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The indefinite article before words beginning with «h»

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The indefinite article before words beginning with «h»

Postby M. Henri Day » Sat Nov 26, 2005 1:03 pm

This is a vexed topic in English, as many of us who were taught certain fairly clear-cut rules about this matter (that was way back when, at a time when such rules were taught in what was then not inappropriately known as «grammar school», albeit this particular rule deals rather with orthography and phonetics) have observed that real usage did not and does not always follow the prescribed pattern. The following, which I scissored from the current number of Michael Quinion's always interesting «World Wide Words» is about as good an exposé of the subject as I've seen. I can mention that, unlike Mr Quinion himself, I personally both say and write «a hotel» in preference to «an hotel», which according to Quinion should suffice to demonstrate that I'm not quite the old fogey I often think I am, despite a penchant for the subjunctive (I also pronounce the noun as «erb», but the adjective as «herbaceous»). Or is it simply, that in both these matters I have failed to free myself from the prescriptions and proscriptions of my grammar school teachers ?...

Henri

4. Q&A
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Q. I was interested in your use of "an" before "heraldic" in a
recent issue because I've never known the "rule" for using "an" with words beginning with "h". The famous example of course is "an hotel". Though I admit it's just an affectation, I also use "an" with "hilarious" and several other words. But I wouldn't think of doing it with "homily" though I have no idea why. And I always pronounce the "h" in these examples. What rules do you follow? [Tym King; related questions came from many other subscribers]

A. The number of comments and queries that arrived after that issue demonstrates that my usage here is open to debate. The fact is, as happens often in real English, the rules are more complicated than the ones we learned in school. And there's some difference between spoken and written English.

The school rule is that "an" must be used before words beginning with "h" in which the "h" is silent, such as "honourable". That's correct, but many people - often without knowing it - follow an extended rule: that in speech "an" appears before a word beginning with "h" if the first syllable of that word is unstressed, whether or not the "h" is silent. If you listen carefully you can tell in such cases that the "h" is also partially or wholly elided away; that's because it's quite hard in rapid speech to articulate an unstressed "a" before an unstressed "h" without putting some other
sound in between and losing the full strength of the "h". But it's common to write "a".

But not always. In the Independent of 14 November 2005, a story included the line, "being housed in an historic building with very particular architectural features". The Newcastle Evening Chronicle for 15 November 2005 had "Today they addressed Tories at an hotel near Newcastle". It would be possible to find thousands of other examples in recent decades, to which could be added copious cases of "an hypothesis", "an heroic", "an horrific", and others. All
these reflect the actual spoken usage.

The situation is complicated by a shift that has been taking place in the pronunciation of words with initial "h" over the past couple of centuries. At one time, many more were said with the "h" silent.
This explains the appearance of "an" in old texts where we would now use "a"; the classic case is that of the King James Bible, where - to take the first example out of dozens - in Genesis the text reads "And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years".

A good example is that of "herb", which Americans today continue to say the way their English forefathers did, without the initial "h".
British English has moved on, and it is now thought uneducated for British speakers to say "erb". But British and American speakers mostly put the initial "h" on such words.

To complicate the matter, usage is shifting. Younger people prefer "a" more often in such cases in speech as well as writing. Forms like "an hotel" are heard from, and written by, older people in the main. I use "an hotel" consistently in both speech and writing, and count myself old-fashioned as a result. The form "an heraldic" you mention is by no means unknown, though it is less common than the others, but that may just be because we have less cause to use the
phrase than ones like "an hotel".
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Re: The indefinite article before words beginning with «h»

Postby sluggo » Sat Apr 15, 2006 11:19 am

M. Henri Day wrote:This is a vexed topic in English,
Henri

4. Q&A

The form "an heraldic" you mention is by no means unknown, though it is less common than the others, but that may just be because we have less cause to use the
phrase than ones like "an hotel".


Vexed topic indeed! For me, <biting lip> "an historic" is an hellacious phrase, the one that makes me cringe the most. I don't get his point that "it's quite hard in rapid speech to articulate an unstressed "a" before an unstressed "h" without putting some other sound in between and losing the full strength of the 'h'". On the contrary "an historic" feels like it goes out of its way to insert an unemployed N. An horrific histrionic!

Must say I've never heard anyone say "an hotel" though, except in jest. And I think I'd try to avoid using the word heraldic altogether these days, just because my mind is distracted into expecting Rivera to follow.
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Postby Brazilian dude » Sat Apr 15, 2006 11:51 am

heraldic altogether these days, just because my mind is distracted into expecting Rivera to follow.

Hahahahahaha.

