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It is well-known that the determiner a is substituted with an when the following word begins with a vowel (letter or sound). In some cases, however, an has been used preceding words beginning with (as spoken) [h].

According to Wiktionary, “like many terms that start with a non-silent h but have emphasis on their second syllable, some people precede historical with an, others with a.”

If syllabic emphasis is one explanation, how is this distinction acquired? What makes it significant enough to influence a person’s speech/writing?

My theory is that phrases such as an historian, in which the H is commonly pronounced, originated as a hypercorrection since propagated by a small number of native English speakers.

  • I don’t understand what your question really is here. The distinction is acquired the same way the rest of the language is acquired, just like any other phonemically based distinction… – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 7 at 15:05
  • Except very few people use it, and those people don’t seem to be concerned they may be wrong. @JanusBahsJacquet – Mad Banners May 8 at 4:41
  • Why should they be? It’s become less common now, but it used to be very common; are you concerned you’re ‘wrong’ about any of the not-so-common features you have in your speech? – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 8 at 18:20
  • If I have any ‘unusual’ pronunciations, it’s probably intentional on my part. Anyway, do you have any further information on how common sounding the H in this scenario used to be? @JanusBahsJacquet – Mad Banners May 8 at 18:30
  • Unfortunately not, no; it’s just the sort of thing that I remember older people always doing and younger people not doing when I was a kid. I think of it as similar to the past subjunctive in BrE – a case where I’m unusual, since I use it naturally, even though hardly anyone else does anymore. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 8 at 18:35
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The initial syllable of words like "historical" which take "an" can often drop the h (in pronunciation, not in writing). After dropping the h, of course, they start with a vowel and now satisfy the condition for using "an" rather than "a". So apparently we need to revise the condition for using "an": Use "an" before a word either starting with a vowel or one which could start with a vowel.

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  • While I agree, the phrase ‘an historian’ (as I’ve heard it) is accompanied by a spoken ‘H’. – Mad Banners May 8 at 4:43
  • @MadBanners Yes, for me, too. That's why I said "could" start with a vowel. It doesn't necessarily actually start with a vowel. – Greg Lee May 8 at 18:27
  • Ah, so you’re saying the sound before the vowel could be considered ‘invisible’ — especially when it’s part of the first syllable. That makes a lot of sense, while only a limited number of synergies would sound natural. – Mad Banners May 8 at 18:50
  • @MadBanners, That's not exactly what I intend. I am saying that you get "an" when the next word could, in some styles and some dialects, start with a vowel. One can imagine that, once upon a time, "an" became popular here in some prestige dialect which did consistently drop the h here, and we all emulated that usage of "an". It became a convention. – Greg Lee May 8 at 19:13

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