A basic grammar rule is to use an instead of a before a vowel sound. Given that historic is not pronounced with a silent h, I use “a historic”. Is this correct? What about heroic? Should be “It was a heroic act” or “It was an heroic act”?

I remember reading somewhere that the h is sometimes silent, in which case it’s an, and when the h is pronounced, it’s a. But then I also remember reading that it depends on which syllable is stressed. And I also think I read somewhere that it might differ between British and American English.

Personally, I pronounce the h, and believe that a is correct. I find that it sounds incorrect to use an and pronounce heroic without the h.

So how do I know when to use a and when to use an with a word beginning with the letter h? Are both acceptable or is there one that is correct?


14 Answers 14


Indeed, you are correct.

In certain accents, history, hotel, etc. are pronounced with an h sound. In those accents, a should be used. In other accents, such as my own, it is pronounced without an h sound, and therefore starts with a vowel. In that accent, it would be correct for one to say an.

Queen Elizabeth II is one such person who could correctly say an historic event. President Obama is one such person who could correctly say a historic event.

In writing, it doesn't really matter which one is used.

  • 15
    I'm very curious. In which accents is the H in "history" and "hotel" not pronounced? I was very surprised when I first heard "herb" pronounced without the H, but that appears to be standard American; am I correct? Dec 30, 2010 at 22:48
  • 10
    @Neil Bartlett: herb is from the French erbe, via latin herba. The h is silent in those forms and was in the UK up until the 19th century. The Americans, stunningly, pronounce it in a more correct fashion. Although it grates on my ears every time I hear the American form. In England historic is pronounced with the h, so I am confused as to why the Queen would use an. Though the answer given by @nohat explains that usage with regard to the stress of the first syllable, as opposed to the vowel sound.
    – Orbling
    Jan 8, 2011 at 18:56
  • 9
    @Neil Bartlett - In most American dialects "herb"(pronounced without the h) refers to herbs as in cooking. "Herb" (pronounced with the h) is a nickname of for men named "Herbert"
    – Kevin
    Apr 12, 2011 at 14:26
  • 4
    I would say that in British English the unaspirated h is disappearing. Both my parents would say "an otel" while I would say "a hotel". I would be very surprised to hear it spoken with an unaspirated h except by old or upper class people.
    – user11900
    Aug 12, 2011 at 1:48
  • 5
    @PeterShor: The fact that people said "an hereafter" (not a French derivative) doesn't necessarily mean it has nothing to do with French. People could be overapplying a learned pattern (I guess that's a form of hypercorrection). But I would be interested in more thoughts/references about why (or according to what rules) people started using "an" before words starting with "h".
    – LarsH
    Aug 28, 2013 at 15:41

The point of the word an is to avoid the awkward silent pause between words when saying something like "a apple." So, you should put an before any word that begins with a vowel sound, not just a vowel letter.

The good news is that you just need to do whatever makes sense when talking:

  • a historian
  • an honor
  • a xylophone
  • an X-ray
  • a user (begins with y sound)
  • an umbrella
  • a one-eyed pirate (begins with w sound)
  • an owl
  • 11
    +1 for the very good examples. However (in the UK) you will still hear "an hotel", "an historian" occasionally, even with the "h" still clearly spoken (though unstressed).
    – AAT
    Mar 9, 2011 at 23:06
  • 3
    +1 great examples! I never really thought much about the exceptions when words begin with o or u Jul 13, 2011 at 22:20
  • What was the ambiguity with 'xylophone'? 'ksylo-', 'zylo-', 'sylo-' none starts with a vovel. And I don't think pronouncing it as 'aylophone' or 'eksaylo...' would be anywhere near correct.
    – SF.
    Apr 20, 2012 at 16:42
  • 7
    @SF.: Xylophone was included in the list to contrast it with X-ray (which is pronounced "ex-ray").
    – supercat
    Oct 17, 2012 at 7:22
  • 3
    I come across this question because of a technical term an HTTP request that aroused my curiosity. It's true I always pronounce it "an h-t-t-p".
    – Luke Vo
    Jan 28, 2019 at 16:11

It is a traditional rule of English that an can be used before words that begin with an H sound if the first syllable of that word is not stressed. Indeed, some traditionalists would say it must be used before such words. Since the first syllable of historic is unstressed, it is acceptable to use an before it.

In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are 1591 incidences of “a historic” and 428 incidences of “an historic”, showing that usage of an before such words is dying out.

