Gramlee Blog

Indefinite Articles – “A” or “An” before “H”? Blame the confusion on the French.

It’s easy to remember what indefinite article to use before most words:

  • Use “a” before words that begin with a consonant as in “a banana,” “a xylophone,” or “a red convertible.”
  • Use “an” before words that begin with a vowel as in “an apple,” “an editor,” or “an eager beaver.”

However, words that start with the letter “H” do not follow the rule for consonants. For the letter “H”, the pronunciation dictates the indefinite article:

  • Use “a” before words where you pronounce the letter “H” such as “a hat,” “a house” or “a happy cat.”
  • Use “an” before words where you don’t pronounce the letter “H” such as “an herb,” “an hour,” or “an honorable man.”


Are the French to blame for breaking the rule of indefinite articles?

The first Englishmen on the British Isles first spoke Old English or Anglo-Saxon. This is a Germanic language where the “H” is pronounced at the beginning of such words as “house” and “helpful.” These words use the indefinite article “a.”

Circa 1066 AD, the Normans crossed the English Channel from France to take over England. Along with more sophisticated stone architecture and organized armies, the Normans merged French words into English. In French, the letter “H” is not pronounced at the beginning of words such as “herb,” “honorable,” and “hour.” These and other such words use the indefinite article “an.