A[n] honorary language convention

A few days ago, a reader asked me to address the subject of indefinite articles preceding words beginning with the letter “h.”

I reviewed my understanding of the rules pertaining to the subject and set it aside pending consultation of a few sources. At the same time, I suspected this might be one of those rules that vary by region and knew I’d have to take that into account as I addressed it.

The timing is apt, as we already have a rousing international debate going, following my comments yesterday about whether periods and commas go inside or outside quotation marks, another issue lacking global agreement.

I was tickled to hear from readers yesterday, who wrote in from such exotic places as Belo Horizonte, Brisbane, Canberra, Jakarta, Lima, Manila, Ontario, Oxford, Vancouver and Tucson on the matter of inside-versus-outside-the-quotes issue, even if they didn’t agree with me. Especially if they didn’t agree with me.

So let’s look at indefinite articles and see if we can keep this global dialogue going.

The question before us: Which indefinite article, “a” or “an,” precedes a word beginning with “h?”

The consensus I glean from U.S. and international sources is that “a” is used before words beginning with “h” unless the “h” is silent, in which case “an” is used.

Many have noticed, as have I, that “an” has come to precede words in which the “h” is pronounced; for example, historic, as “an historic event.”

I’d be inclined to give a little latitude where regional pronunciations vary with regard to the “h.” In the United States, we’d likely say, “an herb,” though Martha Stewart and select others opt for the European pronunciation and, therefore, would use a different indefinite article: “a herb.”

I’d welcome comments by my fellow wordies from around the globe. Better yet, wouldn’t it be fun to convene a global summit on language differences? Unlike the World Trade Organization or the World Health Organization or the International Standards Organization, which strive for international standardization, the goal of the GSLD could be  to understand and celebrate regional approaches to language.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not for linguistic anarchy. While there are more than one authoritative style guide, I prefer to choose one and stick to it. Moreover, where style guides agree, I advocate for consistent adherence, at least within U.S. borders. But if we Yankees prefer to keep our punctuation tucked neatly within our quotation marks, and use “an” preceding an “h,” and you English speakers abroad adhere to your own national standards, then I applaud you. I’d also like to sit across a table from you and continue the conversation, maybe sink our teeth in to the Oxford comma, because we obviously share a passion for words.

Does Geneva have room for one more international organization? Is there an honorific (or a honorific?) who’s willing to serve as chair?

3 Comments

Filed under All Things Wordish, Politics, Travel

3 responses to “A[n] honorary language convention

  1. Dennis Jones

    This is a problem peculiar to languages like English, where the use of articles is not governed by gender (eg, in French, le/la or un/une) but by things such as the existence of other sounds, which can vary depending on region and, therefore, seem appropriate in some places but not so in others.

  2. Sheree

    Again I say, “Thank you, thank you verry much”.

  3. Dennis Jones (above) is absolutely right and I couldn’t have said it more concisely. The rule of thumb applies: ‘an’ for silent ‘h’ and ‘a’ for voiced ‘h’ words. There are exceptions such as the famous ‘an historic’ – those things are just learnt by rote in many cases (easier if you grew up in an English-speaking place). ‘An historic’ is a very good example because the word ‘historic’ must be pronounced at high speed, which causes a silent ‘h’, so causing ‘an’ to be pronounced with it. Cockney speakers usually drop their aitches, so they usually compensate with upping their ‘an’s’. Interestingly, Americans tend to pronounce ‘historic’ slower than the British, but the slower American pronunciation is becoming the trend now among British English speakers. It’s just something I notice.

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