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An versus A, II

Why It Should Not Take a Hour to Get to an Hospital, II

by Owen Fourie

Part Two of ornets and ospitals

“I was stung by an ornet,” my Cockney friend explained to his wife, “and I ad to be rushed to ospital.”

This set me thinking about the use of the indefinite articles a and an and the definite article the—ground that we covered in the first part of “ornets and ospitals.”

Let’s go on to sort out the problem of the use of a or an before h and much else besides.

a before consonant sounds

The rule for the indefinite article a is that it must be used before a consonant sound—note: not a consonant, but the sound of a consonant.

  • a bee
  • a cat
  • a dog
  • a ewe (a female sheep; it begins with a vowel but is pronounced, yoo, a consonant sound)
  • a one-way ticket (one begins with a vowel but has a consonant sound as in wonder)
  • a unicorn (a mythological creature; it begins with a vowel but is pronounced, yoo-ni-korn)

an before vowel sounds

The rule for the indefinite article an is that it must be used before a vowel sound—note: not a vowel, but the sound of a vowel.

  • an application
  • an examination
  • an inquiry
  • an operation
  • an understanding

an before h when speaking

To know what to do with an before h, ask four questions:

1. Is the h silent?

If the h at the beginning of a word is not heard, use an before the word:

  • an hour
  • an heir to a fortune
  • an herb (often pronounced erb in the US)
  • an honest stockbroker
  • an honor

2. Is the h heard?

If the h is heard, use a.

  • a hair in my sandwich (yuck!)
  • a hat
  • a hayfield
  • a hedge
  • a herb (pronounced with the h-sound in British English)
  • a heritage
  • a hint
  • a hospital
  • a hunt

3. Is the first syllable of the h-word unstressed?

If the first syllable of an h-word is not stressed, use an.

  • an historic event
  • an hotel
  • an hypothesis

Wait! Before you use an, consider this:

It is here that controversy springs to life. Unlike hour, heir, and honest, these words, when not following an, clearly retain the h-sound.

It is not without reason that older English speakers still say an before some h-words.

This use is rooted in history, but we have to take into account that a language does undergo change. Consequently, many younger English speakers tend not to use an.

(You can read about this in an item by Michael Quinion. You’ll find a link to his article at the end of this post.)

This is really a matter of how you pronounce these words.

In rapid speech, the h-sound is easily omitted. This forces you to supply a sound that easily links a and the vowel-sound that follows the omitted h-sound. The indefinite article an fits the bill.

The classic instance is the Cockney dialect that drops the h. Cockney speakers are technically correct when they use an before words where they have dropped the h-sound, as in, an ospital and an ornet.

4. Is the transition from a to the sound of h difficult?

If the transition from a to the sound of h in an h-word is difficult, it might be better to use an.

In my opinion, if you say

  • a historic event
  • a hotel
  • a hypothesis

you’ll probably find it necessary to use the ay-sound for a to say these more easily if you don’t use an.

an before h when writing

In your writing, be conscious of the need to use an before all h-words commonly pronounced with a silent h.

  • an hour
  • an heir
  • an herb (American English)
  • an honest stockbroker
  • an honor

In h-words where the first syllable is unstressed, you will find an used in reputable writing.

  • an historic event
  • an hotel
  • an hypothesis

In such instances, though, it is not wrong to write a seeing that the h is not silent. This is where change is occurring in usage.

  • a historic event
  • a hotel
  • a hypothesis

a before h when writing

Where the h-sound is pronounced and a stressed syllable follows it, use a in your writing.

  • a hair
  • a hat
  • a hayfield
  • a hedge
  • a herb (British English)
  • a heritage
  • a hint
  • a hospital
  • a hunt

Of acronyms and arbitrage

(arbitrage has to do with money)

For acronyms and money, use an before vowel sounds and a before consonant sounds .

  • an FDA ruling (an “ef-d-a” ruling)
  • a NATO strategy (a “nato” strategy)
  • an $80 price tag (an eighty-dollar price tag)
  • a $50 bill (a fifty-dollar bill)

Being stung by a hornet might be more bearable than trying to use a, an, and the correctly in speech. Try to get this right in your writing, though.

The link to World Wide Words

Please read Michael Quinion’s response to a question about the use of the indefinite article before words starting with h.

Here’s a bonus! A short video clip from My Fair Lady. Note: “dropping h’s everywhere.”

—–

Do you say, “a hotel” or “an hotel”? If you say “a hotel” (listen to yourself), do you really manage to say this without changing the “uh” sound to an “ay” sound and saying, “ay hotel”? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

Copyright © 2012 by English Essay Writing Tips www.englishessaywritingtips.com


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