Is it correct to use indefinite articles based on the spelling of a word or the way it's pronounced?

Would we say "Take an NHS leaflet." or "Take a NHS leaflet."?

Also, what is the case with words which are pronounced differently in different parts of the world?

For example would it be "an historian" in the UK, while "a historian" in the US? Which of the two historian versions would be selected for a book that would be sold internationally?

  • Do you use 'a' or 'an' before acronyms/initialisms? is also relevant. // Note that, contrary to what many would consider the truth, aspirated 'An hotel' and 'an historian' are still met with in the UK. But I use aspirated 'a hotel', 'a historian', and this is undoubtedly the more idiomatic aspirated version. – Edwin Ashworth May 9 '18 at 13:30

The choice of a/an depends on the first sound of the word, not the first letter.

That's why it would be possible to say "a historian" anywhere the world - the first sound in the word "historian" is [h], which is a consonant (the first letter is [eɪʧ] but that [e] doesn't matter here). Mind that many British people drop "h" in "historian" and that's why they say "an historian".

With abbreviations, however, it's a bit different. The article does depend on the letter but again the sound of the name of that first letter is important. Thus, "Take an NHS leaflet." is correct because we read each letter of the abbreviation as it is: [en] [e͟ɪtʃɪz] [es]. [en] starts with a vowel. So, "an NHS leaflet" is what we should say.

Here are some more examples to answer your question:

  • A university but an umbrella
  • A house but an hour
  • A nut but an NHK report
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  • Many British English speakers say an historian, an hotel, because they do not pronounce the initial 'h' in those words. I am not talking about the Cockney dropped 'h', but what used to be called the "Queen's English" or "Received Pronunciation". – Michael Harvey May 9 '18 at 12:22
  • @Michael Harvey. Some proficient Anglophones even use an before aspirated historian and hotel. The 'totally dependent on the pronunciation of the following word' rule is not quite binding. This has been covered on ELU before. See kiamlaluno's answer here. – Edwin Ashworth May 9 '18 at 12:58
  • @Michael Harvey thank you! I have edited my answer. – Enguroo May 9 '18 at 13:08
  • @Edwin Ashworth thank you for the good comment. The answer is edited. – Enguroo May 9 '18 at 13:18
  • This is incorrect. It is not true that it “usually” depends. It always and only ever depends on the sound. The spelling never matters because this is about the spoken language. Illiterates incapable of reading or writing always get this right. – tchrist May 9 '18 at 13:22

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