Q From Tym King; related questions came from many other subscribers: I was interested in your use of an before heraldic in a recent issue because I’ve never known the “rule” for using an with words beginning with h. The famous example of course is an hotel. Though I admit it’s just an affectation, I also use an with hilarious and several other words. But I wouldn’t think of doing it with homily though I have no idea why. And I always pronounce the h in these examples. What rules do you follow?
A The number of comments and queries that arrived after that issue demonstrates that my usage here is open to debate. The fact is, as happens often in real English, the rules are more complicated than the ones we learned in school. And there’s some difference between spoken and written English.
The school rule is that an must be used before words beginning with h in which the h is silent, such as honourable. That’s correct, but many people — often without knowing it — follow an extended rule: that in speech an appears before a word beginning with h if the first syllable of that word is unstressed, whether or not the h is silent. If you listen carefully you can tell in such cases that the h is also partially or wholly elided away; that’s because it’s quite hard in rapid speech to articulate an unstressed a before an unstressed h without putting some other sound in between and losing the full strength of the h. But it’s common to write a.
But not always. In the Independent of 14 November 2005, a story included the line, “being housed in an historic building with very particular architectural features”. The Newcastle Evening Chronicle for 15 November 2005 had “Today they addressed Tories at an hotel near Newcastle”. It would be possible to find thousands of other examples in recent decades, to which could be added copious cases of an hypothesis, an heroic, an horrific, and others. All these reflect the actual spoken usage.
The situation is complicated by a shift that has been taking place in the pronunciation of words with initial h over the past couple of centuries. At one time, many more were said with the h silent. This explains the appearance of an in old texts where we would now use a; the classic case is that of the King James Bible, where — to take the first example out of dozens — in Genesis the text reads “And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years”. A good example is that of herb, which Americans today continue to say the way their English forefathers did, without the initial h. British English has moved on, and it is now thought uneducated for British speakers to say erb.
To complicate the matter, usage is shifting. Younger people prefer a more often in such cases in speech as well as writing. Forms like an hotel are heard from, and written by, older people in the main. I use an hotel consistently in both speech and writing, and count myself old-fashioned as a result. The form an heraldic you mention is by no means unknown, though it is less common than the others, but that may just be because we have less cause to use the phrase than ones like an hotel.