The Grammarphobia Blog

Watch your aitches

Q: When I was a young lad, I learned to use “a” in front of words that start with a consonant and “an” in front of words starting with vowels. I was taught to make an exception for words pronounced differently than they are spelled. For example, it is “a Ouija board” because the “O” is pronounced like “w.” And it is “an hour” because “hour” sounds as if it starts with “o.” However, I hear people, especially politicians, say “an historic” while pronouncing the “h.” Isn’t this incorrect? Some British speakers use “an historic” with a silent “h,” which is OK for me, but “an” in front of a hard “h” sounds wrong.

A: You’re right on all counts. The short answer is that “an history,” in the mouth of somebody who pronounces the “h,” is an affectation.

The rule is that you use “a” before a word or acronym that starts with a consonant SOUND (“a eulogy,” “a hotel,” “a unicorn,” “a YMCA”), and you use “an” before a word or acronym that starts with a vowel SOUND (“an uproar,” “an hour,” “an unending saga,” “an M&M cookie”).

It’s not the LETTER at the start of the word or acronym that determines the article; it’s the SOUND. So a word starting with “h” can go either way. Similarly, it’s correct to say “a rhinoceros” but “an RFP from a client,” because the letter “R” is pronounced as if it begins with a vowel.

There has been a long fluctuation in the pronunciation of the initial “h” in an unstressed syllable (as in “historic”), according to the grammarian George O. Curme.

In literary usages, it was long common in England to drop the “h” sound if the syllable was not stressed, and to use “an” instead of “a.” This is no longer the case. (In the US, in Ireland, in Scotland, and in extreme northern England, people never did drop their aitches.)

Nowadays standard English pronunciation, both here and in Britain, calls for sounding the “h.” Not all Brits do, though, so it’s natural they would say “an ’istory.” 

When you see “an” before a word beginning with “h” in British literature, that means the “h” was pronounced either weakly or not at all. In the 1500s, this was true even for words of one syllable (“hill”), and of words in which the first syllable was stressed (“history,” “hundred,” “humble”). That’s why you will see “an hundred” in Shakespeare and “an hill” in the King James version of the Bible.

Later on, aitches were dropped in literary usage only with unstressed syllables, and to this day some British writers persist in using “an hotel” or “an historic.” But that too is now falling away and is considered overly “literary,” even in England. In fact, Henry Fowler called it “pedantic” back in 1926.

In my opinion, the persistence of some Americans in writing and saying “an historic” or “an hotel” is another example of Anglophilia gone haywire.

This is probably more than you wanted to know. But if you’re still game, I have two related items on the blog: one about “herb” and the other about “homage.”

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