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This is an historic question.
February 22, 2008 4:32 PM   Subscribe

What are some other examples of using 'an' in front of a non-vowel like some do with 'an historic...'?

I've always been disturbed by the use of "an historic" because all my meanie old grammar teachers taught me that you only use "an" in front of words that begin with a vowel. This page gives good reasoning and indicates that there's no right answer and that opinion is pretty much split 50/50. The article also gives "an hypothesis" as an example, but I've never heard anyone say it that way. Why does "I saw an hippopotamus" sound so incorrect, even though it follows the 3-syllable rule? So I guess my main question is, what other examples like this exist that people actually use?
posted by afx114 to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
...an herb? Does that count?
posted by buriednexttoyou at 4:37 PM on February 22, 2008


an honor
posted by nathan_teske at 4:37 PM on February 22, 2008


an hotel.
posted by Leon at 4:38 PM on February 22, 2008


an hour
posted by brain cloud at 4:41 PM on February 22, 2008


I always thought you said "an" when it was in front of a word that started with a vowel sound.

An Otter (o-sound)
An Honor (o-sound)
A Hippopotamus (h-sound)
A Hotel (h-sound)
posted by sjl7678 at 4:41 PM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


(this FAQ says (I think) that "an" prepends a word that starts with a vowel when you say it, not when you write it. Which is why I'd never say "an herb" (native Brit)).
posted by Leon at 4:43 PM on February 22, 2008


FWIW every time I've encountered the construction "an historic", it has been pronunced without an "H" sound in it, or: "an 'istoric"
posted by brain cloud at 4:44 PM on February 22, 2008


I thought some British accents didn't pronounce word-starting Hs, and it just carried over. Could be wrong.

I make fun of people who say "an historic." The only people who do it are trying to make something boring sound classy.
posted by Plug Dub In at 4:44 PM on February 22, 2008


The 'vowel sound' rule may work for 'herb' and 'hour' but what about 'historic?' It doesn't start with a vowel sound, unless you pronounce it as 'istoric.'
posted by afx114 at 4:44 PM on February 22, 2008


afx, have a read of this, quite good.

We in the non US English speaking world do pronounce the "h" in herb, so it would be 'a herb'
posted by mattoxic at 4:46 PM on February 22, 2008


@afx114: When I pronounce "historic" I do it "hiss-toric" and use a. "A hiss-toric occasion." I don't really ever hear people saying "iss-toric" but if I did I'm pretty sure it would be used with "an."

"An hiss-toric" and "A iss-toric" sound wrong to me.

(Disclaimer: I'm not in any way educated in English beyond high school)
posted by sjl7678 at 4:48 PM on February 22, 2008


Monty Python: "an halibut"

I notice that every example here is for nouns beginning with H.
posted by Class Goat at 4:51 PM on February 22, 2008


Ahhh.. *lighbulb* ... leads me to another question. Are there any English words containing two back-to-back vowel sounds? It seems to me that's the issue here. It is odd to have two back-to-back vowel sounds, so you convert the 'a' to 'an' to make it flow.
posted by afx114 at 4:52 PM on February 22, 2008


Or a counter-example. "a uniform", "a unicycle"
where it's really pronounced "a youniform", "a younicycle"
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:01 PM on February 22, 2008


@afx114: sure, there are plenty -- re-animate, de-ice... prefixation of words beginning with vowels will lead to double vowel sounds (hence the hyphens, incidentally).

Although in Received Pronunciation (how the Queen speaks) initial "h" sounds are pronounced, many accents of British English do not pronounce it, Cockney being the well-known example. I've always thought that "an h..." was only used when the "h" was dropped, following the normal "an with a vowel" rule.

I suppose that some people may overextend the rule in an attempt to gain linguistic prestige (i.e. sound posh), just as people say things like "He gave John and I a card".
posted by katrielalex at 5:02 PM on February 22, 2008


The /h/-sound is commonly pronounced, or "aspirated", in words of a certain origin - I forget where, Greek or somesuch. When aspirated, it is correctly preceded by "a" in English. The practical difference is the pronunciation, of course, and not the etymological origin. Otherwise, words beginning in nonaspirated h's are preceded by "an". Saying "an /his-tOr-ik/" is pretentious, and wrong; however, "an /is-tOr-ik/" is perfectly fine.

Likewise, in French aspirated h's are preceded by le or la; unaspirated h's by l'. Thus, l'honneur, but le homage.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:03 PM on February 22, 2008


@PercussivePaul (sorry for the double post): That would be a counterexample if you used the spelling of a word to determine the initial sound, but unfortunately English has horribly illogical spelling, so you can't always do that. In the case of "uniform", a consonant "y" is added to the beginning (otherwise it would be pronounced "ooniform") -- so it doesn't really start with a vowel sound!
posted by katrielalex at 5:04 PM on February 22, 2008


Afx: if I understand your question correctly, then the answer would be no, unless the word was borrowed from another language. And even in that case, it would probably be pronounced differently. The reason for this, essentially, is that you can't transition directly from one vowel sound to another without some sort of consonant sound in between. Try making an 'eeeeeeee' sound and slowly transition to 'aaaaaaaaa' - you will notice that in transitioning, you make a 'y' sound. Try going from 'ooooooooo' to 'aaaaaaa' and you notice you make a 'w'.

