• a •
o, ah, æ, ay, e, i, aw, ah, ê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Article, Preposition
Meaning: 1. The letter A (a) is simply the first letter of the alphabet with the eight pronunciations above when it appears in words. 2. The indefinite article, referring to a single indefinite thing or something of which the listener is unaware. It is actually an, pronounced [æn] before vowels, and a, pronounced [ê] before consonants. 3. Per, as a distributive preposition expressing a rate, as in 'a hundred dollars a day' or 'twenty dollars an hour.'
Notes: In addition to appearing at the beginning of the Latin alphabet (to which English subscribes), today's Good Word has the greatest number of pronunciations of any other letter in the alphabet—eight: war [wor], far [fahr], fat [fæt], rate [rayt], frigate [friget], pillage [pilij], wall [wawl], and alert [êlêrt]. The word a is really an, the N dropping off before consonants, as in an apple, but a tart.
In Play: When deciding between a or an, remember that the critical issue is whether the word is pronounced with a consonant or vowel at the beginning. Both ear and ewe are spelled with an initial vowel E, but ewe begins with the consonant [y] when pronounced, so we say an ear, but a ewe. Even though hour begins with a consonant, it is silent, so we say, "I'll see you in an hour." (For more on this subject, see "A History of an Historical Quirk".)
Word History: While the letter A comes from Latin, the English article is a reduction of an earlier version of one, hence the N. In Old English one was an. The Proto-Indo-European language did not have definite and indefinite articles, so they had to be added by the languages that evolved from it. In English's cousin, German, the word for a(n) is ein, which still also means "one". The definite article, the, is a reduction of that and, again in German, the word for "the" is still the same as the word for "that": der (masculine), die (feminine), das (neuter). French and other Latinate languages also derived their indefinite articles from words for "one": French, Spanish, Italian un, and Portuguese um, from Latin unus "one".
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