By Judy Vorfeld
Have you ever been confused about when to use “a” and “an” before words beginning with “h”? Some of the most famous people in the world don’t use the rules properly. Here’s what the style guides say:
Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage says that “a” is used before consonant SOUNDS, not just consonants. Use “an” when the word following it starts with a vowel or an unsounded “h.”
The Gregg Reference Manual, Tenth Edition (1101), says, “In speech, both “a historic occasion” and “an historic occasion” are okay. It depends on whether the “his” is sounded or left silent. In writing, “a historic occasion” is the form more often used.
Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, University of Chicago Press, (5.72) says that the choice depends on the sound of the word it precedes. “A” comes before words with a consonant sound, no matter how the word is spelled. Further, an “an” comes before words with a vowel sound.
Examples: a historic occasion — an X-Files episode.
Associated Press Stylebook says that a historic event is an important occurrence, one that stands out in history.
Many people say, “An historical occasion,” but “an historical” isn’t used regularly in American English. Using “an” is common, but not universally accepted by experts. Here’s how to figure out which article to use:
Before a word starting with a pronounced, breathy “h,” use “a.” Examples: A hotel; A happy time; A historical day; A healthy, happy baby.
You attend a history class, not an history class. Same with “historical.” It was a historical occasion.
Honeymooners go to a hideaway, not an hideaway. The donkey carried a heavy burden, not an heavy burden. “Historical” is no different.
Use “an” with words beginning with an unpronounced “h.” Examples: An herb garden; an hour; an honor; An heir.
Now, let’s combine them: “Look! An herb garden in a historical setting. Let’s stay an hour, then find a hotel.”
In the UK and other countries with British influence, the “h” in “herb” is usually pronounced. See what I mean about confusing? We’ll almost always find exceptions to every rule. No matter. Just do your best to be a good communicator and move on!