Indefinite Articles: A vs. An

It’s definitely all in the ear

The article an is sometimes incorrectly used in place of a before history and other h words because of a strange notion that an is proper for all h words. If I recall (dimly), I myself came under the influence of this notion back in my school days.

The real rule: Use an before a vowel sound. Use a before a consonant sound.

That’s sound. As in when spoken. This is one situation where spelling does not count. Sometimes a consonant sounds like a vowel and therefore takes an; sometimes a vowel sounds likes a consonant and therefore takes a. Practice aloud, and you’ll see that the rule largely reflects what’s easiest to say. A linguist would no doubt have a fancy explanation for why that is. All of these examples are correct:

A . . .
eulogy
euphoric mood
ewe
habit
hairy monster
history
humanitarian
master of business administration (MBA)
nongovernmental organization (NGO)
unit

An . . .
apple
error
exit
FBI agent
heiress
heirloom
herb
honest day’s work
hour
idiom
MBA (master of business administration)
NGO (nongovernmental organization)
umbrella

Simple, right? Makes sense too. Then why do we see “an historic” and the like floating about?

It could be the legacy of America’s British forebears. The Brits tend to not pronounce the h in words like historical and hotel. In addition, there’s an old rule that says that when an h is weakly pronounced—as it sort of is when the accent is on the second syllable—the vowel next to it dictates that you use an. That explains that. But while a charmingly accented “an ’istoric” may rule in the UK, on this side of the Atlantic, it’s history.