letter called yogh. Later on, when printing came in, this letter wasn't available, so Scottish printers used the letter z instead, z not being used much in Scots.

(For non Scots) Here are a few Scottish examples where the z is silent:

Culzean Castle - pronounced Cul-ain
Dalrulzean, near Blairgowrie - Dal-rulion
Dalziel, traditionally pronounced Dee-el, although a lot of people with this as a family name pronounce the z

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/459...

As for the zed vs zee thing, zee seems to have started off as an English dialectical form in the 17th century, along with such other fanciful names as 'izzard', both of which were taken to America by early settlers (along with zed). It was apparently Webster who swung it for zee in his 1827 dictionary.

http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?dat...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z

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@Warsaw Will
At least we agree on some things. :-))
I too am of the old school (surprise surprise) wrt the pronunciation of the names you mention. Menzies, Dalziel, and Milngavie are old favourites of mine.

I included McKay because I am currently watching some episodes of Stargate Atlantis which has a resident geek of that name. Between him, discussions about some device called a ZPM, and lots of use of simultaneous, my gringe reflex gets lots of exercise.

Luckily there is little mention of 'erbs and spices.

:-))

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A bit more on pronunciation:

Edinburgh J - Many, perhaps most, people in Edinburgh pronounce the letter J to rhyme with the letter I, rather than the letter K. I wonder if this happens anywhere else.

aitch / haitch - I distinctly heard Charlotte Church (Welsh) say haitch on HIGNFY the other day. This is traditional in Cockney, but seems to be spreading. Its use in Cockney is not so surprising, as in traditional Cockneys, not only were Hs dropped, they were also sometimes added where they don't usually appear, as in - "This 'ere hedge of the table". Again. does this happen in other Englishes?

ate - I pronounce this to rhyme with bet, but a lot of British people now pronounce it to rhyme with late - it could be a generational thing

says - something similar seems to be happening here, with sez /sez/ increasingly changing to a pronunciation more like the spelling /seɪz/ (according to the BBC)

There's more about this at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11642588

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@jayles - I bow to your greater knowledge of OE and ME, and I accept that a/an came from OE for one - you can see the same thing in many languages - Freench, German, Spanish etc.

But I'm going to be a bit picky anyway, as I think the changes took place well before the time of your quotes - In the Chaucer example, surely 'oon' can only mean 'one' in today's language, we'd even stress 'one' - 'It went in one ear and out the other'.

In the two from Shakespeare 'an' precedes h, which was often silent in the past, which is why some people still talk of 'an historic event' .

My point was really about modern pronunciation. And while some people might stress 'an' as /æn/ or possibly as a stressed schwa /ən/, I don't think many people (in either BrE or AmE) would stress 'a' as /æn/, as Afzal was suggesting, but as /eɪ/.

@Afzal - I heard an announcer on BBC radio yesterday repeatedly pronouncing the indefinite article /eɪ/ when there was absolutely no need to stress it and a simple schwa would have been more appropriate. I imagine this is that sort of thing that annoyed Alistair Cooke, not pronouncing a properly stressed 'a' as /eɪ/.

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@WW I would agree.

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@WW I really don't have any special knowledge of ME or OE, just what I have gleaned from the web in dealing with "the Anglish question", which made me broaden my scant understanding. There is much more info on the web than was wonted several years ago, and I managed to plow thru David Cargill's book. The upshot is somewhat unsettling: for instance, years ago I would have marked "with hearty greetings" at the end of a letter as outright wrong (being copied from German) but now I know it was used in English certainly as late as the fifteenth yearhundred, I am not so black-and-white about things, (outside of exam purposes) .

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I have been searching for a professional discussion on this topic, thank you . In my experience in Australia, the change to 'Ah' has occurred rapidly over a time-period of around thirty years. I tried as a teacher to hold on to the correct usage, to no avail. What is happening now is that media interviewers and politicians are using 'Ah' as a pause like 'Um' to think of their next point to be made. Looks like a change that won't be reversed though my long-gone English teachers would be turning in their graves over this ugly usage.

