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A, a [Called ay, rhyming with say]. The 1st LETTER of the Roman ALPHABET as used for English. It descends from the Phoenician symbol for a GLOTTAL STOP, the sound at the beginning of its name, 'aleph (‘ox’). This letter, a consonant in Phoenician, was adopted by the Greeks as a vowel, A, to which they gave the name alpha. It was later adopted as A first by the Etruscans, then the Romans.

Sound values

(1) Short, as in hat, lack, apple. (2) Long, as in hate, lake, maple, chaos. In many accents of English, this sound is a diphthong, /eɪ/, often in RP with a special value before r, /eə/, as in vary, scarce. (3) In RP and related accents, phonetically long and open, /aː/, in such words as clam, dance, far, father. (4) SCHWA in weak syllables, as in avoid, prevalent, viable, vital, relevant, vicar, villa. In RP, the weak form sometimes has the value of short i, /ɪ/, as in private, village. (5) After /w/ and before /l/, a phonetically long, open value of o, /ɔː/, as in wall, war, water, quarter, tall; in RP, after w, a short o-sound, /ɒ/, as in swamp, swastika; likewise in yacht. (6) In any, many, the short e-sound in hen.

Digraphs and other combinations

With the value of long a in cases 1–3. (1) a-e, where one or more consonants separate a and e: hate, pale, waste. (2) ai, initially and medially: aid, pail, maintain. The value of short e is often heard in again, against, said. (3) ay, in final positions: day, dismay, relay. The value of short e is often heard in says. (4) au, initially and medially: sauce, author, because, laurel. These have values of o that tend to be accent-dependent: for example, /ɔ/ in RP, and /ɒ/ in AmE, sometimes with length variation. (5) aw, in all positions, but especially finally: awful, drawl, saw (with various values, many comparable to those of au). (6) aa, only in loans, such as: names from Hebrew, with the long-a value in Aaron, Canaan, and schwa in Isaac; from Afrikaans, with the value of phonetically long, open a (aardvark, kraal). (7) ae, in diverse loans, usually with the value of long a: maelstrom, from Dutch; Gael, from Celtic; Ishmael, Israel, from Hebrew. (8) As second element in a digraph (ea, oa), a usually indicates a special value for the first vowel, but is not itself pronounced: long e in east, beat, cheated, long o in oats, boat, soaked, with a glide effect before r in non-rhotic accents, as in fear, boar. (9) In four words, ea has the value of long a: break, great, steak, yea. (10) In many common words, the digraph ea is pronounced as short e: bread, meadow, ready, sweat, zealous. (11) The letter a combines in unusual, sometimes unique ways with other vowel letters in: aisle, aunt, beauty, broad, guinea, laugh, quay. (12) Distinctive values in loanwords are usually preserved: bureau, gauche, gaucho, naive/naïve. For the symbol æ, see DIGRAPH.


(1) In some pairs of derivationally associated words, a has been replaced or has disappeared in unstressed syllables (abstain/abstinence, maintain/maintenance, float/flotation); in others, it alternates with other letters (appearance/apparent, comparative/comparison, message/messenger). (2) There is variation in the endings -ant/ent, -ance/ence, -ancy/ency, producing such forms as assistant, concomitant, consistent, insistent, persistent, resistant. These differences relate to the historical derivation of the words in question: whether they were acquired directly from Latin or through French. If taken straight from Latin, the words derive from the participles of verbs that have either an a-stem (as with concomitant, from concomitans accompanying) or an e-stem (as with consistent, insistent, and persistent, from variations on the base form -sistens standing, setting). If, however, they are taken from French, they derive from participles all of which end in -ant, regardless of verb class (as with assistant and resistant). Sometimes, a distinction in meaning and use arises, as in dependant/dependent, but in ambiance/ambience there is no such distinction.

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A1 / ā/ (also a) • n. (pl. As or A's ) 1. the first letter of the alphabet. ∎  denoting the first in a set of items, categories, sizes, etc. ∎  denoting the first of two or more hypothetical people or things: suppose A had killed B. ∎  the highest class of academic mark. ∎  (usu. a) the first fixed quantity in an algebraic expression. ∎  (A) the human blood type (in the ABO system) containing the A agglutinogen and lacking the B. 2. a shape like that of a capital A: [in comb.] an A-shape. See also A-frame, A-line. 3. Mus. the sixth note of the diatonic scale of C major. ∎  a key based on a scale with A as its keynote. PHRASES: from A to Z over the entire range; completely: make sure you understand the subject from A to Z. A2 • abbr. ∎  ace (used in describing play in bridge and other card games): you cash AK of hearts. ∎  ampere(s). ∎  (Å) ångstrom(s). ∎  answer. ∎  (in personal ads) Asian. ∎  a dry cell battery size.

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a / ā; ə/ (an before a vowel sound) [called the indefinite article] • adj. 1. used when referring to someone or something for the first time in a text or conversation: a man came out of the room. Compare with the. ∎  used with units of measurement to mean one such unit: a hundred. ∎  one single; any: I simply haven't a thing to wear. ∎  used when mentioning the name of someone not known to the speaker: a Mr. Smith telephoned. ∎  someone like (the name specified): you're no better than a Hitler. 2. used to indicate membership of a class of people or things: he is a lawyer. 3. used when expressing rates or ratios; in, to, or for each; per: typing 60 words a minute.

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A (1) Symbol of emptiness (śūnyatā) and of the undifferentiated source of appearance in Zen Buddhism. In Japanese esoteric Buddhism (mikkyō), aji, the first sound in the Sanskrit alphabet, contains the epitome of all truth, and as such is a key element in meditation. Aji-kan is meditation on the letter A.

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a (It.), à (Fr.). At, by, for, with, in, to, in the manner of, etc. For expressions beginning with ‘a’ or ‘à’, e.g. a cappella, a tempo, see under their own entries.

‘A 2’ in orch. scores and parts directs (a) 2 instr. that normally play separate parts (e.g. the 2 ob. or 2 fl.) to play in unison, or (b) 2 or more instr. that normally play in unison (e.g. 1st vns.) to divide to play the separate parts provided for them.

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a1 reduced form of AN1 used since XII immed. before a word beginning with a cons. For the loss of n cf. MY, THY, NO2, and i', o' for IN, ON.

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A The first letter of the modern English alphabet and of the ancient Roman one, corresponding to Greek alpha and Hebrew aleph.
A1 excellent, first-rate; in Lloyd's Register of Shipping, it is used of ships in first-class condition as to hull (A) and stores (1).
See also exhibit A.

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A first letter of the Roman alphabet. It evolved from the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph representing the head of an ox. The Hebrews adapted it as the first letter of their alphabet, calling it aleph, meaning ox, from where it evolved into the Greek alpha. The letter a is a vowel.

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A (3) Letter of negation in several languages, as in, e.g., atheism, adharma.

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a2 ME. o, a in a distributive sense, e.g. twice a day, reduced form of ON; surviving in comps. of A-1, and NOWADAYS; linked with a gerund, as in go a-begging, etc.

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