A or an before h

 

Q:

It's easy most of the time to know when to use a and when to use an: the initial sound of the next word determines that. However, there are a few combinations that puzzle me: a/an historical perspective, a/an hotel?

JL
Jacksonville, Mississippi

A:

Historically speaking, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), "an was once a common variant before words beginning with h in which the first syllable was unstressed; thus, 18th-century authors wrote either a historical or an historical but a history, not an history." By 1926, H. W. Fowler (Modern English Usage) regarded the continued use of an before such words as pedantic. Nowadays it survives primarily before the word "historical"; one rarely encounters a reference to "an hysterectomy" or "an hereditary trait."

Apparently using a or an before the h- of the unstressed syllable of a few words is at the discretion of the speaker or writer. Some people say a historic time, others say an historic time; some say a hotel, others say an hotel; some say a hysterical child, others an hysterical child.

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