In other languages, like Arabic, when two vowel sounds are back-to-back, the sounds are actually separated by a glottal stop. Words like al-Qa`ida are transliterated with the '`' symbol to represent that sound. Thus, Qa`ida in Arabic is pronounced 'qa - ida' with the 'ida' part pronounced as if it were the beginning of a new word. English, lacking the glottal stop as part of its alphabet, just pronounces it 'qayda'.

On preview, @katrielax, those hyphenated words, if pronounced out loud, in fact have the sound of a consonant - generally a 'y' - in between the different vowel sounds, which make them sound less wrong than would 'a umpire' - there, we wouldn't add a 'y' and instead would pronounce the glottal, which, because it isn't part of our language, sounds really off to us immediately following another vowel.
posted by ecab at 5:08 PM on February 22, 2008


Actually, the glottal stop is definitely part of the consonant inventory of English, it's just that we don't have a letter that represents it in orthography. But orthography doesn't dictate phonology. The glottal stop shows up a lot in certain dialects (such as Cockney -- it's in "bottle" for example) but almost every American would use this sound in the middle of "uh-oh" and even sometimes before the m in Batman (in fast speech).
posted by tractorfeed at 5:16 PM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Don't focus on the letters. Focus on the phonemes.

Example: "He sank 100 free throws. It's an NBA record!"

N is not a vowel. But the sound it makes when you say "NBA" -- "enn" -- appears as if it does. So it gets an "an." The phoneme is the important thing here, not the letters themselves.

Why does "I saw an hippopotamus" sound so incorrect

Because you pronounce "hippo" with the phoneme of a consonant -- "HIH-po."

This is why people screw up "historic," because some people pronounce it "HISS-toric" with a consonant sound first and some people pronounce it "ISS-storic" with a vowel sound first.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:22 PM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've always wondered about "herbicide". I used to say "'erbicide" until an agronomy major corrected me. Why is it herbicide when your killing "erbs"?
posted by wafaa at 5:26 PM on February 22, 2008


I've always wondered about "herbicide". I used to say "'erbicide" until an agronomy major corrected me. Why is it herbicide when your killing "erbs"?

Probably because "herb" is drawn from Latin through a French filter. Check this out.

When we talk about tasty herbs we throw into a pot, you would tend to use the received French pronunciation of "erb." If you're a scientist using the Latin root to describe the poison, you dispense with the silly French puffery and call it a "HER-bicide."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:34 PM on February 22, 2008


an umbrella.
posted by brandz at 7:21 PM on February 22, 2008


What about "He waited an hour and a half."? I see this a lot instead of what I presume to be correct, "He waited a hour and a half". I was told by one knowledgeable source that you should use "an" in this situation though I seriously doubt her claim.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:26 PM on February 22, 2008


bkeene12, you should use "an." The word hour is pronounced "'our", not "hhhhour."
posted by zsazsa at 8:40 PM on February 22, 2008


I make fun of people who say "an historic." The only people who do it are trying to make something boring sound classy.

You should take a moment and realize that some people have different regional accents than you do, or that there are professional standards for certain pronunciations.

"An historic" is certainly the standard for anyone in the history profession, for example. This is partly because the word "ahistorical" (not-historical, e.g. "the vinyl siding was ahistorical in relation to the Queen Anne architecture") is not unknown, although certainly it's rarer in common conversational English.

I will note that "a historic" is preferred by certain style guides. It is likely that this distinction, the use of the unaspirated or slightly aspirated H, is disappearing.

This is why people screw up "historic," because some people pronounce it "HISS-toric" with a consonant sound first and some people pronounce it "ISS-storic" with a vowel sound first.

Actually, I don't hear the latter outside of "an historic". It may exist, but it's certainly rare.

every time I've encountered the construction "an historic", it has been pronunced without an "H" sound in it

The "h" sound is often there but just barely due to the "n".

What about "He waited an hour and a half."? I see this a lot instead of what I presume to be correct, "He waited a hour and a half".

You presume incorrectly. I have never once in my life heard "a hour", and I do notice a lot of unusual pronunciations (e.g. "athalete").
posted by dhartung at 8:42 PM on February 22, 2008


I hear the "h" clearly pronounced in examples of "an historic"... I guess it depends how much emphasis they're putting on "historic," and how quickly they're speaking.

"Hysterical" is the closest thing I can think of to "historic," and I've found some instances of "an hysterical" on Google. There's also, well, hysterectomy, and not as much luck there. Ditto "hissing," as in "a/an hissing sound."

