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A or An Before Words Beginning With H?

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!


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