The 'h' you say

The a vs. an issue doesn’t want to go away. Here’s a recent inquiry from a reader:

An Hispanic? A hispanic? An historic moment or a historic moment? It seems older folks go with an while younger ones use a.

There’s no problem with a used before certain words: a hat, a history, a hood. The h is sounded, or aspirated.

There is no problem with an used before certain words: an heir, an honor, an hour. The h is not aspirated.

The problem comes with words beginning with an h* in which the consonant is aspirated weakly, particularly if the stress is on the second syllable rather than the first. Thus the reason that many people have preferred an hotel, because they do not pronounce the word as HO-tel.

Here’s advice from the late R.L. Trask in Say what you mean!:

Should we write a historical event or an historical event? The second derives from the days when many people pronounced these words with no h; that is, they really said an ’istorical event, and so that’s what they wrote. Today, though, almost everyone pronounces an h in such words, and you are firmly advised to prefer a historical event. The other now looks strange or worse to most readers. The same goes for a hotel, which is better than an hotel.

So going with a Hispanic is consistent with what most readers and writers would expect. An hotel, despite a respectable pedigree, now smells of affectation.


* Of course it’s an h because an is used before words beginning with vowel sounds even if the spelling presents a consonant; the letter h is pronounced aitch.



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