I would think it's something particular to words starting with an "hih" sound." But yeah, it kinda bugs me too. Explaining the "kn" and "gn" at the beginnings of words is hard enough to explain to non-native speakers.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:56 PM on February 22, 2008


Love this discussion. I always have an issue with "an homage" versus "a homage". I was taught not to pronounce the "h" so I always want to use "an" in front of it but others do seem to pronounce the 'h" so my construction would seem wrong to those people. And for some reason I do want to say "an historic" even though I pronounce the "h". English is hard.
posted by fuse theorem at 10:11 PM on February 22, 2008


Re: words that don't begin with H
I hear it most in spoken acronyms. For instance, I would write, "I got a MRI," because when the acronym is expanded, that's how it should be. But "a MRI" sounds wrong spoken. So people say "an" because it makes the sound flow better.
posted by ctmf at 10:17 PM on February 22, 2008


I think the "homage" thing is a different case, since there are two distinct and correct ways to pronounce it, so whether you use "a" or "an" depends on which one you use. But it's just personal preference, same with "route" or "coupon."

Actually, that reminds that today I was talking with a co-worker about boxed chocolates, and while I'd say "car-a-mel," she'd say "car-mel," which made things kind of awkward. Fortunately we avoided a heated (an heated?) discussion on how to pronounce the word.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:21 PM on February 22, 2008


I would write, "I got a MRI," because when the acronym is expanded, that's how it should be.

But no one ever says "a RBI" in baseball, and the same logic would apply there. (But then again, some people argue that the plural should be "Rs-B-I" instead of "RBIs.")

I'm sure that in the case of acronyms, written or spoken, the article should only be influenced by the sound of the first letter, not what it stands for. NRA would be one of countless other examples. After all, in cases like MRI, not everyone knows what the M stands for.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:29 PM on February 22, 2008


Building on what IamBroom said, I was told that the roots of the l' vs le or la for the aspirated h in French depends on whether the origin of the word was Latin or German. This maybe the what lies behind the difference in English also
posted by Marzipan at 4:27 AM on February 23, 2008


My recollection from a British schooling is that the "an" comes before words that begin with h only if they are words that entered the English language from French and take the silent h in French, like history, hotel, herb, hospital.

As to why Americans say 'erb rather than herb. I seem to remember that it's because everyone who spoke English used to say 'erb from the silent h'd French version of the word. The Americans took 'erb with them to America and we Brits decided to get all "pronounce it as it's spelt" in the nineteenth century and started pointing and laughing at the Americans with their old fashioned speaking ways.
posted by merocet at 4:46 AM on February 23, 2008


An hero?
posted by willpie at 6:00 AM on February 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Regarding words that start with two vowell sounds: aorta, iambic
posted by carmicha at 6:07 AM on February 23, 2008


IIRC, the 'an' is there only to help you say the word. Thus, for MRI, pronounced 'em - are - aye', you would use 'an', but for HBC, if you pronounced it 'heytch - bee - see', you would use 'a', but if you pronounced it 'etch - bee - see' you would use 'an'. Similarly, if you say 'istoric', you would use 'an', but if you say 'hiss - toric', you would use 'a'.
posted by sid at 7:45 AM on February 23, 2008


I hear the "h" clearly pronounced in examples of "an historic"

That's because people read that it should be "an historic" (based on dialects that don't pronounce the h-) and even though they themselves pronounce the h- they obediently write it that way because they trust an authoritative-sounding commandment over their own sense of the language. This is the basic reason people have so many problems with deciding what's "correct"; if they'd throw out their goddam Strunk-'n'-Whites and other Thou Shalt Not books and trust their ear, the way people used to do in, say, Shakespeare's time, all these neuroses would disappear and people would speak and write better.

Really, it's very simple: if you hear a vowel when you say it, write an; if you hear a consonant, write a. This happens automatically when you speak.

I would write, "I got a MRI," because when the acronym is expanded, that's how it should be.

No, that's not how it works. MRI is pronounced "emm-ar-eye," so it counts as a vowel word.
posted by languagehat at 7:46 AM on February 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


dhartung at 11:42 PM:
"An historic" is certainly the standard for anyone in the history profession, for example. This is partly because the word "ahistorical" (not-historical, e.g. "the vinyl siding was ahistorical in relation to the Queen Anne architecture") is not unknown, although certainly it's rarer in common conversational English.


Thanks for the education. I didn't realize that.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:12 AM on February 23, 2008


An hero?

I doubt it, but maybe "an heroic"?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:10 PM on February 23, 2008


Everybody has likely moved on from this thread but on last night's Academy Awards telecast, Jon Stewart used the expression "an historic" twice in his opening monologue. The first time the closed captioning didn't display what he said but the second time it "corrected" his wording to "a historic". I guess the captioner had a problem with Jon's grammar. If I were Jon or any of the other of the other speakers I don't think I'd appreciate being second-guessed by some anonymous captioner.
posted by fuse theorem at 5:13 AM on February 25, 2008


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