Hit or myth? Use ‘an’ before h-words

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?

How does it sound?

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.

An on the wane

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’.

A half hit (halmost)

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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