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A(n) Historical Moment in the Use of a/an

Updated: Aug 9, 2021


We know that there’s a certain way to use a/an in our communication: a should come before a consonant, and an should come before a vowel.


Is that always the case though?


There are some things that we say reflexively because it’s how we’ve always heard them said. A & an are great examples of this.

My husband broached this subject with me Sunday night after reading some comments regarding a and an in a Reddit post. He sent me the link, and after I read the comments, this was our conversation:

Then I grabbed my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the AP Stylebook. My husband listened as I read what each of the style guides had to say about a and an. He’s a good man—very supportive.


Have you ever said to someone, “It’ll take me a hour to get there”? It’s doubtful. Rather you say, “It’ll take me an hour to get there.” That sounds a lot better, right?


Have you ever told someone that “this is an one-time thing”? Nooooo. Instead, you’ve probably said, “This is a one-time thing,” right?


So, how in the world do our brains just instinctively choose whether or not to say or write a/an?


It’s all in the way it rolls off the tongue.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), 17th Edition and the AP Stylebook, 55th Edition both tell us to use a before consonant sounds (not words that necessarily begin with a consonant), and to use an before vowel sounds (not words that necessarily begin with a vowel).


Let’s go back to the example I used above: an hour. The h is a consonant, so why does the word an precede it? Does the h in the word hour have a long h sound like in the word hat? Nope. It sounds like the word our. (Hour and our are homophones by the way.) Both of these words begin with a vowel sound. That’s the key.


If you want to learn more about homophones, you can read my previous blog post here.


Homage

Whether or not to put a or an before the word homage is a different story. The AP Stylebook tells us that using an before homage is correct because the h is silent. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary and dictionary.com, it can go either way—the h can be silent or not. According to the Cambridge Dictionary and the Macmillan Dictionary, the h is not silent.


This means that the decision is left up to us. Hooray! I love it when things like this happen in the English language—we can make choices for ourselves because there is “more than one way to skin a cat.” Pardon the idiom.


I guess it all just depends on the way we say it.


Historical

A word that a lot of people have trouble with is historical, not knowing whether to use a or an in front of it. Does historical get pronounced with or without the h? I guess we can kind of equate this to the rule of thumb for homage, as stated above; however, I recommend pronouncing both historical and homage with the h if you’re an American living in the United States. Why? Because a lot of these words are derived from the French, and they have a different way of pronouncing their words that begin with h. We already had a system put in place for the way words beginning with h should be pronounced when we adapted them, so why be an Eliza Doolittle about it? Or go ahead and be poised and polished—it’s your choice. That is the beauty of the English language.

Abbreviations

Taken from the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), 17th Edition (5.74), “The same is true for abbreviations. If the first letter or syllable is sounded as a consonant, use a {a PDF file}. If the first sound is a vowel, use an {an ATM}.”


Yep, it’s that easy.


If you’re a writer, think about your target audience—how will they pronounce the word(s) homage and historical? When you have the answer, you’ll know whether to use a or an in your prose.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to send me a message in the chat window (lower right), or send me an email at thewerdnerdediting@gmail.com.



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