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Off topic: confusion over "a" and "an"
Thread poster: beatak
beatak
Local time: 16:08
English to Polish
Sep 1, 2008

Quick question that someone asked at work and i would like to share with you:
Would you say "a holistic" or "an holistic"?

Im not sure myself, I would say "a holistic" but is that correct? Some of my English colleagues said "a holistic" others said "an holistic" is correct. Does it depends on the sound of letter "h"? Would similar question be relevant to word "historical" or abriviation "NHS"?
Could anyone explain this? I was always taught to use "a" before a voul only. Thanks.


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Wendy Cummings  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:08
Member (2006)
Spanish to English
+ ...
juncture loss Sep 5, 2008

It doesn't explain it very well, but wikipedia has some interesting information

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_and_an

I was particularly curious to read:
In a process called juncture loss, the n has wandered back and forth between words beginning with vowels over the history of the language, where sometimes it would be a nuncle and is now an uncle. The Oxford English Dictionary gives such examples as smot hym on the hede with a nege tool from 1448 for smote him on the head with an edge tool and a nox for an ox and a napple for an apple. Sometimes the change has been permanent. For example, a newt was once an ewt (earlier euft and eft), a nickname was once an eke-name, where eke means "extra" (as in eke out meaning "add to"), and in the other direction, "a napron" became "an apron" and "a naddre" became "an adder." "Napron" itself meant "little tablecloth" and is related to the word "napkin". An oft-cited but inaccurate example is an orange: despite what is often claimed, English never used a norange. Although the initial n was in fact lost through juncture loss, this happened before the word was borrowed in English (see orange (word)).

Anyone for a norange?


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Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:08
Italian to English
+ ...
Fascinating! Sep 5, 2008

Thanks for that Wendy - it's fascinating stuff.

Beatak, it does depend on whether the aitch is silent or not. I would say "a holistic (approach)", because I pronounce the aitch. So I also say "a hotel" and "a historical (novel)". But I say "an honest (woman)" and "an NHS (manager)", because in the first the aitch is silent, and in the second we pronounce the abbreviation as en-aitch-ess - so the first sound is a vowel sound in both cases.


I believe that using "an" with a pronounced aitch (hotel, holistic) would now generally be considered as old-fashioned and/or "stuck-up", but this is my personal view.


[Edited at 2008-09-05 10:45]


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Eleni Makantani
Greece
Local time: 18:08
Partial member
English to Greek
+ ...
Cabridge Dictionary and Greek origins Sep 5, 2008

http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?dict=CALD&key=37542&ph=on

According to Cambridge Advanced Learners' Dictionary, it needs to take "a", because /h/ is pronounced.

H was added to the English writing of ancient Greek words, which began with a vowel taking a Spiritus Asper diacritical mark (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritus_asper), to convey an initial aspiration, a light /h/ sound in the beginning of some words. Other such words are hippopotamus, hero, hymn, names like Helen, Hellas, Homer, Herodotus... None of these words begins with an h (χ) in Greek, but with a vowel which in an earlier form of Greek writing took a Spiritus Asper and was pronounced with a soft /h/+vowel sound.

Generally, as a learner and a teacher of English myself, I know that the choice "a" or "an" depends on the first sound of a word. If a word begins with a vowel sound, it needs "an", when it begins with a consonant sound, it needs "a".

[Edited at 2008-09-05 10:50]

[Edited at 2008-09-05 10:56]


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Jenny Forbes  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:08
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
I agree - but what about "herbs"? Sep 5, 2008

Marie-Hélène Hayles wrote:

Thanks for that Wendy - it's fascinating stuff.

Beatak, it does depend on whether the aitch is silent or not. I would say "a holistic (approach)", because I pronounce the aitch. So I also say "a hotel" and "a historical (novel)". But I say "an honest (woman)" and "an NHS (manager)", because in the first the aitch is silent, and in the second we pronounce the abbreviation as en-aitch-ess - so the first sound is a vowel sound in both cases.


I believe that using "an" with a pronounced aitch (hotel, holistic) would now generally be considered as old-fashioned and/or "stuck-up", but this is my personal view.


[Edited at 2008-09-05 10:45]


I agree with you Marie-Hélène, I'd say "a hotel" and "a historical novel" because I pronounce the "aitch" and it would sound pompous to do otherwise. I'd also say "an RHS flower show", etc. because the "R" sounds as if it starts with a vowel.
I would also say "a herb garden", but in the USA they pronounce "herb" leaving out the "h" (correctly, considering it is originally a French word) and would say what sounds like "an 'erb garden". Do they also write "an herb garden", I wonder?
Jenny


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 17:08
Italian to English
Well... Sep 5, 2008

Jenny Forbes wrote:

Do they also write "an herb garden", I wonder?
Jenny



... they have 196,000 times on google, so yes

Both the Chicago Manual of Style and the Oxford Style Manual agree with Marie-Hélène (she'll be happy to hear!) that pronunciation is the key.

The OSM also points out that some abbreviations can take "a" or "an" depending on their meaning, offering as examples "a MS" ("a manuscript" because that is how it is usually read) and "an MS" (attributively where "em-ess" stands for "multiple sclerosis"), and "a R. Shimon wrote" (to be read "a Rabbi Shimon wrote") but "an R film" (meaning "a restricted classification film").

Giles

[Edited at 2008-09-05 14:04]


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Carole Paquis  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:08
Member (2007)
English to French
Totally agree with Marie-Hélène and Jenny Sep 5, 2008

What I was taught at University is very much the same about the first sound you have in the word.

As far as 'an hotel' and 'an historian' are concerned, I have a 1953 New Imperial Dictionary (!) which says that this is getting old-fashioned...so if it was old fashioned in 1953...

Carole


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