Rantings of a sub-editor

February 17, 2010

A heavy haspiration

Filed under: a/an,esteemed persons,Richard Dixon,word choice — substuff @ 10:37 am
Tags: , ,

The first work email I get this morning is from the Chief. It is short and to the point:

“a: it’s a hotel, a historic, not an hotel, an historic.”

I beg to differ, Brighton Argus style guide (now online)

Aside from the worries I have about the mental health of a man who spends his spare time reading style guides for local newspapers of cities he doesn’t live in (and he’s not even a sub!), I thought this was an interesting gripe.

Before I continue, let’s just point out that aspiration (a kind of short pant!) is important in this debate. To aspirate, says the OED, is to produce a sound with an exhalation of breath. So, if we’re talking h-wise, hotel, happy and Hove are aspirated, but heir and honour are not. Hot!

Fowler’s says, rather charmingly:

Opinion is divided over the form to use before h-words in which the first syllable is unstressed: the thoroughly modern thing to do is to use a (never an) together with an aspirated h (a habitual, a heroic, a historical, a Homeric, a hypothesis), but not to demur if others use an with minimal or nil aspiration given to the following h (an historic, an horrific, etc).

No demurring, you old-fashioned types!

The Times Style Guide, however, supports the Chief.

use an before unaspirated han heir, an honest woman, an honour; also, prefer an hotel to a hotel, an historic to a historic, an heroic rather than a heroic

Kit and I err on the side of the modern on this one. We are sticking to a historical event, a habitual tic, etc. But I’ll admit to the occasional wistful sigh.

A little trivia on the subject, courtesy of Fowler’s:

Three special cases:
an hotel (with no aspiration on the second word) is now old-fashioned, but by no means extinct.

In humble, the h was originally mute and the pronunciation prevailed until the 19c, but is now obsolete: it should therefore be preceded by a, not an.

In American English, herb, being pronounced with silent h, is always preceded by an, but the same word in British English, being pronounced with an aspirated h, by a.

Bet this post has got y’all aspirating heavily

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