When should I use one vs. the other, above? I'd guess 'an' is more British, and 'a' is more American English, but...
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Hello Coreyj

Generally, 'an' precedes 'h' where the 'h' is either silent, or so light as to be almost inaudible:

'A historical novel' > 'an historical novel'.
'This is not a hotel' > 'this is not an hotel.'

In 'historical' and 'hotel', for instance, the 'h' syllable is unstressed. (In 'hotel', in fact, the 'h' used not to be pronounced.)

On the other hand, you would (I hope) never hear someone say 'it's an Hogarth' (in the sense 'a painting by Hogarth'), because the 'H' is heavy and precedes a stressed syllable.

That's the rule-of-thumb. You'll find that Merriam-Webster gives 'an historic occasion', for instance.

The drawback is that many people these days (in BrE at least) find it slightly affected. (Though if you were French, it would be fine: everyone would assume that you were importing the generally silent French 'h' into English. It might even seem charming.)

As for me, 'an hotel' and 'an historical' set my teeth on edge. I don't mind if 'an h...' accompanies a certain kind of antiquated accent – say, the kind we associate with an 80-year-old dowager whose pronunciations of 'often' and 'orphan' are identical. (The Dame Edith Evans type.) Otherwise, I feel it should be a flogging offence.

But you're probably safer with 'an h...' in written English, at least. No one can say you're wrong.

Things may be different in AmE.


I agree completely with MrP on the use of the indefinite article with aspirated 'h' (a hat) vs unaspirated 'h' (an honor).

However, I was ignorant of the social stigma attached to one or the other in marginal cases like 'hotel' and 'historic'-- I had thought that it was more a case of individual ease of pronunciation (I myself usually say 'a hotel' and 'an historic occasion', and therefore write them that way), and I have been teaching my students to speak it trippingly on the tongue and see which works best in such cases as:

____ Hawaiian guitar
____ Havana cigar
____ hallucinatory experience
____ homage to Santa Roselia
____ Herculean task

If the first syllable is unstressed, then the aspiration weakens considerably. 'Hotel' is of course open to two pronunciations. Where there will be an obvious trans-Atlantic difference is with such as:

____ herb salad
____ humble pie
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Yes; the first syllable of 'hotel' is longer than the first syllable of 'historic'; perhaps that makes a difference.

I expect the 'irrational vexation' part is just me. I probably wouldn't even notice 'an historic' in a non-BrE accent. Aitches do seem to cause a lot of trouble over here, as *** Van *** discovered.

(In Ireland too, where the Aitch/Protestant vs Haitch/Catholic divide serves as a kind of shibboleth.)

I'd be interested to hear Nona's thoughts.

Yes, in American English, we pronounce our H's, so it should be "a historic" and "a hotel," and definitely not "an" in front of either one of those words. So Iagree with the general rule stated at the very beginning, but disagree with the idea that the h is unstressed in AmE.
I am American and agree with MrP. People who say "an historic event" seem to be affecting an accent they think sounds educated ... it still sounds wrong.

Of course, words beginning with silent h's take "an", because there is no pronounced consonant at the beginning of the word. Same rule as always. However, the 'h' in hotel and historic is actually pronounced, so no 'an'. (!) Soft pronunciation of other consonants at the beginning of words doesn't result in those words taking 'an'.

I don't know how reliable this source is, but I agree...

Summary: use 'an' for words that begin with a vowel sound (i.e., an hour, a historic).

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I tend to use "an" with "honor" or "honest" (and their derivatives) only. All other words starting with "h" tend to be preceded by "a".
@darkmax: I doubt you actually say 'a hour.' ;-)
I am rather perplexed now after reading so many ideas about a historical and an historical. All I want to say is that I have heard two US presidents (present and former) say "an historic event ..." in their public addresses; and hence, I deduced that it was probably used in American English. I am not an English speaking person, and such things are quite challenging for me to understand and to explain.
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