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When should I use “a” versus “an” in front of a word beginning with the letter h?

Why do we say an historical but a history? This question was originally posed by @shanselman on Twitter.

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marked as duplicate by Marthaª, Hugo, Jasper Loy, Colin Fine, z7sg Ѫ Nov 3 '11 at 12:09

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came here to ask this on his behalf ;-) –  jcolebrand Nov 2 '11 at 21:32
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Some of us don't :-) I always pronounce the "h" in "historical", and I would say "a historical" –  Josh Nov 2 '11 at 21:42
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You say "we" as if it applies to most people. IMHO, it doesn't. –  Mahnax Nov 2 '11 at 21:43
    
Not really @jcolebrand I just wanted to give credit where credit is due. –  Amr Nov 2 '11 at 22:03
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@Amr: currently everybody agrees that "a historical", with the "h" pronounced, is correct. There is disagreement on whether "an historical", with the "h" not (or barely) pronounced, is also correct. This second pronunciation used to be much more common than it is now. –  Peter Shor Nov 3 '11 at 1:01

4 Answers 4

Some speakers drop the "h" sound in the word "historical", which means that the consonant "n" needs to be added to the article "a". However, it's been quite a while since I last heard this, everyone I know says "historic" with the sound "h" pronounced.

Background information: this word has been taken from Greek, but apparently it entered the English language via French. In French the letter "h" isn't pronounced, hence the English imitation which has now become outdated

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But people but put "an" before words that start with an "h" in an unaccented syllable, whether or not they are derived from French. Consider the word "hysterical". It comes from Latin, and it is preceded by "an" quite often, according to Ngrams. –  Peter Shor Nov 3 '11 at 9:29
    
Similarly, In words starting "hu", where the pronunciation is /hj/, a decline in use of "an" occured circa 1800 rather than in the middle of the 20th century (see "humanity" or "heuristic"). It's a purely phonetic phenomenon, and has nothing to do with word origin. –  Peter Shor Nov 3 '11 at 9:34
    
All the words that you mention are of foreign origin. "hysterical" is a Greek word, still used today. "humanity" and "heuristic" are indeed of latin origin. The reason I think these words passed to the English language from French is very simple: the French language is older than English. It is a rule in French never to pronounce the "h" sound, something which happens only on occasion in English, so I guess it was an imitation of the French accent. I believe it has indeed a lot to do with word origin. –  Irene Nov 3 '11 at 13:54
    
Correction: "heuristic" is a Greek word, not Latin. –  Irene Nov 3 '11 at 14:05
    
"an" used to go with "hereafter" as well, which is definitely of Anglo-Saxon origin. I still claim it's a phonetic phenomenon. –  Peter Shor Nov 3 '11 at 15:33

I have a theory about this. In my speech, and I believe that of many other Americans, an "h" in an unstressed syllable is either not pronounced or barely pronounced, except when it follows a vowel sound or a pause. This is an adjustment that is made unconsciously; people often don't notice that they're not pronouncing the "h". I say "a historical", but "some istorical".

The rule for a/an is that you use "an" before words which start with a vowel sound, and "a" before words that start with a consonant sound.

Both "a historical" and "an (h)istorical" are consistent with these rules; here by (h), I mean the "h" is pronounced very lightly, if at all. Most people use the first, but some people use the second. I think nearly all Americans pronounce the "h" in "historical" when the word stands alone, but after an indefinite article, some drop the "h" and use "an".

In the word "history", the first syllable is stressed, so the "h" is always pronounced. So "an history" isn't allowed by these rules.

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I disagree that a historical and an historical are "equally valid", but I think your answer best addresses why an historical is fairly common, while an history is universally regarded as an error. For a more fleshed-out discussion, see this. –  John Y Nov 2 '11 at 23:45
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-1 The a/an rule doesn't depend on a following consonant/vowel letter, but a consonant/vowel sound: an hour and a half. –  Hugo Nov 3 '11 at 6:51
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Hugo's comment is quite correct! "A" and "an" function as the indefinite forms of the grammatical article in the English language and can also represent the number one. An is the older form (related to one, cognate to German ein; etc.), now used before words starting with a vowel sound, regardless of whether the word begins with a vowel letter. Says [wikipedia] (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_articles) and my grammar books as well. –  Laure Nov 3 '11 at 7:36
    
@Hugo: Thanks. I corrected my answer. –  Peter Shor Nov 3 '11 at 9:58
    
Vehicle versus vehicular is a common illustration of how the h which disappears from the start of unstressed syllables reappears when stressed. –  tchrist Jul 29 at 16:43

I believe the main reason so many people say an historical is simply that they were taught that way. It's a special exception to the "use 'a' before a consonant sound" rule, and it seems older generations of English speakers were often specifically taught this special case.

The fact is that a historical is perfectly correct, more logical, and preferred by a large number of English experts. And it is overwhelmingly overtaking an historical in modern usage (see Ngram).

While I agree that the practice most likely originated as Peter Shor describes; namely, that many speakers do not (or only barely) pronounce the 'h' in historical, due to it being unstressed; I believe this phenomenon is not particularly strong in American English. I would guess it began in Britain (and probably continues more strongly there), with its h-dropping dialects.

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I would disagree, in that I don't think most of the speakers who do this are choosing to do it deliberately; it's naturally part of their dialect. I believe that these same speakers would naturally say /ði/ (h)istorical rather than /ðə/ historical. However, you are right in that this practice does seem to be slowly dying out. –  Peter Shor Nov 3 '11 at 0:56

Here are the final words of the relevant article in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

Nowadays the silent h persists only in a handful of French loanwords (heir, honest, honour, hour and their derivatives), and these need to be preceded by an. The h of other loanwords like heroic, hysterical and hypothesis may have been silent or varied in earlier times, leaving uncertainty as to whether an was required or not. But their pronunciation is no longer variable and provides no phonetic justification for an. Its use with them is a stylistic nicety, lending historical nuances to discourse in which tradition dies hard.

I broadly go along with that, noting at the same time that h-dropping more widely is a feature of some regional and social accents, and that in such cases the indefinite pronoun may indeed be realised as /an/.

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Yes, but people used to say "an hereafter" as well. That comes from Old English. –  Peter Shor Nov 3 '11 at 15:53

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