The Grammarphobia Blog

Herbal remedies

Q: I can’t help responding to your blog posting regarding “a herb” vs. “an herb.” Any word that starts with a vowel has “an” in front of it. “Herb” does not start with a vowel, no matter how the word is pronounced. No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense. A vowel is a vowel and that’s that. A herb is a herb too! Thanks much for listening (I hope!).

A: Sorry to disappoint you. When using an indefinite article (that is, “a” or “an”) before a word, the determinant is the SOUND the word begins with, not the letter of the alphabet.

Check any reference source you want and you’ll learn this. The word’s spelling is irrelevant.

If the word begins with a vowel SOUND, the article is “an” (as in “an apple,” “an hour,” “an honor,” “an herb,” “an umbrella”).

If the word begins with a consonant SOUND, the article is “a” (as in “a hotel,” “a house,” “a utopia,” “a unit,” “a university,” “a use,” “a European,” “a one-time offer,” “a once-over”).

In American English, the “h” in “herb” is not sounded; it is silent, so it’s preceded by “an.” In British English, the “h” in “herb” is sounded, so it’s preceded by “a.”

You say, “No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense.” Of course they do! All words beginning with a silent “h” are preceded by “an.” Are you telling me you actually say “a honorary degree from an university”?

What I’m telling you is common knowledge. Check any dictionary or usage guide.

I’ll quote The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.): “The form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound, regardless of its spelling (a frog, a university). The form an is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an orange, an hour).”

And this is from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Robert H. Burchfield (who uses “AmE” for American English, “BrE” for British English): “AmE herb, being pronounced with silent h, is always preceded by an, but the same word in BrE, being pronounced with an aspirated h, by a.”

I can cite many, many more authorities if you’re still unconvinced.

American Heritage has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. I quoted it in that earlier post, but it bears repeating:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

In case you’re wondering, the “h”-less American “herb” is the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the word was usually spelled “erbe.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the h was mute until the 19th cent., and is still so treated by many.”

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