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A basic grammar rule is to use an instead of a before a vowel sound. Given that historic is not pronounced with a silent h, I use “a historic”. Is this correct? What about heroic? Should be “It was a heroic act” or “It was an heroic act”?

I remember reading somewhere that the h is sometimes silent, in which case it’s an, and when the h is pronounced, it’s a. But then I also remember reading that it depends on which syllable is stressed. And I also think I read somewhere that it might differ between British and American English.

Personally, I pronounce the h, and believe that a is correct. I find that it sounds incorrect to use an and pronounce heroic without the h.

So how do I know when to use a and when to use an with a word beginning with the letter h? Are both acceptable or is there one that is correct?

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I won't cry duplicate here, but a nearly identical question was asked about this same topic a few days ago: english.stackexchange.com/questions/152/use-of-a-versus-an –  Jagd Aug 13 '10 at 5:19
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The concept of "correct" usage is always awkward in areas undergoing linguistic transition. An orange is always correct nowadays, but that "n" just slipped leftwards from the original Sanskrit naranj. –  FumbleFingers Mar 29 '11 at 14:10
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9 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Indeed, you are correct.

In certain accents, history, hotel, etc. are pronounced with an h sound. In those accents, a should be used. In other accents, such as my own, it is pronounced without an h sound, and therefore starts with a vowel. In that accent, it would be correct for one to say an.

Queen Elizabeth II is one such person who could correctly say an historic event. President Obama is one such person who could correctly say a historic event.

In writing, it doesn't really matter which one is used.

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I'm very curious. In which accents is the H in "history" and "hotel" not pronounced? I was very surprised when I first heard "herb" pronounced without the H, but that appears to be standard American; am I correct? –  Neil Bartlett Dec 30 '10 at 22:48
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@Neil Bartlett: herb is from the French erbe, via latin herba. The h is silent in those forms and was in the UK up until the 19th century. The Americans, stunningly, pronounce it in a more correct fashion. Although it grates on my ears every time I hear the American form. In England historic is pronounced with the h, so I am confused as to why the Queen would use an. Though the answer given by @nohat explains that usage with regard to the stress of the first syllable, as opposed to the vowel sound. –  Orbling Jan 8 '11 at 18:56
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@Neil Bartlett - In most American dialects "herb"(pronounced without the h) refers to herbs as in cooking. "Herb" (pronounced with the h) is a nickname of for men named "Herbert" –  Kevin Apr 12 '11 at 14:26
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I would say that in British English the unaspirated h is disappearing. Both my parents would say "an otel" while I would say "a hotel". I would be very surprised to hear it spoken with an unaspirated h except by old or upper class people. –  user11900 Aug 12 '11 at 1:48
    
The silent "h" has nothing to do with French ... that's a red herring. People said "an hereafter" in the 19th century, and the word "hereafter" comes to us from Old English ... see this Google Ngram. –  Peter Shor Nov 3 '11 at 17:44
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The point of the word an is to avoid the awkward silent pause between words when saying something like "a apple." So, you should put an before any word that begins with a vowel sound, not just a vowel letter.

The good news is that you just need to do whatever makes sense when talking:

  • a historian
  • an honor
  • a xylophone
  • an X-ray
  • a user (begins with y sound)
  • an umbrella
  • a one-eyed pirate (begins with w sound)
  • an owl
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+1 for the very good examples. However (in the UK) you will still hear "an hotel", "an historian" occasionally, even with the "h" still clearly spoken (though unstressed). –  AAT Mar 9 '11 at 23:06
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+1 great examples! I never really thought much about the exceptions when words begin with o or u –  whoabackoff Jul 13 '11 at 22:20
    
What was the ambiguity with 'xylophone'? 'ksylo-', 'zylo-', 'sylo-' none starts with a vovel. And I don't think pronouncing it as 'aylophone' or 'eksaylo...' would be anywhere near correct. –  SF. Apr 20 '12 at 16:42
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@SF.: Xylophone was included in the list to contrast it with X-ray (which is pronounced "ex-ray"). –  supercat Oct 17 '12 at 7:22
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It is a traditional rule of English that an can be used before words that begin with an H sound if the first syllable of that word is not stressed. Indeed, some traditionalists would say it must be used before such words. Since the first syllable of historic is unstressed, it is acceptable to use an before it.

In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are 1591 incidences of “a historic” and 428 incidences of “an historic”, showing that usage of an before such words is dying out.

