A Question of Sound, not Sight

Charles Skeete
(Terminology Update, Volume 29, Number 3, 1996, page 14)

"A miff loan: any loan judged to be an unnecessary waste of funds, which usually causes the lender or other parties involved to be miffed (offended, annoyed)." (Source unknown)

Often, in English as in other languages, the word on the page may not sound or appear to be the same once pronounced or spelled out correctly in accordance with the rules of the particular language.

The other day a Francophone client of ours at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) had the unenviable task of establishing whether, in using the abbreviation for "Mortgage Insurance Fund," it was correct to write "a MIF loan" or "an MIF loan."

We simply reminded the client of the general rule for words such as nouns, adjectives and adverbs: one should first consider, not the spelling, but the sound of the word as it is pronounced, in particular the sound of its first letter. In order to determine whether a or an should be selected, consider what the sound is when the word in question is read aloud. For figures and numbers, as well as for initialisms, i.e. abbreviations formed from the initial letters of a series of words and not pronounceable as words, consider the sound of the first number or letter. Here are a few examples:

  1. a united stand
  2. a one-year term; a 1:30 meeting
  3. a high school reunion
  4. a CBC production
  5. an energy crisis
  6. an NHL referee
  7. an NDP member
  8. a NAFTA-related issue
  9. an ACTRA award
  10. an FBI agent
  11. an incredible person
  12. an 1890s event
  13. an honourable politician

These examples are consistent with correct English usage and observe the rule governing the use of a or an before vowels and consonants. At first glance, there appears to be no consistency since both a and an are used in examples containing consonants and vowels. However, one only has to remember that it is the consonant or vowel sound following the article that determines whether a or an should be used. The following two guidelines are supported by the examples given:

  1. a must be used before all consonant sounds, including the sounded hFootnote b, the long u, and o with the sound w (see examples 8, 4, 3, 1 and 2); and
  2. an must be used before all vowel sounds, except the long u (see example 1), and before the silent h (see examples 13 and 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 12).

Thus, our CMHC client recognized that "a MIF loan" would be justified only if "MIF" was considered to be an acronym and was therefore pronounced as a word to read: "a miff loan" (see definition given earlier). Since this was not the case, he experienced no difficulty in understanding that the only answer possible was "an MIF loan," because of the vowel sound "em" of the initial letter of "MIF," which is in fact an initialism, not an acronym.

The following is a list of examples provided for those of you who wish to test your knowledge and comprehension of the rule governing the use of the indefinite article in English:

  1. ___ UFO incident
  2. ___ LTD automobile
  3. ___ CMHC employee
  4. ___ FM station
  5. ___ audit review
  6. ___ SOA (Special Operating Agency)
  7. ___ home theatre
  8. ___ hard disk
  9. ___ FDD (floppy disk drive)
  10. ___ MBA student
  11. ___ UN conference
  12. ___ unfair decision
  13. ___ EU Commission announcement
  14. ___ NCR property
  15. ___ joint venture
  16. ___ IMF report
  17. ___ hearing
  18. ___ Universal weight room
  19. ___ undercover agent
  20. ___ S6 institution
  21. ___ RCMP investigation
  22. ___ recidivist
  23. ___ NATO publication
  24. ___ ISO standard
  25. ___ GST penalty
  26. ___ CPR course
  27. ___ HD (high-definition) television
  28. ___ Havana beach
  29. ___ FTA tariff
  30. ___ 11th-hour meeting
  31. ___ 8:30 appointment
  32. ___ health plan


A Question of Sound, not Sight
(Answers to the Test)


  1. a
  2. an
  3. a
  4. an
  5. an
  6. an
  7. a
  8. a
  9. an
  10. an
  11. a
  12. an
  13. an
  14. an
  15. a
  16. an
  17. a
  18. a
  19. an
  20. an
  21. an
  22. a
  23. a
  24. an
  25. a
  26. a
  27. an
  28. a
  29. an
  30. an
  31. an
  32. a

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