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Some h-words need 'an' for the indefinite article (I will be there in an hour).

Other h-words need 'a' for the indefinite article (It is a history of sadness).

Is there a general rule?

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If the "h" is pronounced, use "a". If it is silent, use "an".

This is in keeping with the general rule, which is to use "an" for words beginning with a vowel sound.

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Yes, it's entirely a matter of vowel sound, and has nothing to do with what the first letter is: we'd say "a European" and "a university" because those words don't begin with vowel sounds. – ShreevatsaR Aug 14 '10 at 17:23

If a word begins with a vowel sound, then the indefinite article to use is an. If a word begins with a consonant sound, then the indefinite article to use is a.

There is a singular exception: If a word begins with an H sound and the first syllable of the word is unstressed, then you can use either an or a. Traditional rules says you must use an, but there is so much ignorance of this exception that you will find a is much more common in this case. For example, in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are 1956 incidences of a historical but only 415 incidences of an historical. However, using an here is also unimpeachably correct.

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@nohat: to me, an historical sounds completely wrong, and I always assumed it was a British English thing, because they don't pronounce the Hs on some words where Canadians and Americans do. What is the basis for the an here if not the silent H? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 1 '10 at 13:34
@Mr. Shiny: really? What words are you thinking of? I can’t think of any like that, but there are several in the other direction: some widespread US dialects (northeastern/midwestern?) pronounce eg “herb”, “human”, “humour” without the “h”, whereas in the UK this only occurs in some deep rural dialects, afaik. See Eddie Izzard’s prescriptivist but wonderful rant against American pronunciation: “It’s ‘herbs’. Because there’s a fucking h in it!” – PLL Dec 13 '10 at 4:42
"an hour and a half" sounds like a very clear example of the rule. – user730 Dec 13 '10 at 5:07
@PLL: Your experience is completely opposite from mine. I've never heard an American say 'uman but I've heard (on movies, TV, etc) lots of UK spears say things like "I've 'eard the 'overcraft was full of 'umans". – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 13 '10 at 14:46
@Wayne, “H-bomb” doesn't begin with an H sound, does it? It begins with a vowel sound, so it uses an. – nohat May 13 '11 at 14:58

With some words it has to do with the French connection. The French don't pronounce hard 'H's. So words like Herbal are pronounced 'erbal, leading to a glottal stop if 'a' is used. That's why historically words like hospital and hotel have used 'an'. Written English would therefore use 'an'. In spoken English it depends entirely on whether or not you pronounce the 'H'.

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