“That’s a very unique way of doing it”
“You’re a unique person”
“This is a unique product”
Most of the time we would look at phrases like these and think nothing of it. But today, I’m going to open your mind a little bit more, and make you question what you were taught by your English teacher.
Surely, the correct phrase should be “an unique” but we never hear this! Today, we’ll be looking into what the actual rules for a vs an is. And discovering why we break the rules to say “a unique”, as well as looking at the word itself.
Unique is a word that most of us have become familiar with. It could be used as a compliment, or it could be used a euphemism for strange or weird.
Unique is the phrase “one of a kind” summarised into one one. When something is different from everything else within the same category, we refer to it as unique to show that it’s different from everything else that has come before it.
A unique person is someone who doesn’t behave in the way that most people would behave.
A unique method is one that’s different from a more common method.
The origin of Unique, like a lot of words in our language comes from Latin.
In Latin Unus simply means “One”. This relates to the fact that unique means ‘one of a kind’.
When something (or someone) is unique, there is only one thing (or person) that demonstrates all of the traits that makes it so special.
Over time, Unus evolved into the word “unique” and came to mean one of a kind rather than just the numerical one.
It was actually the French who first started using the word “unique” in the way we use it today, but English has a habit of stealing from other languages.
Why unique is so great
There’s a good reason why unique has become so common in the English language. And that reason is it’s such a great word.
The phrase “one of a kind” uses up 4 separate words, and can take longer to say. Whereas by simply saying “unique” is putting the entire phrase into one single word.
And it’s much better than words such as special, eccentric, or quirky for two reasons. The first one is that it comes across as more complimentary, the other words can sometimes seem patronising.
But also because it implies that it’s not just different but different in a good way.
The A vs An rule
But onto the juicy bits of the article.
When we first go to school, and we first start learning about English, we are taught that words with a constant are “a” but words with a vowel are “an”.
A cow. A dog. A boat. A sun. A mug. A person.
An ant. An ear. An igloo. An otter. An umbrella.
And throughout our lives, we believe this to be the case. Even though we break the rules when we use the word ‘a unique’, we rarely stop and think about what we’re saying.
Your teacher lied
So then, why is “unique” an exception to the rule?
Short answer. It’s not. Your teacher lied to you about the rules.
Whether a word is “an” or “a”isn’t determined by it’s first letter but rather the sound it makes at the beginning.
It isn’t “an ant” because ant begins with an A but rather because it begins with an “ah” sound.
Unique isn’t pronounced “uh-nique” but rather “yew-nique”. Because the sound is a “yew” the rule is that it should be preceded by “a” rather than “an”.
Other U words
The are a lot of words that begin with U but are still preceded by a rather than an.
“I saw a unicorn”
“I like to ride a unicycle”
“He grew a unibrow”
“The UN is a united group of nations”
All of these words have the yew sound at the beginning.
The reason why all vowel starting words that are “a” begin with a U is because U is the only letter that can be spelt phonetically without beginning with a vowel sound.
I suppose you could say that U is a unique vowel.
I know that’s a terrible joke, I can’t help myself.
Unique is an adjective
Unique is used to describe things. Therefore, this makes it an adjective. It’s purpose is to assign certain properties to a noun.
I know that usually we would use “a” and “an” infront of a noun, but can also use them in-front of adjectives.
But this can only happen when the adjective is followed by a noun. So whilst we can say “A unique person” we can’t say “This person is a unique”.
The correct order for using a/an infront of an adjective needs to be a/an adjective noun.
In the above sentence, unique is the adjective and person is the noun.
Where an comes from
All of this talk about a and an is likely making you think, why do we even have “an”? Why can’t we just say “a” for every noun?
In old English, “an” simply meant one. To say “An octopus” would mean “One octopus”. Therefore this suffix would only be used when the quantity was being given.
Through time, an was shortened to a. And after all the research I’ve done, I haven’t been able to find a reason why this shortening only happened to words that began with a consonant sound.
But I can assume that it’s simply because it’s more audibly pleasing.
If the phrase “A unique way” proves anything it’s that our English teachers were liars.
Whether a word should be preceded by “an”or “a”isn’t determined by it’s first letter but rather by it’s first sound.
Now that you’ve read my article, you have a better understanding about the rules of the English language, the origin of the word unique, why unique is such a unique word, and most importantly, just how strange the English language actually is.
And now you can use the English language correctly and know that you know something your English teacher might not.