ASK DOCTOR DOROTHY PASTENSE FULLSTOP

You say in the TEE book that we don't drop the 'h' when we say a hotel, but I've heard many broadcasters - and read in many official online newspapers and magazines - examples of 'an hotel'. So are you wrong?'

I also came across this very recently myself when I was listening to a radio programme from the BBC World Service where the presenter (Nick Mason from Pink Floyd) clearly says 'an 'otel'. Indeed, I have to agree with you that I've heard (and seen this) many times. Anyway, let's refer to TEE (and what I said) first:

According to Jeremy Marshall and Fred McDonald, compilers of the excellent book Questions of English (Oxford University Press), writing an historian is regarded as being old-fashioned. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was very common to drop the ‘h’ when speaking. The authors argue that these days only a few people actually say ‘an ‘istorian’. Other common words to get this problem are horrific (What an ‘orrific experience!) and hotel (You mean we’re going to stay in an ‘otel?).

The book’s successor, oxforddictionaries.com, has tempered this view a little, although it generally makes the same point, saying that we do say ‘an honour’ (/ona/, /ɒnər/), ‘an hour’, or ‘an heir’ (/air/, /eər/), as the initial letter ‘h’ is not pronounced. But we do say ‘a hair’ or ‘a horse’ with a sounded ‘h’, and it would be correct to use an in front of historian in speech if the speaker does not pronounce ‘h’. But it is fair to say that these days, historian, horrific and hotel are generally pronounced with a spoken ‘h’ at the beginning.

Despite these comments from the OUP, there are many who prefer the (supposedly) old-fashioned approach. For example, the British National Corpus – from its hundreds of thousands of examples of phrases collected from conversation, academic articles, fiction, and news – has many written examples of ‘an historian’, ‘an historic’, ‘an horrific’, and ‘an hotel’. Many of the Internet forums regard this as a British English phenomenon, and while this appears to be true at first (after checking the Corpus of Contemporary American English) with only one example of ‘an horrific’ in writing, and three examples of ‘an hotel’ (all in fiction), there are several written examples of ‘an historian’ and ‘an historic’, revealing that the latter examples are just as much in popular use on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

So let's look at a few more style guides and pieces of advice from reliable online sources and see what they've got to say'

From the BBC (https://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/en/articles/art20130702112133548), last updated 19 July 2013, retrieved 20 May 2019: 

a/an Pronunciation is the key. Use "an" before any word or abbreviation beginning with a vowel sound, including words beginning with a silent "h" (as far as we know there are only four of these: hour, honour, heir, honest and their derivatives). You use "a" with consonant sounds (eg: unicorn), including words beginning with an "h" which is pronounced (eg: hat, hotel).

Good - they agree with me. Next, from https://pronunciationstudio.com/h/, a site that is, well, a pronunciation studio that is based in Bloomsbury Square, London (so they should be good), last updated 28 September 2016, retrieved 20 May 2019:

The rule goes that the article ‘a’ is used before a consonant and ‘an’ is used before a vowel, so with silent H we would say “an honest” and with pronounced H we would say “a hotel”. But some posher speakers tend to treat a pronounced H as if it were not there, so they would say “an historic” and “an hotel”. H droppers tend to always use ‘an’, so cockneys would say “Give us an (h)and” and “She’s renting an (h)ouse”.

 

I see. It's the posh speakers to blame, those who speak Received Pronunciation (RP), or BBC English. Now we know the 'posh' speakers tend to be more of a grammar pedant, but that's a discussion for another day. 

Next, let's go to Quora, which is a question-and-answer website used and edited by internet users, and they usually have some clever people to answer these kind of questions. So, through www.quora.com/What-is-the-proper-use-of-A-Historic-vs-An-Historic , let's see what they (particularly Mark Harrison), have to say...

Apr 10, 2012: The rule is subtly different from that in the question details. The full rule is (italics are my addition): [...] "A" is supposed to be used anytime the following word starts with an audible consonant...

Yeah yeah, we know that bit.

...the words used to be spoken 'otel' and 'istoric' (as if they were French.) The usage 'an hotel' is trying to go back to the old grammar, and fail to realise that we have added the first letter as a separate sound when we say 'Hotel' and 'Historic'.

... in the 19th Century, it was normal to pronounce hospital, hotel and herb without the h. Nowadays "aitch anxiety" has led to all of them acquiring a new sound, a beautifully articulated 'aitch' at the beginning. 

The BBC state that "Unfortunately there is often some dispute over what constitutes 'well-written' or 'correct' English. One person's hard-and-fast rule is another's "unintelligent application of unintelligent dogma" - according to one of the greatest writers on the English language, H.W. Fowler. If you are writing for the Economist, 'a hotel' is preferred, but 'an historical' is kept as an exception. 'An' should be used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an egg, an umbrella, an MP) or an 'h' if, and only if, the h is silent (an honorary degree). Historical is an exception: it is preceded by an, the h remaining silent.

 

It seems to me that grammar pedantry is at work here, meaning that we have individuals who are far too concerned with what they believe are 'the rules' of the language, even though there are none.

So what are the conclusions? I'll stick with what I said in the book and finish with the same conclusion...

My advice is to go for the Oxford University suggestion as it is very possible that, in a written exam, should you decide to use ‘an’ before those words which, as a rule, have a sounded ‘h’, then it would all depend on the point of view or the nationality of whoever is marking your paper.

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