Riddle me this: a grammar mystery

May 28, 2021 • 2:45 pm

You may know that Americans say “a hypothesis” but Brits say “an hypothesis”. And, as far as I know, both forms of the article are correct.

But why does nobody say, “I gave her an hyacinth”, when referring to the flower? After all, both words begin with the “hi” sound with a long “i”. And both begin with the spelling “hy”. It’s always, I gave her a hyacinth.”

Likewise, no OB GYN says, “Here is an hymen,” when referring to the female tissue.  Yet it’s the same “hi” sound with a long “i.” I’m sure there are similar words that are preceded with the article “a”.

I’m also sure there are rule for why things are like this, and certain that some readers will know those rules, but I can’t imagine how they make sense.

One thing’s for sure: I’ll never be able to bring myself to say “an hypothesis.”

108 thoughts on “Riddle me this: a grammar mystery

  1. It just depends on whether the h is voiced or not. We say “an hour” because we pronounce hour like “our.” We say “a house” because we do pronounce the h there. And consider herb. Brits say a herb with a vocalized h (as in the word herd). We say an herb (pronouncing it “erb”)

  2. To me (a Brit) ‘an’ before any h that isn’t silent sounds a bit unnatural and pretentious, but you do hear it. I believe there’s a rule that it’s only correct before words of French derivation (eg an hotel). I just find it unnecessary.

    1. In certain areas of Brit land the H disappears from view and maybe that’s the reason. The word huge comes to mind. All you hear is uge and the h is gone.

      1. Yes, it can be that too. But there are also people who use an before a non-silent h – and write it too!

    2. The “an” if the “h” is pronounced sounds a bit pretentious and old-school.

      Then there are dialects where it is never pronounced: “’e ’ad ’ is ’ead’ cut off and it was ’orrible.”

    3. As an American, I agree. Whenever I hear people say “an history” or “an historical event” I internally roll my eyes. They’re pronouncing the h sound, so there’s no reason to say “an” instead of “a.” As Toni Clark says above, using “an” only makes sense when the word is being pronounced as if it starts with a vowel.

      EDIT: This also means that if the person has an accent that causes them to not pronounce the h sound, then using “an” makes sense.

  3. I do say “an hypothesis,” because I more or less drop the H: As if it were “an eye-poethesis.” I would use “a” if I were enunciating the h at the beginning of hypothesis.

      1. I think the “an hypothesis” just flows better with respect to enunciation; at least that’s how it feels to me. Maybe it has something to do with the stress being on the second syllable?

        1. I think that you are correct: it depends on whether the first syllable is stressed or not..

      2. It’s likely that there’s a rule your phonology which elides an h following a nasal, or maybe also resonants such as l? Do you say That/s a WEIRD ‘ypothesis’? Stressing weird is much more likely to result in the final d staying part of the weird syllable, which would make it much more likely that if you did actually have a silent h in hypthothesis, you’d hear it following weird. The phonetic result hn ->nn, with the first n ending one syllable and the second one beginning the next syllable, would created the illusion that there was no h in the following word. But if you actually had the silent version of hypothesis, you’d expect it show up even when the final sound of the preceding word stayed locked into the latter’s final syllable…

      1. Howsabout: ‘The rine in Spine falls minely in the pline’?–My Fur Lidy–sez ‘offman, on the boik t’marra, I ‘opes.

        1. It falls ON the plain though! Shaw was Irish… how can it fall ‘in’ a plain? Does it fall in a roof? Are raindrops falling in my head? Well, it is raining in my heart…

          Train announcements say – reading from a script “the train is arriving IN xxx” where they should say AT XXXX! Grrrr…

    1. Hmmm… I also say “an historical novel” without voicing the h — as if it were an ‘istorical novel.

  4. Even more puzzling, to me: In the U.S. we say someone is “in the hospital.” The Brits say “in hospital.” (No “the.”) But we Yanks say “in jail” and “in prison.”

