Make Your Editor Cry: A or An and what the H?

Make Your Editor Cry:  A or An and what the H?

You would think an article on the articles (see what I did there?) “a” and “an” would be a quickie. You would be mistaken.

Consonant sounds:

When the following word definitely begins with a consonant sound, you need “a.”

Examples:

She peeled a banana.

He saw a mouse.

She thought her boss was a savant.

Her boss thought she was a single woman.

Suddenly, he had a nephew.

Vowel sounds:

With a certain noted exception for the letter U, when the following word definitely begins with a vowel sound, the word is “an.”

Examples:

She peeled an apple.

He saw an elephant.

She thought her boss was an idiot.

Her boss thought she was an old maid.

Suddenly, he was an uncle.

U:

The letter U is an exception exactly half the time. Words beginning with the letter U which start with a long U sound get “a,” not “an.” Words with a short U sound get “an”, not” a.”

Examples:

The college is now a university.

He climbed a utility pole.

She said the new PA was an upstart.

The lifeguards warned of an undertow current.

Consonant with vowel sounds:

When the following word begins with a consonant, but the consonant has a vowel sound, you use the vowel rules so it’s “an.”

Examples:

He selected an H-clamp for the gutters.

She tightened an L-bracket.

The platoon agreed on an M-day.

He drove through an S-curve.

An X-ray should give us more information.

Initialisms:

In the world of abbreviations, initialisms differ from acronyms because we pronounce each individualized initial letter. Scuba is an acronym. TV is an initialism. The same rule for “a” and “an” applies to initialisms like “MRI”. Because the letter M is pronounced like “em,” it’s “an MRI” but when the phrase is spoken instead of the abbreviation, it’s “a magnetic resonance imager.”

Examples:

He stood up an
FTP server because he wanted to use a file
transfer protocol application to share files between his Linux
and Windows lab computers.

The browser made an
HTTP request which is a hypertext transfer
protocol GET request.

A text message is an SMS message, or a short
message service message, which sounds redundant but it's
basically a text message.

Before Gina Carano stared in film and TV shows, she was an
MMA fighter, a
mixed martial arts champion.

He once marched in an NAACP demonstration
although you would think calling it a National
Association of "Colored" People march sounds a bit dated these
days.

Y:

You know that guy that shows up half the time and only half pays attention because he just doesn’t really have a position on anything? Like he’s just middle of the road most of the time and could go either way? Yeah. That guy.

That’s like the “sometimes” Y. The letter Y can either be a vowel or a consonant depending on its mood. Although it is usually sounded as a vowel in words like “lazy” and “bossy,” at the beginning of words it is usually sounded as a consonant, as in “Yam” or “Yokel.” In those cases, it is “a,” not “an.”

Examples:

He separated out a yolk from one of the eggs.

She tied a yellow ribbon around her old oak tree.

But if the Y at the beginning of the word is pronounced
like a vowel, it is an,
not a.

But you know what? Sometimes that Y gets all moody and silent at the beginning of words. Then it’s usually “an,” not “a.”

Examples:

So, is she an
Yvette or a
Yolonda?

Is that an
Yves St. Laurante bag with a Yamaguchi tennis bracelet?

What the H?

Yes, last on the list–and for a good reason–is H words. I deal with H words last because, well, they suck.

So here are the “rules” if you can call them that.

In English, most of the time, you should use “a” before words that begin with hard consonant H sounds. Most of the time, you should use “an” before a word beginning with an H when the “H” is not pronounced and doesn’t sound like a hard vowel Y or a short vowel U.

Examples “an” H:

He felt he had at least made an honest effort.

She received an
Honorable Discharge.

Examples “a” H:

He told a
humorous joke at the party.

He was nothing but a hound dog crying all
the time.

I am intentionally verbalizing “most of the time” in both cases because there are infuriating exceptions. The exceptions don’t really make a lot of sense, and I bet you they have more than one English as a second language student pronouncing all kinds of words, and at lest one of them likely begins with the letter H.

So, what am I talking about? Well, you may get into an argument with our allies in the UK over whether it’s supposed to be “a herb garden” hard consonant H ala Paul Hollywood of the Great British Baking Show or “an herb garden” with that proverbial US English silent H. See, depending on how you pronounce “herb,” well shucks, both can be right.

And there is an ongoing fight over forms of words like “historic,” “hysteric,” “horrific,” “heroic,” and even “hotel” if you can believe it.

Many British folk, Australians, some Canadians (the ones who bother with English, eh?), and a few elite and oh-so-learned and very “sophisticated” US speakers somehow prefer the sound of “an historic event” even with a hard consonant H. Good news. Writing it that way is not likely to get you into any real trouble. But, let’s get serious. It should probably be “a historic event.”

Likewise, “a heroic” regardless of whether The Christiad: An Heroic Poem written in 1535 by Marco Girolamo Vida got it wrong. I doubt Marco ever read a style guide and he certainly missed out on the 1611 KJV. Of course you find examples of “an heroic” throughout the history of the language and even today.

Today, there are people who insist on using “an” before words like historical, hysterical, heroic, horrific and hotel. You’ll likely find at least one instance of  the article “an” in front of some form of one of these H words on the pages of any professionally edited British newspaper or media website.

“The last Star Wars–my review of an horrific film.”

Perhaps they are all speaking Cockney versions of English where those H words are all pronounced without a hard consonant H sound no matter what. “‘Twas an ‘orrific film, Gov. Blimey! Thought me ol’ cow of a wife and I was dun for when Palpatine showed up I did.” Perhaps words like aluminum send them running away all ‘orified into some superfluous and unwritten syllables but they still can’t find that hard H. “I dunno, gov. Got an ‘otel reservation I does.” But, by golly, they’ll pronounce the hard H in herb, won’t they?

Bottom Line:

If the H words give you a heck of a time (see what I did there?), don’t hang up your writing spurs. Just go with what it sounds like when YOU pronounce it aloud, and most of the time you’ll end up with some heavenly prose.

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