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I was looking at the papers and saw 'The Government suffered a humiliating defeat.'

It just felt wrong and I seem to recall it should be 'an' humiliating defeat, although I'm not certain.

I had a search but couldn't find anything. Please could someone explain why it is one or the other.

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    Conventionally the 'h' in 'humiliating' is pronounced, so therefore 'a' is used. 'An' is only used before a vowel sound ie it depends purely on how the word is pronounced, not how it's spelt.
    – peterG
    Dec 13, 2017 at 23:45
  • If you pronounce "humiliating" with /hyoo-/ or /yoo-/, use 'a'. If you pronounce it with /oo-/ or /eu-/, use 'an'. (but really, does anyone pronouce it that way?)
    – Hellion
    Dec 13, 2017 at 23:46
  • See also Why we say “an historical” but “a history”; "an historical" is probably the most well-known example of "an" used before a word that for most people starts with a pronounced /h/ sound. As mentioned in the linked posts, some people have used "an" before words that start with /h/ when the first syllable of the word is unstressed (which applies to "humiliating"), but it is not a very common practice nowadays.
    – herisson
    Dec 14, 2017 at 0:09
  • The Google Ngram Viewer seems to indicate that "a humiliating" has been much more common than "an humiliating" for over a century: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – herisson
    Dec 14, 2017 at 0:13
  • Actually, I just realized that @Hellion is right about the /j/ glide tending to point towards the use of "a" even if we ignore the initial /h/. I hadn't thought about how the rules interact in these circumstances
    – herisson
    Dec 14, 2017 at 0:25

1 Answer 1

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There is no authoritative answer to this. The origin of the rule that an should come before an initial ‘h’ lies in the tie between English and French after 1066. In French initial ‘h’ is never aspirated (pronounced). So the French word hôtel is pronounced ‘ôtel’. The English upper classes followed the French pronunciation, and so would say ‘an otel’ with the ‘h’ silent. This habit persisted till well after WWII. But since the early sixties it has been dying out, so that today it would seem old fashioned and a bit posh. Much the same might apply to humiliation. But ‘a hot day’ has always been ‘a hot day’ with a haitch and a house has always been a house. These words are descended from anglo-saxon, not French.

So your instincts are right. But the use of ‘an’ before a no longer silent is moribund and should be allowed to pass quietly: a hhhumiliating defeat for tradition.

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    . . .and shouldn't that be ' . . .an aitch . . .'?
    – peterG
    Dec 14, 2017 at 0:39
  • @peterG I think it was aspirated for effect.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 14, 2017 at 10:15
  • @Lawrence That’s right, Lawrence.
    – Tuffy
    Dec 14, 2017 at 14:47
  • I've never read about the origins of this grey area. / There are those who use 'an' before aspirated h's in certain cases (and people of standing), so I suppose there has been further rule-creep somewhere along the line. Nov 2, 2021 at 19:52

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