    1. Just a regional difference with no particular reason for its development. We also say in high school and in college.

    2. I sometimes have my books ‘Americanised’ by a US editor, who picks up the subtle and random differences of the type you mention. I’ve only queried their corrections twice. They changed ‘by the sea’ to ‘by the ocean’ – but I reckon this is just because you have Atlantic and Pacific coasts. (The Old Man and the Sea is a US book, right? Or does that title sound quaint to you?) Also, ‘tortoise’ was corrected to ‘turtle’ – but surely they’re different creatures whatever language you speak.

      1. On this side of the pond, I think “sea” carries more of a nautical or mythopoetic connotation — similar to Psalm 107’s “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters”– hence, Hemingway’s use of it in the title of his novella.

      2. They call aquatic tortoises turtle, but in Brit English the fresh water ones are terrapins and Turtles are purely marine.

    3. How about “teach school” ?! Or “write me” instead of BE “write to me”? See my comment below about non-English people acquiring the language in the US.

    4. Is this a counterexample to Bertrand Russell’s self-described “finest essay” from 1905–an entire chapter on “the” used in the singular (which would say to translate it into formal logic in a way which seems to imply there is only one hospital)? Then an entire chapter on “the” in the plural, such as ‘the philosophers of language’. I have not looked hard enough yet, but so far cannot find anything of value those academicians have done..

      Russell himself did much valuable work, elsewhere in philosophy and other places.

      I’m afraid I think the subject of so-called free logic (where Russell’s iota -construction above is especially prominent, but he played no part) might well be, as we say among the ruffians with whom I was raised, a crock of shit.

  5. I’m British and I say “a hypothesis”. I think as others have said some people do say “an hypothesis”, but I’m not sure if it is really common over here. There is a proviso. I am Welsh not English and I am one of the minority of Welsh people who can still speak the Welsh language. However, I have spoken English since early childhood as the majority of my extended family are monoglot English speakers and I was educated through the medium of English. In case anyone doesn’t know Welsh is a Celtic language derived from the speech of the people who lived in Britain before the Angles and Saxons invaded what is now England.

  6. I’ll never be able to bring myself to say “an hypothesis.”

    Neither will I and I’m English.

    Some people do say “an hypothesis”, but it’s considered quite posh and it’s definitely falling out of favour. On the other hand, some people drop their “h”s so they might say “an ypothesis”.

    On a related note, the way some (all?) Americans say “airbs” when they mean “herbs” really grates on me for no rational reason. Do they say “an herb” or “a herb”?

          1. I used to think that Peter Sellers was doing a slightly weird French accent of his own devising, as Inspector Clouseau doesn’t have what you’d call a “typical” French accent. But then one day I happened to go into a shop where someone with exactly the same accent was getting served. I couldn’t keep a straight face, and to avoid offence had to leave the shop until the customer had left. So after that I thought Sellers must have picked up on some regional French accent, great impressionist that he was.

      1. I don’t think the French say ‘airbs’ in French, only when speaking English they would say ‘airbs’ .
        In French it is ‘airbe’, with a very soft, nearly silent ‘e’. The ‘s’ is completely silent.

    1. A British colleague once called me pretentious for saying “erb” rather than “herb.” I should have asked him how he pronounces “vee-hicle” but somehow missed my opportunity. I think, as someone suggested, that we drop the “h” because the words are French in origin, but we are not consistent about that. There is in any case nothing pretentious; it is just a regional pronunciation.

      1. Yes … I agree some Americans pronounce vehicle in a really strange way. I have lived in Canada for over thirty years and veh-hicle still grates.

        I would write a hypothesis … similarly to a hypodermic syringe.

        1. How about

          Vee Hickle
          Veahkl (?)

          I think the “job interview” pronunciation would be :

          Vee i kl

            1. vee-hickle : the Schitz Creek U. English dictionary has that defined as ‘a device for transporting hicks, and sometimes for giving your girlfriend or boyfriend a hickey on the neck if you get carried away’.

  7. The original rule is apparently connected with the distribution of stress in the word:

    a HYmen
    a HYacinth

    an hyPOTHesis (much more common in British English)
    an hyDRANgea (I’ve heard many tokens of this pronunciation, and in the US, it’s much more common than ‘an hypothesis’—don’t take my word for it; there are plenty of Google hits for this pronunciation!)

