If you’ve ever submitted an article to a newspaper or magazine, you might be familiar with the feeling of joy that comes with hearing that your piece has been accepted for publication – only for it to be crushed, almost immediately, by the disappointment in seeing the alterations the editor has decided to make to the text.
One of the most common ‘corrections’ editors tend to make is around the indefinite article preceding words beginning with the letter h.
Everybody knows the basic rule: ‘a’ is used before words where the h is pronounced, as in a hat or a house, and ‘an’ before words where the h is silent, as in an hour or an honour.
But many seem to ignore the extended rule that ‘an’ can be used before words beginning with h whether or not the h is silent, if the first syllable of the word is unstressed: an historical event or an hysterical pregnancy. Many follow this rule in speech, often without knowing it. But not in writing.
Apparently, it’s a generational thing: younger people tend to prefer ‘a’ in such cases, and it’s considered ‘uncool’ to write ‘an hilarious joke’. Never mind that it’s much easier on the tongue (and the lungs) than ‘a hilarious one’, where you have a sharp break between the article ‘a’ and the first syllable ‘hi’.
One of the causes of this confusion is that, over the centuries, there’s been a shift in the pronunciation of English words starting with the letter h. In the past, many more were pronounced with the h silent – the word ‘hotel’ (from French ‘hôtel’), for example.
In Ancient Greek, the letter h originally had the same phonetic value as in Modern English, but it became totally silent in Latin and in the languages that emerged from it. Therefore it was omitted in Old French and Italian, but it was restored pedantically in French and Middle English spelling; and later in English pronunciation. Except, of course, in Cockney English.