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

I have seen many authors uses "an" before "hour" like "an hour" some times. Please consider the below excerpts.

"How long is your break?", I shouted. A group of labourers sat under the banyan tree near the main campus building. "It's two-thirty, lunch ended an hour ago."

and another one is below

I would take his boat for an hour, and buy him tea and biscuits in return.

one more

' I won't take more than half an hour' I promised.

I learned from my teachers that the article "an" comes before vowels and not before consonants. Here "H" is consonant, still author uses the article "an" before "hour".

My question is, is this "an" before "hour" is acceptable? If yes can you explain why?


locked by RegDwigнt Dec 23 '12 at 14:24

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marked as duplicate by coleopterist, simchona Dec 23 '12 at 9:11

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

The choice is based on the first sound of the following word, not its first letter. "Hour" does not begin with a consonant sound, so the correct article is "an", just like with any other word beginning with a vowel sound. So this is not an exception, it's still the rule. But this question has been asked dozens of times before: it's the top question in the FAQ tab, and we even have a dedicated blog post. Please search the site before posting. Thank you. –  RegDwigнt Dec 23 '12 at 14:22
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3 Answers

The first sound— not the first letter— is what determines which indefinite article to use. The spelling of a word is of no concern at all; if the first sound is a vowel sound, use an, and if the first sound is consonant, use a.

Since the h in hour is silent, an hour is correct, and a hour is incorrect. We also say

  • an honor / an honour
  • an heir
  • an honest man

There are cases where the h may or may not be silent depending on the local dialect, as with history, herb, or hotel, in which case you should follow the local style.

I agree that herb may be pronounced 'erb' (especially in the US), but have never heard the h-sound dropped from historic or hotel. In the UK, they are often perversely rendered an historic and an hotel (not an istoric and an otel). –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '12 at 7:59
@EdwinAshworth The leading aspiration is dropped when people say an historical event. It is in unstressed position next to the i, and just disappears. This does not occur with hotel, whose h is much stronger than your historical ones. Anyone who actually pronounces an h after an has either misspoken or miswritten. –  tchrist Dec 23 '12 at 14:21
@tchrist: at editingandwritingservices.com/… is: Many peo­ple say, “An his­tor­i­cal occa­sion,” but “an his­tor­i­cal” isn’t used reg­u­larly in American English. Using “an” is com­mon, but not uni­ver­sally accepted by experts.>> Apparently, the question of whether an historical is acceptable at all - however pronounced - hasn't been decided. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 24 '12 at 21:28
And at voices.yahoo.com/is-historic-2135385.html?cat=4 is: As the letter "h" is now sounded in English, the trend is away from "an historic" to "a historic". Some sources such as the American Heritage Dictionary say "an historic" is outdated. What is acceptable is often determined by general usage. (bolding mine) –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 24 '12 at 21:36
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Vowels and consonants are sounds, not letters, and it is the initial sound of a noun that determines whether the indefinite article preceding it is a or an. The initial sound of hour is /aʊ/, a vowel (well, actually, a diphthong), and not the consonant /h/.

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Hour is pronounced the same way as our - we say the h is unaspirated. The 'rule' is to use an rather than a before a word beginning with a vowel sound. Many people choose to ignore this rule with historic and, to a lesser degree I'd say, hotel. However, I always use a historic (occasion) and a hotel, as both of these words beginning with h are aspirated.

I think there is an element of prescriptivism here, and an element of the rule creating the (mis)behaviour because it is misunderstood. So because they are told "an if and only before vowel" people (who want to appear erudite or upper class) train themselves and their children to the awkward "an hospital" and "an university", similar to people being told to say "X and I" and training themselves to use this even in object position (which had an original purpose of stylistic prescriptivism of putting yourself deprecatingly last). –  David M W Powers Mar 13 '13 at 22:30
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