    There are a couple of other rules however that probably kicked in later on in the history of modern English to create interference effects, and a certain degree of individual variation, with people opting to follow one rule rather than another….

    My own view of the pronounced fricative vs. silent h story is that it’s a red herring. I’ve never heard anyone pronounce hypothesis or hydrangea with a silent h. In the UK, dropping the initial segment of learned vocabulary such as hypothesis would be a clash of registers of a degree that just doesn’t happen except in satire!

  8. It’s English – there’s no logic or consistency! Generally, as pointed out above, if the following word begins with a consonant sound (the first letter doesn’t have to actually be a consonant – there’s a hidden “y” sound at the start of the pronunciation of “European”, for example), then it is preceded by “a”. If the following word begins with a vowel sound then “an” is used. Hence, “in an hour and a half”, etc.

    Because posh people pronounced “hotel” in the French way, with no “h” sound, it was regarded as correct to say “an hotel”. Now that us unwashed masses also stay in such places and pronounce the initial “h” that usage is seen as archaic and rarely used.

    I suspect that US pronunciation generally stresses the initial “h” in words more weakly than British pronunciation does, leaving more room for a/an to potentially overlap and cause confusion. Toni at #1 gives the ” ‘erb/herb” example, which is an extreme illustration of this tendency.

    1. In Shakespeare’s day whore rhymed with hour, the h was pronounced. ‘Who-er…’
      You only have to read Dickens – Jeremy’s ma is a Dickens expert – to see dropped & added aitches! Also w & v sounds swapped. Eg victuals becomes wittles.

    2. American English reflects that it was acquired in spoken form from Scots, Irish, Welsh, AND English speakers, by speaker of other languages. They changed a lot. But English formed as a mongrel language anyway in the post conquest period. One reason it is so adaptable & flexible.

    1. My understanding (which is probably far from perfect) is that the original pattern involved a word with an initial h followed by the [ai] dipthong. I don’t think it was ever a general rule for hV words with V just any old vowel…

  9. I prefer the pronounced h in herb and also in homage (stress on the first syllable). But what do I know, I’m only an halibut.

  10. We don’t say ‘an hypothesis’, as far as I know. If any British person does that, they are trying to sound impressive and getting it wrong.

    There are some words in English beginning with h which derive from French, where the h is silent, and for which it’s correct to use ‘an’ (an hour, an honest man). But there are other French-derived h-beginning words where in English we do sound the h (although we once didn’t). A well-known instance is ‘historic’ – although the aspirate is now sounded in this word (it once wasn’t) there are people who think it sounds good to say ‘an historic occasion’ (it actually sounds pompous and silly, of course). Similarly, ‘hypothesis’ must once have had a silent h (from French hypothese) but now it doesn’t, and it’s wrong – ie non-standard – to say ‘an hypothesis’.

    1. But that won’t account for hydrangea or hypotenuse (again, very commonly preceded by an). Both came into English directly from Greek, without French being part of the borrowing sequence, wearing their initial h on their sleeve.

      1. I’ve never heard anyone say ‘an hydrangea’ or ‘an hypotenuse’. If anyone does – well, they’re either not sounding the h (non-standard) or they are using ‘an’ before an aspirate (non-standard).

        1. My wife, an avid gardener, uses both the a/an forms. And as I say, the use is well attested, in sources whose English is otherwise quite standard (see e.g. https://www.gardenfundamentals.com/hydrangea-identification/). Clearly, there is a substantial chunk of English speakership whose vocabulary includes hydrangea that use the an form.

          My guess is that just as the original syntactic who/whom distinction has been gradually leveled out in favor of who, which now links to both object and subject positions, an earlier rule of a/an alternation based on stress has been lost in favor of a in the case of unstressed [hai-] syllables. But some vestiges remain for some speakers, and, like whom, the earlier an alternant carries a certain tone of academic status. When this sort of thing happens, it leaves a seemingly random pattern of usage that baffles everyone…

          1. I think ‘an hydrangea’ (which I had never heard before) is an example of hyper-correction – people saying ‘an’ because they think it’s somehow more ‘correct’. It’s nothing to do with stress patterns (as far as I know). Certainly, normal uses of ‘an’ – ie before a vowel sound – are not related to stress patterns.

