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In response to our recent newsletter In Print Is Forever, readers sent in numerous comments focusing on the proper use of a vs. an. A particularly tricky issue relates to their use before words beginning with the letter h. For example, Virginia M. wrote:
I love your column this week. Do you think you could follow up your sentence, “Use an when the first letter of the word
following has the sound of a vowel,” with a column about how people should not use an to precede words like historical that have the “h” sound? I hear this misuse so often on news programs these days, and it drives me batty.
When we informed Virginia that we did just that in our newsletter "Words Can Be Bullies," published on September 3, 2013, she suggested we repeat that newsletter annually. While we're not likely to repeat it each year, we are happy to rerun the article today for the benefit of our many new subscribers since the time it last appeared. We hope this provides a worthwhile refresher for our long-time subscribers as well.
Words Can Be Bullies
Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.
Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used
for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas
many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an
Englishman says “a herb.”
A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important
speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an
heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a
few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),”
“hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to
have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also
About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning,
“A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor,
insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the
magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is
In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an
hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes
“hysterical” so different from “historical”?
A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce
common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word
beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not
pronounced” (from the website
Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following
this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an
historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).
Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a
reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of
‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such
similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high
bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).
Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember
lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the
way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual
polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated
boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was
At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and
Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there.
Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had
taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a
national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)
Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard,
neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length
by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked
him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of
them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time
he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad
Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation,
did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the
metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or
heightened capacity on your part?”
I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As
the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were
being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t
recall his answer.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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