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Postby sluggo » Sat Apr 15, 2006 12:41 pm

Brazilian dude wrote:Hahahahahaha.

Brazilian dude


Your alliterative laugh is laudable, BD! But is that a or an Hahahahahaha?

Does it depend on the stress/meter?

Totally off the point, how do y'all get your signatures in that smaller font??
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Postby Brazilian dude » Sat Apr 15, 2006 2:08 pm

Since each syllable in my hahaha is given equal stress, I'd opt for a. :wink:

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Postby Brazilian dude » Sat Apr 15, 2006 2:09 pm

But I tend to view hahaha as uncountable in most cases, then I'd use no indefinite article.

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Postby tcward » Sat Apr 15, 2006 11:33 pm

Sluggo, re: the tagline, I used specific code to tell it what font size to use. I think I used
Code: Select all
[size=9]xxxxx[/size]
in my tagline.

-Tim
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Postby sluggo » Sun Apr 16, 2006 1:36 am

tcward wrote:Sluggo, re: the tagline, I used specific code to tell it what font size to use. I think I used
Code: Select all
[size=9]xxxxx[/size]
in my tagline.

-Tim


Thanks for the arcane tip, Tim- I tried this but the code showed up all was still big; now I'm trying a cut-and-paste from this box to the profile machine, let's see...

Aha, Eureka! Thanks.
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Postby tcward » Sun Apr 16, 2006 9:23 pm

You're welcome. And now that I (barely) see your tagline, either I didn't use size 9, or you didn't.

-Tim :P
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An Vs A

Postby EZ2TALK » Tue May 30, 2006 6:15 am

i realize I am a novice compared to anyone with "grand" in their title but...

as an oldie who also attended <<grammar school>>
with an even older teacher at the time...

i agreed, i was taught that "a" was used infront of consonents and instances where the indefinet article is to be placed before words beginning with "h" as in 'hotel' the "a"s prounced as a long vowel; "ay" hotel when it may otherwise seem cumbersome in speech.

And that yes "an" was used before words started with vowels...or with silent initial consonents.

I say "a hotel" = pronounced with a "long A"

That's how i was taught, Any in agreement?

Karen (schooled in NY city) does it matter?
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Postby Perry » Tue May 30, 2006 12:18 pm

I don't know why, but the last post with "a hotel" reminded me of an old joke about to elderly Jewish gents (with Eastern European accents as in so many such jokes) sitting on a park bench. One says to the other, "Ill give you tree guesses vat I got in mine hant; and I'll give you a hint- it starts mit an H."

"OK. Is it a hepple?"

"No."

"Is it a horange?"

"No."

"Ah, I give up. Vat is it?"

"Hempty"
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Postby Bailey » Tue May 30, 2006 3:57 pm

Karen, possibly because the rule for 'a' applies to words following that begin with vowels we say 'a hotel', I usually say an hotel, but maybe it's overcorrection on my part, it just sounds right to me.

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Re: An Vs A

Postby sluggo » Wed May 31, 2006 12:31 am

EZ2TALK wrote:
And that yes "an" was used before words started with vowels...or with silent initial consonents.

I say "a hotel" = pronounced with a "long A"

That's how i was taught, Any in agreement?

Karen (schooled in NY city) does it matter?


When reading scripts for radio voiceovers (or coaching others to do the same) I've always noted that using the long A makes the piece sound like it's being read rather than spoken. And worse, it sounds like it's being read "one. word. at. a. time." and distracts the listener from the message. So I always use, and encourage others to use, a short a (or in faster speech, a <schwa>).

Listen to "professional" narrations, commercial spots, documentaries, etc. and you'll notice it's always done this way, the only exception being the use of long A when the "oneness" of a particular noun needs special emphasis. In that case its distraction is used deliberately.

Then again, a technicality: there's no end vowel to elongate the first one, so by that rule anyway, "a" can't even be pronounced long, excepting the paradox of its name...

On the other hand I fervently agree with the rule of an before an H only when unaspirated. That's why hearing or reading "an historic" always makes me scream.
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Postby melissa » Tue Jun 12, 2007 9:03 pm

On the other hand I fervently agree with the rule of an before an H only when unaspirated. That's why hearing or reading "an historic" always makes me scream.

But I don't aspirate 'historic' so I'm ok, right? Anymore than when I say 'an herbal'. I agree, If aspirated, the 'an' is overcorrection, yes hearing that makes me cringe, but how can reading it make you scream? just drop your aitch if you see the n and it sounds not that strange.
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Postby sluggo » Fri Jun 15, 2007 12:38 pm

melissa wrote: but how can reading it make you scream?


Good question. I exaggerated; it's not really a scream but more of an howl.
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