Articles: when to use ‘a’ versus ‘an’

via FASAB blog (the artist’s site apparently being offline.)

Articles are those little words which, in English, are often optional but introduce the next word as a noun. And far far too often computer programs get them wrong.

In my opinion, developers – especially website developers for whom their target audience speaks a language other than the developer’s first language – should find the most annoying grammarian and pay them whatever necessary to be excessively nit-picky about the program’s language usage. I am not a strong grammarian, but I get completely derailed when I see something no one would ever say in the natural course of speaking. It means your application, far from helping me get work done, distracts me from finishing the task at hand.

Like the sentence fragment which started this rant:

…to an user.

In English, the article ‘a’, indicating a singular noun, is altered to ‘an’ if the noun it introduces begins with a vowel sound. A group, because group begins with a consonant sound: /ɡɹuːp/. But an individual, because individual begins with a vowel sound: /ˌɪndɪˈvɪd͡ʒʊəl/. (This is probably as close to the liaison of French as English gets these days.)

I am the grammarian about whom your mother warned you.

Unfortunately, many coders assume the way a word is spelt indicates how it is pronounced, which in English is not always true. The ‘u’, in English, is a particular problem because it represents (at least) two primary pronunciations: the short and the long u sounds. At the beginning of a word a short u sound is a vowel sound, e.g. until/ənˈtɪl/. In the same position, a long u sound generally gains a consonant sound, e.g. user: /ˈjuːzəɹ/. Therefore “…to a user” NOT “…to an user.”

English is riddled with “except when…” addendums to rules, much like le français, to which it owes so very much. No doubt other languages have similar complexities, and equally need careful examination of how people really speak rather than simplistic ‘rules’ to guide so-called i18n.