Definitely Indefinite


‘An Historical Note

‘He was sojourning at an hotel in Bond Street.’
Anthony Trollope

Here’s a hypothesis – or rather four separate but vaguely related hypotheses – on words beginning with h and an unstressed syllable (or why some people say an history, an hotel and an hypothesis):

  1. Once upon a time all educated people spoke French and so pronounced history, such as the French word histoire, with a silent h. Appropriately they gave it the article an.
  2. Some – less well-educated and therefore non-French-speaking – people spoke badly, were lazy about pronouncing their aitches, and so got into the habit of saying an ‘istory.
  3. Educated people disliked dropping aitches, so began to pronounce them in French words that traditionally used the article an: an history.
  4. People spoke too quickly, running together the words a and history, so that it became pronounced anistory. When they paused for breath, and separated things out a bit, they thought the word must be an history.

Note the inherent snobbishness of these hypotheses. It crops up a lot in the study of language.

But whatever the origins of the practice may be, the rule is: if the h is pronounced (as in history, hotel and hypothesis), the correct article is a; if it is not pronounced (as in honour and hour), use an.’

– Taggart. C., Wines. J.A. 2008. My Grammar And I (or should that be ‘me’?) London, Great Britain: Michael O’Mara (2011) p. 42-43

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