This week on Grammar Grater, we're taking a question from a listener in Madison, Wisconsin. Rick writes:
I had always thought that an was used before a word with that starts with a vowel sound and a is used before a word that starts with a consonant sound. But now there seems to be a trend towards using an before words that start with an "h" even if they pronounce the "h." Can you clear this up for me, please?
Thanks for the question Rick, it's a good one.
The rules for using the indefinite article a or an rely heavily on the sounds of the words that follow it. A is used before words that have a consonant sound, and an is used when the word following it has a vowel sound.
I'll have a breakfast burrito.
I would like an omelette.
That's simple enough; but things get tricky when the word immediately after the indefinite article begins with the letter "h."
Several words beginning with "h" are pronounced in a way that does not aspirate or pronounce the first letter. As such, these would take the word an before them:
I made an honest attempt to wake up early
But it took you an hour and a half.
The situation is further complicated by words whose initial sound isn't stressed. Words like "historical" or "hysterical" are stressed in their second syllable, which de-emphasizes the initial aspirant "h" sound and gives the word more of a vowel sound.
Fowler's Modern English Usage explains this further:
Opinion is divided over the form to use before h-words in which the first syllable is unstressed: the thoroughly modern thing to do is to use a (never an) together with an aspirated h (a habitual, a heroic, a historical, a hypothesis) but not to demur if others use an with minimal or nil aspiration given to the following h.
Gordon Jarvie corroborates this in the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide:
The consensus nowadays seems to favor a hotel over an hotel, a historical event over an historical event, though the latter are not wrong.
Since the distinction is almost entirely based on pronunciation, a good rule of thumb is to think about how you would say the word in question. If you pronounce the "h" in the word, then you should use the indefinite article a.
Habitual late sleeper
The h sound is clearly present, so it would be "a habitual late sleeper."
If the h sound is not pronounced, then use the indefinite article an.
There's no h sound, so it would be "an hour late"
Sources: Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh.
Music from this Episode: "History of Lovers" by Iron & Wine and Calexico; "Ana Ng" by They Might Be Giants