The general rule I was given as a youngster was that if the initial sound of the noun is that of a vowel, the correct indefinite article is “an”, while if it started with a consonantal sound or ‘y’, I should use ‘a’. However, I’m writing an article for a magazine (I’m the editor, too, so telling me to check the ‘house style guide’ is not going to work...), and I find that the rule described and Microsoft Word seem to disagree with respect to the borrowed term hors d’oeuvres. I learned to pronounce it (pardon the lack of IPA) roughly as “OR DERVZ”, which would imply the use of “an”; Word seems to want me to use “a”. Should I accede to Word’s correction, or did Microsoft goof on this one?

The problem with the proposed duplicate and the other relevant questions linked to it is that none of them seem to give an authoritative answer; the general weight of opinion confirms my early education, but while I will not hesitate to disagree with Microsoft’s algorithm and stick to my own inclinations in most cases, this particular case - a borrowing from French that has not been fully Anglicized - plus my lack of exposure to French to understand where a partial Anglicization may have altered the pronunciation (so that I may be pronouncing it “wrong” even for what American standard may exist) leaves me with little enough confidence that I’m not comfortable with accepting either alternative unsupported by some sort of authoritative citation.

marked as duplicate by Skooba, Rory Alsop, jimm101, bookmanu, Mark Beadles Oct 17 '18 at 13:31

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.

  • @sumelic - unfortunately, proposed duplicate and the other relevant questions linked to it leave the question just as open; for the most part, they simply repeat the findings - although the prevalence of opinion seems to match my early education, and disagree with Word, there doesn't seem to be an authoritative answer, and I have no way of knowing how Microsoft came to the conclusion it has. I generally feel that when Microsoft and I disagree on something, I can ignore Microsoft because their algorithm seems to be overly pedantic - but this particular case is one where mere confidence fails. – Jeff Zeitlin Oct 13 '18 at 18:34
  • @JeffZeitlin also, seeing the ngram, both seem to be in use. Therefore, I'd also be interested in a more definitive answer (which mine isn't) and the reasoning behind it. Perhaps both could be considered correct, I don't know. – JJJ Oct 13 '18 at 18:53
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    @JeffZeitlin You are right and Word is wrong. Redmond is not known for its fine dining, so it’s appetizers and mains for the programmers, not hors d’oeuvres. ORDERVES is a fairly common pronunciation for English speakers. – Global Charm Oct 13 '18 at 20:36
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    @tchrist - the point is that I'm not "trusting a computer program to judge right and wrong" - but this particular case is one where I'm not certain that the program should be ignored. – Jeff Zeitlin Oct 15 '18 at 17:13
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    @RegDwigнt - That may in fact be the case; there have been other instances where I've felt that Word is just plain wrong, and reported such. There have also been instances, however, where I double-checked based on Microsoft's disagreement with me, and found that I was absolutely wrong. This was a case where I wasn't willing to trust my own inclination unreservedly, and felt that ELU was probably going to be the best place to get definitive information. – Jeff Zeitlin Oct 15 '18 at 20:24

As described in the answers to When to use 'an' and when to use 'a' with words begining with 'h'?, some words spelled with "H" start with a vowel sound, and are preceded by an, while others start with a consonant sound /h/, and are preceded by a (with a possible exception for certain speakers when the /h/ is at the start of an unstressed syllable).

It seems that at least part of the variation between a hors d'oeuvre(s) and an hors d'oeuvre(s) that is described in JJJ's answer corresponds to variation between pronunciations with /h/ and pronunciations without it. Although I cannot find a modern dictionary that records a pronunciation of hors d'oeuvre(s) starting with /h/, it seems that such pronunciations exist (or have existed), and may have been more common in the past.

  • Instead of cocktails the French people sharpen their appetites with mild, piquant things like caviar on toast. They call this mild sharpener a hors d'oeuvre (pronounced hor-durve).

    (The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 184, p. 57; October 28, 1911)

The issue of "an hors d'oeuvre" vs. "a hors d'oeuvre" was discussed a little over a century ago in Notes and Queries. The fact that the H is "aspirated" in French seems to have been thought relevant by some English speakers. (So-called "aspirated" H is not actually pronounced in the textbook standard variety of modern French, but it was lost more recently than other instances of H in the language, so it behaves "as if" it were a consonant for certain rules of standard French pronunciation: "liaison" and "élision". I have also read that "aspirated" H actually survived fairly late as a sound of its own in the pronunciation of some French-speaking regions, as a "dialectal" feature, but this is a complicated topic.)