  • How did this rule come about? Why do we even have different words for "a" and "an"? Aug 13, 2010 at 4:57
  • 8
    The rule probably came about because H as the onset of unstressed syllables is often very lightly or not pronounced at all, making the syllable just like a vowel-initial syllable, making the word a candidate for an treatment. Having separate words for a and an I discussed about in another question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/152/use-of-a-versus-an/164 The
    – nohat
    Aug 13, 2010 at 5:06
  • 2
    If you enable sections for your query you get even better evidence for your claim that 'an history' is dying out. With sections enabled you can see the trend from 1990 to today. The ration of a:an goes from about 3:1 in 1990 to 5:1 today. At least in AmE. A similar query at BNC gives different results.
    – Chris
    Aug 16, 2010 at 10:06
  • 2
    The number of incidences in the Corpus you have cited says nothing about whether the "an" usage is dying out, increasing, or staying the same. Simply that it is less common than the "a" usage. I liked your first paragraph though! Aug 19, 2013 at 10:39
  • 1
    @Chris the first syllable in "history" is stressed, so it wouldn't be a candidate for use with an anyway. Aug 9, 2019 at 10:22

Holy Moly (Or Oly Moly):

Google books ngram viewer for "a historic" and "an historic"

an historic,a historic

  • 3
    This made me laugh, though I'm not sure why. Dec 14, 2012 at 18:03
  • That really is Holy Moly :-) Feb 7, 2016 at 15:20
  • 1940 was an historic moment for these two forms.
    – Fenton
    Oct 26, 2019 at 13:18
  • 2
    So 'an historic' is a historic pronunciation. Feb 14, 2021 at 16:12

In words beginning with “h” where the accent is on the 2nd syllable, it is also correct to use "an". In such cases you do not pronounce the “h”.

So "an historical act" is spoken as "an'istorical act".

This practice has a long, respected pedigree, at least in British literature.

  • 1
    Fowler mentions this too. But does it apply equally to all kinds of such words? For some reason I suspect it is more common with "historical" than with some other words without stress on the first syllable. Doesn't the length of the word have something to do with it? Jan 8, 2011 at 4:59
  • I agree with your first sentence but disagree with the second. I would say "an historical", "an heroic", "an hotel" etc, with 'h' pronounced.
    – chimp
    Jan 8, 2011 at 8:22
  • There is ample evidence for 'an hotel' as well. But like any of the "an = h*" uses, they re more prevalent in British English as compared to American English, and were more common in the 19th century than today.
    – Rob Weir
    Jan 9, 2011 at 14:38
  • @chimp where do you live? Is that common there?
    – Andy
    Nov 26, 2016 at 16:24
  • 1
    I think this answer reflects the true situation (though ignores trends). But an answer on ELU (at least nowadays) is considered inadequate if not backed by authoritative reference/s. Jan 28, 2017 at 17:03

It's pretty hard to decide who is "correct". I can offer the example of someone like newsreader Jeremy Paxman who decidedly says "an historic" with an aspirated "h". There are also lots more television announcers who do this in the UK. It strikes me as being an example of hypercorrectness similar to blanket-removal of linking-r sounds.

  • 4
    I too hear this a lot particularly on BBC Radio 4. It irritates me immensely for some reason! Surely either "a historic" or "an 'istoric" if you want to sound Frenchified?! Aug 18, 2010 at 11:52

You ask why some people say or write an historical. The thing is, that's not what any people actually say or write. People who use the string an historical is going have a noun after it. E.g, novel:

  • He started an historical novel today and now he can't put it down.

because an historical is not a complete constituent; it has to have a noun to modify. But an historical novel is a complete constituent. And in that constituent, you will notice that the stress is on the syllable with TOR in it.

  • an hisTORical novel

And you will also notice that the syllable with his in it is not stressed, and that there is a strong tendency to leave out the /h/ when saying it, producing something that might be pronounced

  • /ənɪ'storəkəl'navəl/,

and might be spelled

  • an 'istorical novel

if one had the simple faith in apostrophes that millions display daily.

A linguist would say (and this linguist does say) that initial /h/ is frequently dropped before unstressed syllables. Stressed initial syllables are more normal in English than unstressed, and so they don't drop /h/; these include all monosyllables like ham and hint, for instance.

This is not a rule that has to be followed; this is an optional rule that is followed by many people, but not by all, often, but not always, even by the same people. So sometimes people say "an historical", because 'istorical starts with a vowel in speech, and the rule says an before vowels when they're pronounced as vowels in speech, never mind spelling. So in those cases they'll write it an historical, too, because it's a speech rule, not a spelling rule.

  • 2
    Let’s give ’er another chestnut to gnaw on: this also sometimes happens with an hypnotic state or an hypnotic trance or an hypnotic drug, and for the same reason you cite. Here’s a bit of regulatory legalese from 1955 that does this: “Every person who furnishes any hypnotic drug to any other person shall first obtain from the board an hypnotic license for each separate office, shop, store or other place of business, which license shall expire on the thirty-first day of October and shall be annually renewed.”
    – tchrist
    Dec 6, 2020 at 4:56

See this question/answer: When should I use "a" vs "an"?

The question of "a" vs "an" is always decided by the pronunciation of the word that follows the article. Thus, various geographical regions that have different pronunciation rules may use a different article for the same word."

In short, if you pronounce the "h" then use "a". If you do not pronounce the "h", use "an."