            1. Except that you never hear or see an before an hy-initial word with primary stress on the first syllable. The only cases of that I’m aware of are words where the phonetic string [hai] is followed by a syllable bearing primary stress. So on what basis are you arguing that stress patterns are unrelated to the a/an alternation? Why don’t people hypercorrect with [hai]-initial lexical items that themselves bear primary stress? Why don’t they think that an would make *those* words more ‘correct’?

              1. Dear Type Logician

                I must confess I can’t think of a counter-example. I’ve never heard anyone say ‘an hyacinth’, for example. But then I’d never heard ‘an hydrangea’ or ‘an hypotenuse’ either. I’ll take your word for it that this rule operates for some people (who are perhaps not consciously aware of it). Which is very interesting, so thanks!

                Shall we conclude with a joke?

                HUSBAND: I’ve got an ‘orrible ‘eadache!
                WIFE: You’d better take a couple of aspirates.

            2. A hydrangea is a flower too, without stress on the first syllable. Flowers just don’t like to be outshone
              by an n.

  11. The a/an choice depends on the sound of the first syllables of the next word. The default is to use ‘a’ unless it would force two vowel sounds without an intervening consonant. The problem is that even when a consonant is technically present, it may not be very prominent and leads to “an” being used anyway. Since it is based on sound rather than spelling, the choice may depend on the speaker’s regional accent. This is my theory though I am no linguistics professor.

  12. Depends on your accent. If you pronounce the “h”, use “a”, if not, use “an”. Mystery solved. 🙂

    1. Not solved at all. The problem is precisely that plenty of people use an before words that begin with a fully articulated pharyngeal fricative, e.g., all the examples people have given above. That’s the whole *point* of Jerry’s original query.

      1. Hypercorrection – that is people do not know there is a rule so extrapolate from the words they DO know. Grammar & pronunciation, despite what people like to think, are not fixed. There are no laws. They evolve!

        1. But notice, Dom, that they never hypercorrect a -> an when the following hy-initial word has primary stress on the first syllable. There are plenty of laws—how else was it possible for the 19th century Indoeuropeanists to reconstruct the protolanguage of the population that overran Europe probably 4 millenia or so ago? The problem is that phonological rules have fixed lifespans (e.g., the Great Vowel Shift, Grassman’s Law, etc), and there’s a lot of amply confirmed research that shows that contrary to what the Neogrammarians thought, sound changes percolates gradually through the lexicon. Which, combined with the limited longevity of the rules driving the sound change, means that only a subset of the vocabulary will reflect that rule. You see this kind of thing really clearly in the so-called Rhenish Fan dialect in Germany, where the dialect boundaries are kind of a map of the ebb and flow of secular ecclesiastical rule and influence in the area). So there will always be exceptions to various regular sound changes, just because of the way such shift begin and end in time.

          But so far as I know, the alternation a -> an is restricted to that one environment—the following hy word has to have an unstressed/weakly stressed initial syllable.

  13. When I was the young, “an hotel” seemed to this working class lad to be an affected hangover of Old English as she was spoke. Plus, anyone else remember Alan Bennett’s spoof sermon for Beyond the Fringe: “My brother Esau is an hairy man”. . .?

  14. It’s not a matter of spelling, but of pronunciations. As much as Brits like picking on Americans for the fact that we don’t pronounce the ‘h’ in ‘herb’, they drop the ‘h’ sound from way more words than we do.

    And it’s that lack of pronunciation that leads to the choice of indefinite article. Sometimes, pronunciation of the word changes, but the article habit endures. That’s why you often see “an historical used”, despite the fact that no one outside of a thick accent pronounces ‘historical’ without the ‘h’ sound.

    My personal rules is to ignore inertia at all times, and use the appropriate article based on how I pronounce the word. If the word starts with a pronounced consonant, it gets ‘a’. If it doesn’t, it gets ‘an’.

    I don’t have an accent which drops the ‘h’ sound from ‘hypothesis’, so I always use the ‘a’ indefinite article.

