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Learning language is a complex process, not least because the English language seems to be full of exceptions - but understanding the difference between language and writing helps to explain some of those problems. Our alphabet only provides an approximation to language, and sounds and letters do not always match.
Take the specific example of 'a' and 'an'. Early on we are taught that 'a' is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and 'an' is used before words starting with a vowel. Just as we've learned this rule, we suddenly find that there are exceptions!
- An honourable person
- A universal truth
- A one off charge
- An hour ago
- An MMR injection
In actual fact, there is a rule with no exceptions, but it is distilled to sounds and not letters - language and not written interpretation. The rule is:-
'a' is used before vowel SOUNDS, 'an' is used before consonant SOUNDS
When we pronounce 'honourble', we drop the 'h' and use an 'o' sound at the start of the word. When we say 'MMR' we start with the vowel sound 'em' which DOES begin with a vowel. With this understanding, there are no exceptions to the rule of when to use 'a' or 'an'.
The written English language uses 26 letters, but there are 44 sounds. You've probably seen funny symbols, some of which are regular letters, used to display the pronunciation of words in a dictionary, for example:-
These are phonemes, of which there are 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds in the English language (with additional marks to signify stress). For a full chart of phonemic sounds, click here. The more you look at language, the more clear it becomes that the written language and spoken language are two pretty different things, but for all its simplification, we're glad to have just 26 letters in our language rather than the estimated 47,000 characters of traditional Chinese!