  • 4
    I suppose the question might be whether to pronounce the h. Jan 8, 2011 at 3:22
  • @Cerberus: Upon re-reading it, I think you are right. As worded, it's ambiguous. Jan 8, 2011 at 3:40
  • True. I think JYelton wasn't aware of the mechanism and thus did not know what he wanted to ask exactly. Jan 8, 2011 at 4:42
  • See Master of Disaster's comment: in UK spoken English there are a reasonable number of people who say "an hotel" etc with a clear (though unstressed) h, so this isn't a 100% solid rule.
    – AAT
    Mar 9, 2011 at 23:08

I use "an" before a word which I think would start with a vowel in the speech of whoever I'm talking to. For instance, I ordinarily say "an" before "historical", because although I always pronounce "h" at the beginning of "historical", I believe that many people don't pronounce an "h" here. I just want to get along.


If you pronounce the h, say a historian. If you don't pronounce the h, say an historian. The latter sounds old-fashioned now.

  • But what if you pronounce the "h" after vowels, but not after consonants? (This is what I do.) Feb 27, 2014 at 15:55
  • 1
    Then pronounce it either way. People differ. Historian, with unstressed initial syllable, is one where I can swing both ways, too. Feb 27, 2014 at 16:01
  • @PeterShor You pronounce teeth as teet?
    – TylerH
    Feb 27, 2014 at 16:18
  • Sometime do, sometimes don't. It depends what mood I'm in, and whether 'an' seems to roll off the tongue more easily in the context. Now I know it is old fashioned I am likely to use it more often, since it suits my appearance!
    – WS2
    Feb 27, 2014 at 16:19

It depends. In contemporary usage, if the "H" is voiced, as in "house" or "happy", the article "a"is becoming more common, for example, "He is a humble man". if the "H" is not voiced, as in "honest", or "honorable", an is still generally preferred.

In older texts, it is more common to have "an" in places where contemporary usage favors "a". Psalm 84:3 (Protestant versification) talks about the sparrow finding "an house" in the Jewish temple.


The choice of article is based on pronunciation, not spelling, so for instance "an honor". There are some dialects in which the h in "historical" is silent, and for those dialects, "an historical" is correct.


A balanced overview to be found posted on Writing Skills [slightly reformatted and amended]:

Hit or myth? Use ‘an’ before h-words

Author : Catie Holdridge Posted: 26/11/2011

No one ever said English was a straightforward language. No sooner have you learned one rule than you are presented with all the exceptions. As dewy-eyed innocents, we were taught to put a before words beginning with consonants and an before those starting with vowels, only then to hear that the rule bends a bit before h-words.

Or does it?

OK, so sense dictates that we give words where the initial h is silent an honorary place with the vowel words (along with some abbreviations). But what of those people who still insist on putting an before such words as historical, hysterical, heroic, horrific and hotel – are they just horribly old-fashioned?

Does Jack Nicholson’s Johnny go mad in a hotel or an hotel? Is it a horrific film or an horrific film?

How does it sound?

It all comes down to pronunciation. There are some h-words no one would ever dream of putting an before, like horrible, happy, hospital or home.

But while you might use an before historical, you wouldn’t before history. Similarly, you may before habitual but would never before habit. So, what the heck?

It comes down to which syllable of the word is stressed. Try saying these words aloud and you’ll find that for those where you land more heavily on the first syllable, you fully pronounce (aspirate) the h. For these you would automatically use a. But where the first syllable is unaccented, the h tends to soften, or is lost altogether, making an seem natural – at least to some ears....

An on the wane

... But support for this an is on the wane. Both the Guardian and Telegraph style guides, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, advocate using a when the h is pronounced at all (‘a hotel, a historian, [a history]’). And etymologist Michael Quinion, himself a self-confessed ‘old-fashioned’ an user, points out younger people’s preference for a.

However, fogies with a fondness for an can at least still count on The Times style guide (‘prefer an hotel to a hotel, an historic to a historic, an heroic rather than a heroic’).

And Fowler’s Modern English Usage kindly acknowledges that ‘the choice of form remains open’.

Verdict: A half hit (halmost) Like the last drinker in the pub at closing time, this half-rule appears always on the verge of leaving and yet continues to hang on. Use the an+h form [in those examples where traditionalists cling on to it] if you wish, but know that you run the risk of appearing dated. And if you have an international readership, be warned: there’s little to no support for this habit in American English.

Let’s give the last word to Fowler’s: ‘[S]peakers who like to say an should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h.’ So just know that you can’t have your an+h and aspirate it too. Hain’t it always the way?


My rule of thumb (which I can't prove/cite, but which I'm sure is correct) is to use an for any word that sounds like it begins with a vowel. Both "a history" and "a historian" begin with an H sound. If you slur it into 'istorian, then I would use "an" in spoken sentences (but as that's an incorrect pronunciation anyway you should definitely write it as "a historian."

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