« I'm not dead yet | Main | War and fruit »

The 'h' you say

The a vs. an issue doesn’t want to go away. Here’s a recent inquiry from a reader:

An Hispanic? A hispanic? An historic moment or a historic moment? It seems older folks go with an while younger ones use a.

There’s no problem with a used before certain words: a hat, a history, a hood. The h is sounded, or aspirated.

There is no problem with an used before certain words: an heir, an honor, an hour. The h is not aspirated.

The problem comes with words beginning with an h* in which the consonant is aspirated weakly, particularly if the stress is on the second syllable rather than the first. Thus the reason that many people have preferred an hotel, because they do not pronounce the word as HO-tel.

Here’s advice from the late R.L. Trask in Say what you mean!:

Should we write a historical event or an historical event? The second derives from the days when many people pronounced these words with no h; that is, they really said an ’istorical event, and so that’s what they wrote. Today, though, almost everyone pronounces an h in such words, and you are firmly advised to prefer a historical event. The other now looks strange or worse to most readers. The same goes for a hotel, which is better than an hotel.

So going with a Hispanic is consistent with what most readers and writers would expect. An hotel, despite a respectable pedigree, now smells of affectation.


* Of course it’s an h because an is used before words beginning with vowel sounds even if the spelling presents a consonant; the letter h is pronounced aitch.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:55 AM | | Comments (11)


Drives me nuts when I drive by the Ridgley's Delight sign and see that it's "an historic community".

I can't stand when you a sign that ends in a preposition.
Londontown Academy -
Education and Values - A foundation to build upon.

This is improper grammar....I know that we've gotten a bit lax in our speech patterns, but isn't this incorrect?

Afraid I can't do anything to relieve the irritation. It is perfectly idiomatic English to end sentences with prepositions and has always been so. The prejudice against the practice rises from an 18th-century mistaken belief that English syntax should resemble Latin, an error perpetuated by generations of well-meaning but badly informed English teachers.

Ugh, I can't stand when people say "It's an historic event!"

Noboday ever says "Look! It's an hippopotamus!" Or "Have an happy birthday"

At least now I know where it derived from.

What always worries me is what to do with acronyms. Should it be an FBA or a FBA. It all seems to depend on whether the reader translates it out in their mind or if they just read it as letters. Not a big deal, but it is a recurring thought. (This is an arcane acronym, but used all the time by certain groups.)

the letter h is pronounced aitch

Not in Ireland, John, or in large parts of Britain, where it's pronounced "haitch". So that would be "a haitch ..."

As definitively one of the older generation, I opt for "an" historic occasion, etc.

"A" historic whatever to my aged ears sounds -- and reads -- a bit too twee for its own good.

Using "an" before words beginning with "h" always make me think of Eliza in "My Fair Lady." Wasn't poor Professor Higgins trying to get her to pronounce the h?
The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. But in Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.

"An Hispanic? A hispanic?"

It appears you are having a debate with yourself regarding the capitalization of "Hispanic." What is the correct answer?

The answer is that I reproduced the query as it was sent.

On the issue of affectation, I'm afraid I respectfully disagree. Affectation is not inherent to a particular usage or pronunciation but is rather a question of intent. Thus, it can be just as much an affectation to say "a historical event" and scoff at the snobs who would use "an" as it is to say "an hotel" and sneer at the uneducated louts who would use "a". And though affectation may be more often correlated with one usage over another, to assume causation or perfect correlation is both a faulty inference and a broad generalization.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected