Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation… This week, is it “a” or “an”?
Q: Woooo, hi there guys, I just got in from pouring ice cold water over my head and filming it – it’s all over the internet!
A: And do you know what that’s for?
Q: Um, well no. It’s just the ice bucket challenge… something celebrities are doing for fun isn’t it?
A: Actually, it’s raising awareness for ALS, also known as MND (Motor Neuron Disease) here in Australia. Quite the viral sensation.
Q: Yes! That’s the one! Now, anyway, I was writing about taking the challenge and how for me it was “an historic occasion”… But someone pointed out that ‘historic’ shouldn’t have ‘an’ before it. Is there a rule? Because it SOUNDS right…
A: Dubious use of ‘historic’ too… But anyway. “An” is one of those things we grow up putting in front of words beginning with vowels. (An envelope. An apple. An ice bucket. An internet sensation.) However, those vowels are red herrings really.
A: Well, you wouldn’t say “an unicorn”. And you WOULD say “an hour”. So it’s not so much the letter but the SOUND it makes. If your word begins with a vowel sound (or an acronym beginning with a letter that makes a vowel sound like F, M, N etc), you should place “an” before it.
Q: So I’d be instigating “an FBI investigation” at “an NBA all stars game”?
A: Only if you had the proper clearance. (And I’d be taking a long look at that badge.) But yeah. So that’s all good with most letters. And then there’s H…
Q: Yeah, H. Like hours and honorary and historic.
A: Those first two are easy. They clearly have the H as silent, so begin with a vowel sound and deserve the “an”. Yet, standing alone, the words ‘historic’ or ‘historical’ start with a clear ‘H’ consonant sound. And so should be preceded by ‘a’ as in: “it is a historic occasion.”
Q: Hmmmm, this still doesn’t sound right.
A: True. In fact, outside American English, the softer ‘h’ pronunciation in words like ‘historic’/’historical’ do sound okay with the “an” in front. You probably wouldn’t blink at “an historical novel” for example. But would you say “an history lesson”? It’s really the same word, same first sound. Just a bit of an illusion because the stress is not falling on the first syllable (hi-STOR-ic vs HIS-tory), so it feels okay. But rules are rules, and for consistency, we’d recommend you go with the vowel sound rule!
Q: Wow, you’re right. So to recap?
A: If the beginning of the word sounds like it starts with a vowel, you’ll plonk “an” in front. Otherwise, stick to “a”.
Q: Thanks! This has been a H lesson worth knowing.
A: I think you mean “an H lesson worth knowing”.
Q: What do you mean? The sound of the letter is “haitch” isn’t it?…
A: Get out right now. Leave the bucket.
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