Monday, 13 October 2008

"a" or "an" and Common Sense

Think of the word house. Should the indefinite article before it be “a” or “an”?
And what about “a historic event”, or should that be “an historic “ ?

Discussing this issue (recently on Writer’s News Talkback) it seems that general opinion is that “an house” sounds quite wrong, and that we use 'an' before words that begin with a vowel - apple, egg, icicle, umbrella … know what the vowels are ….but also before words that sound as if they begin with a vowel eg. hour, heir, honest and others that begin with a silent “h”. Then there’s words such as uniform and unit, that clearly begin with a vowel but are not pronounced as such , so “a” is used before them.
"An hotel" is still used on some occasions. Which to me always was and still is ridiculous. By trying to say "an hotel" we end up dropping the aitch, and it comes out as "an 'otel" which can't be right - unless you are acting in "allo, allo".
I used to have lengthy discussion with small children when reciting the alphabet. I insist (rightly or wrongly) that "H" is pronounced "aitch" and not "haitch" , which sort of confuses people about the dropped H thing even more. Saying "haitch" to me sounds like attempting to put on a Queen's English voice and ending up sounding like less than "posh".

All in all then it must be a matter of taste and personal choice of what we write or say. How this can fit in with an education system and curriculum that relies on right or wrong answers mixed with markers/examiners “common sense” is for another discussion. Common sense is a phrase that is used regularly in the media and in ordinary people’s conversation – I have even heard David Cameron use it recently when referring to his intentions if or when he becomes Prime Minister.
Yet there is not, and can not be, a definitive stance on what is common sense. It has to be a personal choice combined with a con-census of general opinion – usually known as democracy.

Strange place, this United Kingdom, hisn't it ?