Not long ago, a publishing friend of mine asked me a question, as she was having a teensy little contretemps with an author, whose book she was about to publish. He was so insistent that the part of his book’s title, which contained the word ‘historical’, should be ‘an historical’. In fact, he was so insistent, it made her doubt her own knowledge.
So, let’s try and clarify this. ‘H’, when aspirated, i.e. pronounced with a ‘huh’ sound, is a consonant. Words that begin with a consonant, when preceded by an indefinite pronoun, are therefore introduced with ‘a’.
A happy day
A huge animal
A healing potion
All words beginning with the word ‘h’ are followed by a vowel or vowel sound (y). Therefore, if the ‘h’ is silent, the word sounds as if it starts with a vowel. All words beginning with a vowel, when preceded by an indefinite pronoun are introduced with ‘an’.
An hour (an ‘our)
An honour (an ‘onour)
An heir (an ‘eir)
An honest man (an ‘onest man)
The vast majority of ‘h’ words are with an aspirated ‘h’. The number of silent-‘h’ words are in fact very few.
Colloquially or conversationally, some words may lose the intensity of the aspirated ‘h’, such as ‘hotel’ or ‘horrific’ and in those cases the speaker will use ‘an’. However, in good written English, these should be ‘a hotel’ and ‘a horrific accident’.
27 thoughts on “Grammar Tip: An Aitch or A Haitch”
First, you have to know how to pronounce the word – to know if the “h” is sounded/aspirated or not. And THAT seems to be a dying art.
All you need to do is look in the dictionary. It tells you if the ‘h’ is aspirated or not. 🙂
I ‘ow ‘orrible it is that we ‘ave people who ‘ave problems with the letter ‘aitch. 🙂
Thanks, Cathy; I never knew the rule of this. Helpful!
‘elpful even. Thanks, Melissa!
Me neither! Thanks from here too. 🙂
If a word starting with the letter H is pronounced with a vowel SOUND you use AN. If it isn’t you use A.
A historical fact
The girl has an M.A. from Oxford
A: because “historical” does not start with a vowel sound.
An: because the sound is “em ay”
Indeed. Isn’t that what I said? Not too sure what the M. A relevance to ‘h’ is, though.
What a perfectly clear explanation, Cathy. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities to pass on your excellent advice.
I often wonder how the “an historical” error originated; it must have been a very influential person to have become so prevalent — even in publications that should know better. It has become a pet peeve along with all those misplaced apostrophes, the ubiquitous “should of”s, and I where me should be.
ah, but in England, it is always “an”
Er…don’t think so. I never say an. Or am I just posh?
Beautifully said. As always.
Had the same problem. My editor, (Who is a Brit) suggested that “an historical” and a couple of others like it would have been considered correct in past years, but we have dropped that in recent times. Which means I agree with Cathy if you are writing in a modern setting. If I was doing medieval-type fantasy, I’d rethink, especially in dialogue.
A helpful explanation. Thank you.
But it depends on how you say it.
A historical sounds terrible and is tricky to say.
An historical sounds much nicer.
I’m in the Commonwealth and most of us do say an historical in my area!
Yes, I agree, in speech it does sometimes sound clunky. But of course, we shouldn’t always write what we say.
So I am writing a historical romance? I was always taught in school that is was “an” in front. Guess I need to re-learn.
It’s really down to poor education standards but if people want to speak or write in incorrect grammar that’s fine by me. I’m not going to break out in a sweat about it. More important things to do.
I have, however, been asked to be part of a Thai team to check English language teachers and my reference to “an M.A.” is an example that is simple to understand when you use “a” and when you use “an”. It’s easier for people to understand that than talking about aspiration: and the purpose of teaching is to impart knowledge in a way that students (and in this case English national “teachers” employed in Thai schools) can grasp. Using technical words instead of easy to comprehend examples does not work in Thailand and clearly did not work in the English schools that some of these foreign teachers over here attended. Talking down to a student as if one is a grammar nazi will turn them off here as elsewhere in the world but sadly is very prevalent, even on forums.
There are exceptions – like “herb” – some pronounce the ‘h’ and others don’t.
Oh that English – it just won’t abide by it’s own rules. lol
Yes, you’re right, Yvonne. I’ve noticed that “herb” is pronounced “erb” especially in the US.
it’s own rules. ???
Is there a reason why you feel the need to pick on people? She made a typo. Big deal.
No reason at all. Because I was not nit-picking on typos (I make enough of them myself). I suspected that Yvonne was deliberately using “it’s” as a humourous and subtle device in much the same way as Charles wrote:
” ‘ow ‘orrible it is that we ‘ave people who ‘ave problems with the letter ‘aitch. 🙂
But if it was a typo, no big deal. Please don’t take cheap shots at fellow members.
Very helpful. Thank you, Cathy. The way you’ve broken it down makes it very easy to remember.
I don’t know that the concept of aspirated consonants is all that technical. Do you pronounce the H or not? If you do, it’s aspirated, and you use “a”. If you don’t, it’s not aspirated, and you use “an.”
And yes, there are national, and even regional, variations. I know someone from Chicago who says “huge” with an unaspirated H, but usually she does it for emphasis: “It’s yooooge!” 😀
I agree; I don’t see how any English-speaking author wouldn’t understand “aspirated h” (especially the way Cathy clarified it).
And P.S. Yes, Cathy, you’re posh. 😉
“In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.”
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