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Hit or myth? Use ‘an’ before h-words
Author : Catie Holdridge
Posted : 26 / 11 / 11
No one ever said English was a straightforward language. No sooner have you learned one rule than you are presented with all the exceptions. As dewy-eyed innocents, we were taught to put a before words beginning with consonants and an before those starting with vowels, only then to hear that the rule bends a bit before
h-words. Or does it?
OK, so sense dictates that we give words where the initial h is silent an honorary place with the vowel words (along with some abbreviations). But what of those people who still insist on putting an before such words as historical, hysterical, heroic, horrific and hotel – are they just horribly old-fashioned?
Does Jack Nicholson’s Johnny go mad in a hotel or an hotel? Is it a horrific film or an horrific film?
It all comes down to pronunciation. There are some h-words no one would ever dream of putting an before, like horrible, happy, hospital or home.
But while you might use an before historical, you wouldn’t before history. Similarly, you may before habitual but would never before habit. So, what the heck?
It comes down to which syllable of the word is stressed. Try saying these words aloud and you’ll find that for those where you land more heavily on the first syllable, you fully pronounce (aspirate) the h. For these you would automatically use a. But where the first syllable is unaccented, the h tends to soften, or is lost altogether, making an seem natural – at least to some ears.
But support for this an is on the wane. Both the Guardian and Telegraph style guides, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, advocate using a when the h is pronounced at all (‘a hotel, a historian’). And etymologist Michael Quinion, himself a self-confessed ‘old-fashioned’ an user, points out younger people’s preference for a.
But fogies with a fondness for an can at least still count on The Times style guide (‘prefer an hotel to a hotel, an historic to a historic, an heroic rather than a heroic’). And Fowler’s Modern English Usage kindly acknowledges that ‘the choice of form remains open’.
Like the last drinker in the pub at closing time, this half-rule appears always on the verge of leaving and yet continues to hang on. Use the an+h form if you wish, but know that you run the risk of appearing dated. And if you have an international readership, be warned: there’s little to no support for this habit in American English.
Let’s give the last word to Fowler’s: ‘[S]peakers who like to say an should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h.’ So just know that you can’t have your an+h and aspirate it too. Hain’t it always the way?
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Catie joined Emphasis in 2008 with an English literature and creative writing degree under her belt. Having researched and written dozens of articles for the Emphasis blog, she now knows more about the intricacies of effective professional writing than she ever thought possible.
She produced and co-wrote our online training programme, Emphasis 360, and these days oversees all the Emphasis marketing efforts. And she keeps office repartee at a suitably literary level.
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