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How did this rule come about? Why do we even have different words for "a" and "an"? –  Vincent McNabb Aug 13 '10 at 4:57
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The rule probably came about because H as the onset of unstressed syllables is often very lightly or not pronounced at all, making the syllable just like a vowel-initial syllable, making the word a candidate for an treatment. Having separate words for a and an I discussed about in another question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/152/use-of-a-versus-an/164 The –  nohat Aug 13 '10 at 5:06
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If you enable sections for your query you get even better evidence for your claim that 'an history' is dying out. With sections enabled you can see the trend from 1990 to today. The ration of a:an goes from about 3:1 in 1990 to 5:1 today. At least in AmE. A similar query at BNC gives different results. –  Chris Aug 16 '10 at 10:06
    
So how many people say "/ði/ historic" rather than "/ðə/ historic"? I know some do. –  Peter Shor Aug 9 '13 at 17:37
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The number of incidences in the Corpus you have cited says nothing about whether the "an" usage is dying out, increasing, or staying the same. Simply that it is less common than the "a" usage. I liked your first paragraph though! –  Someone else Aug 19 '13 at 10:39
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Holy Moly:

http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=an+historic%2Ca+historic&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

an historic,a historic

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This made me laugh, though I'm not sure why. –  jdstankosky Dec 14 '12 at 18:03
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In words beginning with 'h' where the accent is on the 2nd syllable, it is also correct to use "an". In such cases you do not pronounce the 'h'.

So "an historical act" is spoken as "an'istorical act"

This practice has a long, respected pedigree, at list in British literature.

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Fowler mentions this too. But does it apply equally to all kinds of such words? For some reason I suspect it is more common with "historical" than with some other words without stress on the first syllable. Doesn't the length of the word have something to do with it? –  Cerberus Jan 8 '11 at 4:59
    
I agree with your first sentence but disagree with the second. I would say "an historical", "an heroic", "an hotel" etc, with 'h' pronounced. –  chimp Jan 8 '11 at 8:22
    
There is ample evidence for 'an hotel' as well. But like any of the "an = h*" uses, they re more prevalent in British English as compared to American English, and were more common in the 19th century than today. –  Rob Weir Jan 9 '11 at 14:38
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It's pretty hard to decide who is "correct". I can offer the example of someone like newsreader Jeremy Paxman who decidedly says "an historic" with an aspirated "h". There are also lots more television announcers who do this in the UK. It strikes me as being an example of hypercorrectness similar to blanket-removal of linking-r sounds.

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I too hear this a lot particularly on BBC Radio 4. It irritates me immensely for some reason! Surely either "a historic" or "an 'istoric" if you want to sound Frenchified?! –  Tony Andrews Aug 18 '10 at 11:52
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See this question/answer: Use of "a" versus "an"

The question of "a" vs "an" is always decided by the pronunciation of the word that follows the article. Thus, various geographical regions that have different pronunciation rules may use a different article for the same word."

In short, if you pronounce the "h" then use "a". If you do not pronounce the "h", use "an."

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I suppose the question might be whether to pronounce the h. –  Cerberus Jan 8 '11 at 3:22
    
@Cerberus: Upon re-reading it, I think you are right. As worded, it's ambiguous. –  Scott Mitchell Jan 8 '11 at 3:40
    
True. I think JYelton wasn't aware of the mechanism and thus did not know what he wanted to ask exactly. –  Cerberus Jan 8 '11 at 4:42
    
See Master of Disaster's comment: in UK spoken English there are a reasonable number of people who say "an hotel" etc with a clear (though unstressed) h, so this isn't a 100% solid rule. –  AAT Mar 9 '11 at 23:08
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My rule of thumb (which I can't prove/cite, but which I'm sure is correct) is to use an for any word that sounds like it begins with a vowel. Both "a history" and "a historian" begin with an H sound. If you slur it into 'istorian, then I would use "an" in spoken sentences (but as that's an incorrect pronunciation anyway you should definitely write it as "a historian."

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An or a, that is the question. I find that if I don't think about it I automatically say the word with whichever article sounds best. The hard bit is micro-analyzing it. (P.S. I also automatically write it in whichever way sounds best as I 'speak' it in my head). There is no clearly defined 'correct' answer as history and geographical location / accents mean the goal-post keep moving.

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Several earlier answers suggest that there are commonly accepted 'rules' for this, so I would argue with your statement that "There is no clearly defined 'correct' answer". Yes, it may change with time and location - but so does the rest of the English language. –  TrevorD Aug 12 '13 at 23:42
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