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Don't get in an huff

Twice within the past twenty-four hours the a/an-before-h question has been put to me.

Answering the first inquiry, I sent links to two previous posts addressing the issue* and received a polite thanks in return.

Then I received this message of Facebook:

[W]hat about newscasters and others saying "an historic (anything)" on-air? A local news executive has said to me that "an historic ..." is easier to say on-air than "a historic ..." Really, I guess I can han "an hat" on it with "an hand over an heart." Sheesh!

So let me try once again to clear this up.

If words begun in an h that is not aspirated, we all use an: an heir. If words begin with an aspirated h, we use a: a hat.

But when a word beginning with h is not stressed on the first syllable, the h is not strongly aspirated, and some speakers (I am one) are inclined to find an more congenial: an hotel, an historic, an Hispanic. Both choices have been acceptable over time, although an hotel sounds archaic or stagy to many modern ears.

This is the thing to remember: Neither choice is wrong. You get to speak as it suits you, and damn the eyes of anyone who denies you that freedom. If you are writing or editing for a publication that expresses a preference, follow that preference.

And the next time you are trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, pick an object for your anger that amounts to something.





Posted by John McIntyre at 3:50 PM | | Comments (16)


Broadcasters tend to say "an" and then a very, very strongly aitchy "historic." I would say "an HHHHHHHHHistoric" qualifies as wrong, even if you look the other way at "an istoric" or "an (h)istoric."

I guess I also cry foul at those who say HHistoric this and HHistoric that but then say istoric when and only when an indefinite article is called for, FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE of saying "an." Putting the cart before the orse, you might say.

If we can speak as it suits us - please, no - the nation will become even more Babel-like than it now is. I guess we are also free to ignore people who speak like 3-year olds.

I'm with Bill: too often "an HHistoric" smacks of pretension. Very few speakers of American English really pronounce "historic" in such a way that it requires an "an."

Maybe I should have put Neither choice is wrong in all caps as well. It doesn't matter. It's not an important issue. It's not even among the top hundred idiotic things broadcasters do or the top hundred irritating affectations. IT DOESN'T MATTER.

Bring on that top-100 list!

Have we ever covered the flagrant misuse of "historic" and "historical"?

(Sigh) I'm so glad you're back, McI!

"If we can speak as it suits us - please, no - the nation will become even more Babel-like than it now is."

Oh, come on. How are we going to become more "Babel-like" by allowing speakers to choose between "a" and "and" before words beginning with an "h" in an unstressed syllable?

For me (formerly British) the distinction between "a hotel" and "an hotel" is rife with sociocultural implications. In olden times, people who said "an hotel" were your upper class, lah-di-dah, RP-speaking, land-owning gentry (no slur on you, Mr M!), while the serfs and peasants said "a hotel." I think in Britain that the "an hotel" pronunciation has gone out of style -- gorn out of style, I should say -- because it's seen as snobby.

For example, see here, 2 mins in:

Not that the peasants and serfs would ever have cause to say "a hotel," of course, but you get the idea....

I think some people would register class distinctions in American English as well, particularly with people who say "a HO-tel."

Isn't it "a hotel" in American usage?

John, it's trampling out the "vintage," not trampling out the "vineyard."

Just so.

I believe they still trample out the vineyard in the poorer parts of Italy.

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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
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