  15. HAHAHA! 52 comments – Pinker is right, people DO feel very strongly about grammar.

  16. I read here that “an” may be used before an unaccented syllable beginning with an h. That’s the difference between “hypothesis” and “hymen”.

    1. Maybe “an” is not allowed with “hyacinth” because the accent must be on the second syllable.

  17. I say “a history” but I say “an historical novel.” I do say “an hypothesis” and “an hydrangea.” I’m not trying to be pretentious or “posh”–it’s just the way I learned to say things. It’s what I naturally subvocalize and say aloud. I’m an American, born in NYC in the early 1960s, raised in Columbus, OH by a well-educated, well read, certainly unpretentious non-college-educated, mother.

    1. I say everything the way you do, except possibly for hydrangea. I think I would say a hydrangea,though usually talk about them in the plural, or the or that bydrangea bush. (California born, lived all over, currently in Canada where my hydrangeas haven’t been blooming terribly well).

    2. Yes, exactly. And what’s the difference between the noun and the adjective? Notice where the primary stress falls in the two words. You have HIstory but hisTORical. That’s a very nice example illustrating the dependence of the a/an alternation on stress placement. Another nice example in the opposite direction is an hyPERbole (again, google it!) but %an HYperBOLic orbit—the –al suffix shifts the stress on the stem to the second syllable, but the -ic suffix relocates the stress to the syllable preceding it. The result is that you wind up with secondary stress on the first syllable. For some people that’s too much stress for an; for others, the fact that it’s not primary stress is enough to give it the green light (yet again, google it and you’ll see the mixed reviews an hyperbolic [whatever] gets.

  18. As Steven Pinker argues in ‘Words and rules’, past tenses of strong verbs, as well as some plurals, are additions to the lexicon rather than an implementation of rules (grammatical regularities or algorithms). The plural of mouse is mice, but the plural of house is not “hice”.
    Perhaps ‘an hypothesis’ obeys a hazy semantic rule’, a ‘generational thing’ [ :Benjamin Schwarz] or some local/Oxbridge idiom; but if I understood Pinker correctly, we had better subsume the combination ‘an hypothesis’ under ‘words’ instead of (syntactical) rules. Akin to fixed phrases like ‘Easy come, easy go’: even non-native speakers would deem ‘Easy came, easy went’ to be incorrect English.

  19. John McWhorter gave a talk at Google on Black English – or Ebonics (he says don’t bother fighting those words, they are adequate and pretty much not going to change).

    I gathered that the way people speak is way more flexible than I supposed, given the rules.

    So the amusing “an hypothesis”/“a hypothesis” dilemma might just be one of these … spandrels …(?)… where rules might appear to cover it, but the _spoken_ language’s music (another expressive McWhorter-ism) dominates, and we all sort of let it slide – or not.

    McWhorter at Google – Talking Back, Talking Black : https://youtu.be/eoWGx060lyA

  20. Is “an hypothesis” more likely to be what one hears in the spoken English in specific locales in the United Kingdom (… does the UK still exist anymore? Hard to keep up…)?

    There’s a ton of videos on this … but my thought is e.g. Yorkshire accent, but not Received Pronunciation English, etc. but I cahn chremember ‘em oll.

  21. You are gently wiping the surface, Jerry.

    Take, for instance, the poem “The Chaos“ by a dutch, Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870 – 1946). Here are the first four verses:

    Dearest creature in creation
    Studying English pronunciation,
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

    I will keep you, Susy, busy,
    Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
    Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
    Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

    Pray, console your loving poet,
    Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
    Just compare heart, hear and heard,
    Dies and diet, lord and word.

    Sword and sward, retain and Britain
    (Mind the latter how it’s written).
    Made has not the sound of bade,
    Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.

    the poem in full

    There was another, more recent text, that juxtaposed similar looking words with totally different pronunciation more succinctly, like undermine vs determine, but couldn’t find that one (maybe you know its name?)

  22. It’s a lot easier if you drop the “h” in good Brit style. An ‘ypothesis – try it.

  23. I never say an hypothesis. You only say an if you drop the h as others note above.
    An ‘otel = a hotel

    I think my ma did that.

    I think your data is deficient Jerry!

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