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@Plume Your point is very interesting. I believe Australian English is influenced by American English and maybe this has been more pronounced over the last 30 years by TV and internet? I guess we have to accept that language evolves and trying to preserve it is like pissing against the wind. As education standards drop and mediocre teachers are pushed through, the more bad grammar and spelling will spread! But I suspect this was the case in my parents' generation as well!

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I'd hazard the opinion --as a USAmerican-- that the lovely shwa is more common in (at least) the NE, MidAtlantic and some parts of the Southern US and that "aye" is really only used when referring to a particular object, or for especial emphasis, e.g. speaking to my mostly deaf father.

At least, reading that last sentence in the post, I can think of only 1 or 2 people in my acquaintance that would use "aye" as opposed to "uh".

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I think that regional dialect can be a factor.

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@WW

You could add "Breakfast/brekfast" to that list.

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@HS - do you mean some people pronounce the first syllable as in "break"? I've never heard that.

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@HairyScot - As an American, I must comment that while Adolf can have the long or the short A sound, I have never heard any educated American pronounce any of the A's in Arab or gala with any but the short (as in "apple") A sound.

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What about the long 'o' in the first syllable of Kosovo, which seems to me to be standard in American English (we give it a short 'o'). But the same thing happens with us; most British newsreaders gave Sarkosy a stressed long "o" that it certainly doesn't have in French. And why can both the English and Americans pronounce the /x/ sound in Rioja, but not in loch? It's all a mystery.

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the pronunciation of the indefinite article 'a' as in 'say' for emphasis is disastrous, decreid by alistair cooke for instance. The emphatic is to be pronounced as in the sound in 'pat'. just as you wouldn't alphabetise 'an'. But now these illiterates are saying 'Give me ay apple' or 'Ay article'. pretentious idiots!

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@Afzal - I'm intrigued as to just what nature of disaster occurs when I emphasise 'a' by pronouncing it as in 'say'. And although I might possibly use a stronger schwa instead, I can't imagine ever pronouncing 'a' as in pat, Alastair Cooke notwithstanding (and in any case he was American, while I am British, as I suspect are you). Although of course that's exactly what I would do if I was emphasising 'an'. The fact that here 'a' is followed by a consonant changes the whole thing, so I don't think they are comparable.

"The emphatic is to be pronounced ..." - according to whom? Do you have a direct line to God perhaps that you feel able to lay down the law like this? Does your somewhat idiosyncratic system of capitalisation perhaps come from the same set of rules, I wonder? Not to mention the rather quirky use of 'alphabetisation'?

But then, no doubt I'm simply a pretentious illiterate idiot.

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As far as I (and God) know Alistair (first letter A pronounced as in 'pat') was born in Salford, Lancashire, UK in 1908 and became a U.S. citizen in 1941. He retained an English accent - an RP accent- and knew that the word 'one' rhymes with 'fun' not 'gone'- unlike many regional speakers UK who americanise/RP-ise their accents but still can't say 'wun' - such as eric idle, daniel craig, beatles...

Cooke lamented the fact that the indefinite article had lost its schwa quality and had become alphabetised.

The word 'Alistair' or 'ass' is followed by a consonant and the 'a' is still to be pronounced as in 'pat' - so your 'fact' about 'changes the whole thing followed by a consonant' is bunk, ad hoc asininity and a bad piece of analysis.

Let's be logical. 'a' and 'an' are both indefinite articles. The latter is used before a vowel sound beginning word.

If you wish to emphasise 'an' then it's AN as in 'PAN'.

Why not alphabetise 'an' as 'ay en' as you do with 'a'?

What's even more lamentable (that's pronounced LAMentable incidentally) is that the 'a' alphabetisers are also saying things like 'I'd like AY apple', 'There was AY incident'....

Interestingly enough, when singing - usually in american accents at that, the
full value strong pronunciation of 'a' is as in 'PAT'! e.g. Elvis, 'my way'

#what is A man...what has he got...#


'pretentious illiterate idiot' I take this back and apologise, this was over the mark.


A

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"The word 'Alistair' or 'ass' is followed by a consonant and the 'a' is still to be pronounced as in 'pat' - so your 'fact' about 'changes the whole thing followed by a consonant' is bunk, ad hoc asininity and a bad piece of analysis."

and more aptly 'bass' is collowed by a consonant yet still can be pronounced 'bays'.

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