or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, January 02, 2006


One unfortunately pretentious misuse of English is displayed in this sentence from BoingBoing:

Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has an hilarious editorial in this week's TV Guide about the future of television:

There aren't many absolute rules in English, but one of them is, "Use 'a' before a consonant sound and 'an' before a vowel sound." It doesn't have to be an actual vowel, just the sound of one: if you pronounce "herb" without the aspirate, as is commonly done in North America, then you would have to say "an herb".

So why do so many people say "an hilarious"? "Hilarious" is never pronounced in standard English with an unaspirated "h-" (well, it is if you're Cockney, but that's hardly standard English). Do these same people say "an hot dog", "an high-wire act", "an hostile takeover"?

The reason they say "an hilarious editorial" is that 1) they think it's correct or 2) they think it sounds posh. They're wrong on both counts. It is true that once upon a time, the aspirated "h-" sound wasn't pronounced in a great many words (look at "herb"); for this we can thank the French, from whom we borrowed so many words and in whose language the leading "h-" sound is not in fact pronounced, as in "histoire" ("story/history"), for example, or "heure" ("hour"). These two examples neatly demonstrate that some English words derived from French still begin with the silent "h-", as in "hour", and that others don't, as in "history". (Still others vary according to where they're spoken; in England, "herbal" is usually aspirated.)

In English, with precious few exceptions, we do pronounce that leading "h-" sound, and we therefore announce its arrival with "a". Not "an".


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