  • "Hors d'œuvre."—When passing a book through the press lately, I found my printer correcting my "an hors d'œuvre" into "a hors d'œuvre." This set me making inquiries as to the custom of others in the pronunciation of the word. One friend told me that he sounded the aspirate, because the French aspirated it. Another, a professed French scholar, denied that this was the French habit, and therefore made the h silent in English. Funk & Wagnalls's 1905 dictionary recognizes no option, and omits the h (as also in hors de combat!). The 'N.E.D.' also recognizes no option of pronunciation, and sounds the h (as also in hors de combat). The examples it quotes, however, seem to contradict this, for while two hundred years ago Walpole wrote "a hors d'œuvre," the last example from The Pall Mall Gazette has "an hors d'œuvre." A third friend, older than the others, pooh-poohed contemptuously the possibility of any one ever sounding the h. I next tried Littré. He writes that many have said the h was silent in French, but that it is not so. Finally I asked a lady and gentleman, husband and wife, both English on the father's side and French on the mother's. Both sounded the h in French and in English. Is it possible to ascertain what is the most widely accepted pronunciation of the word in English to-day ?
    T. Nicklin.

    (Notes and Queries, Tenth Series, Volume X, July–December, 1908. pp. 229–230)

  • "Hors d'œuvre" (10 S. x. 229). The words beginning with the letter h that, unlike most such, are supposed by French theory to be "aspirated," are not pronounced as Americans, or educated English people, "aspirate" English words which begin with h. Therefore the dispute among Mr. Nicklin's friends cannot be ended by either "Yes" or "No." The French aspirate is a shibboleth, and an Englishman can no more sound a French aspirated h correctly than he can read aloud the common sign of French fur-shops—"Au Tigre Royal," or say "La Tour d'Auvergne."

    I think the tendency of an educated Englishman nowadays is to aspirate an initial h. He would astonish his forefathers if they could hear him do it in "herb," in "humble," and in "humour." Hors-d'œuvre is almost naturalized among us, if not quite so, inasmuch as it finds a place in the 'N.E.D.,' and I do not doubt that the editors of that work were right when they insisted on the h being sounded. A useful friend of mine, the 'Nouveau. Dictionnaire,' by E. Clifton and McLaughlin (Paris, Gamier Frères), prescribes the aspiration in hors-d'œuvre, as also in hors, when an adverb unattached. This seems a necessary effort to distinguish the word from or the conjunction, even if or the noun could take care of itself.
    St. Swithin.

    (Notes and Queries, Tenth Series, Volume X, July–December, 1908. p. 255)

  • The authority of the 'New English Dictionary' notwithstanding, I venture to think that "an hors d'œuvre" is better than "a hors d'œuvre."
    Robert Pierpoint.

    (Notes and Queries, Tenth Series, Volume XI, January–June, 1909. p. 337)

I'm not sure what's going on with the Google Ngram chart past 2000. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which covers 20 million words for each year from 1990-2017, only shows one match for "a hors d'oeuvre" and none for "a hors d'oeuvres" vs. thirty for "an hors d'oeuvre" and nine for "an hors d'oeuvres".

  • Some of your quotations may be explained by Wikipedia "The aspirate h ceased to be pronounced once more in either the 16th or the 17th century, but some grammarians kept insisting for it be pronounced into the early part of the twentieth century." I find this amazing. Like grammarians who would insist on pronouncing r's in British accents, not just when they had started disappearing, but for centuries afterwards. – Peter Shor Oct 15 '18 at 12:56
  • As this matches my inclination and early education, and there doesn't seem to an authoritative answer - the sources proposed are in conflict, I'm going to accept this answer, but not complain that Microsoft gets it wrong. – Jeff Zeitlin Oct 17 '18 at 11:46

Your instinct seems to be the more common one. Going by Google N-gram, using the following search term: an hors d'oeuvres,a hors d'oeuvres, a hors d'oeuvre,an hors d'oeuvre, we see that the an version (singular and plural) are the most common. In fact, the second one (a plural) doesn't even show up in the diagram.

Note that after clicking on the link you need to click the search button once more to load the actual graph.

enter image description here

  • This is a very interesting plot; it appears that prior to 1920, an was nonexistent, and didn't become more common until about 1965 - and in 2000, the pre-1920 usage seems to have surged - which suggests that your answer still leaves the question more-or-less wide open... :) – Jeff Zeitlin Oct 13 '18 at 17:58
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    @JeffZeitlin I guess that's around the time people began using Microsoft Word? ;) – JJJ Oct 13 '18 at 18:01
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    MS Word's grammar analyser is severely flawed. A University of Washington study concluded that the "feature works well for good writers and not for bad ones. Good writers follow most of the rules and this feature can help them on the margins. If you are a bad writer with a poor understanding of the rules, this feature will not help you at all." faculty.washington.edu/sandeep/check – Michael Harvey Oct 13 '18 at 18:26
  • @MichaelHarvey - I'm not in disagreement with the UWash evaluation; I'm generally a good writer without help, but this to me is one of those edge cases - see the edit to the question. – Jeff Zeitlin Oct 13 '18 at 18:47
  • In Britain, "an hotel" is either perfectly OK, old fashioned, or hypercorrection, depending on who you listen to (It's what I say and write). An hors d'oeuvre is pretty standard. Some French terms are never going to be fully assimilated but very few people say "carte blanche" exactly like a French person would. I note that many Americans use "erbs" in their cooking. – Michael Harvey Oct 13 '18 at 19:14

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