Have you ever been confused about when to use “a” and “an” before words beginning with “h”? You’re not alone. Some of the most famous people in the world don’t use the rules properly. Here’s what the style guides say:
Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage (2003) says that “a” is used before consonant SOUNDS, not just consonants. Use “an” when the word following it starts with a vowel or an unsounded “h.”
The Gregg Reference Manual, Ninth Edition, concurs.
Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, University of Chicago Press, says: The indefinite article a, not an, is used in American English before words beginning with a pronounced h.
Examples: a hotel – an honor – a historical study – an heir.
Associated Press Stylebook 2003 says: A historic event is an important occurrence, one that stands out in history.
Many people say, “An historical occasion,” but “an historical” isn’t idiomatic in American English. Using “an” is common, but not universally accepted by experts. Here’s how to figure out which article to use:
Before a word starting with a pronounced, breathy “h,” use “a.” Examples: A hotel; A happy time; A historical day; A healthy, happy baby.
You attend a history class, not an history class. Same with “historical.” It was a historical occasion.
Honeymooners go to a hideaway, not an hideaway. The donkey carried a heavy burden, not an heavy burden. “Historical” is no different.
Use “an” with words beginning with an unpronounced “h.” Examples: An herb garden; an hour; an honor; An heir.
Now, let’s combine them: “Look! An herb garden in a historical setting. Let’s stay an hour, then find a hotel.”
In the UK and other countries with British influence, the “h” in “herb” is often pronounced. See what I mean about confusing? We’ll almost always find exceptions to every rule. No matter. Just do your best to be a good communicator and move on!