Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

'A' versus 'an.' 'Larruping' rides again. Euonyms. Flavoring.

Episode Summary

967. Should you say "a honor" or "an honor"? It's trickier than you think! We explore why articles depend on sounds and regional variations, the difference between "thee" and "thuh," and your stories about delicious phrasings.

Episode Notes

967. Should you say "a honor" or "an honor"? It's trickier than you think! We explore why articles depend on sounds and regional variations, the difference between "thee" and "thuh," and your stories about delicious phrasings.

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| Grammarpalooza (Get texts from Mignon!): or text "hello" to (917) 540-0876.

| Why we have both "a" and "an: Episode 920

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. 

We are now live with Grammarpalooza, the new way you can get text messages from me and directly support my work! I'm sending fun language facts you'll want to share with your friends, behind-the-scenes peeks into how I make the show, and a convenient link to the podcast and transcript. So far, subscribers have been happily surprised when they realize they really are actually texting with me. The first two weeks are free, and you can sign up at That's It's in the show notes, and I'll also put it in my email newsletter and on my social channels. 

"Hi, Grammar Girl. The other question I had is the use of 'a' and 'an.' 'A' normally before a consonant and a capital, a state, a house. And then 'an' usually before a vowel. And opera and what else? An apple. Okay. Now, when it comes to the consonant H, I'm inclined and it sounds better to my ear. And I believe that I've seen it in writing. But when I hear the word, H has more of a vowel, as 'an honor,' which really the vowel sound would be O, an honor, that would be the way I would pronounce it. But 'a horror' would seem to indicate the use of just the single 'a.' I would be curious as to your take on the use of 'a' and 'an' before the letter H, depending on how it is pronounced in the word."

This question leads us into a great follow up to last week's show about the letter H! 

A lot of people learned the rule that you put "a" before words that start with consonants and "an" before words that start with vowels, but it's actually more complicated than that. The rule is that you use "a" before words that start with a consonant sound and "an" before words that start with a vowel sound.

Should you use 'a' or 'an'?

The difference comes up a lot with the letter H just like in the caller's question. "An honor" is correct, because even though "honor" starts with an H, which we think of as a consonant, the word "honor" starts with a vowel sound. And "a horror" is correct because "horror" starts with an H sound.

It comes up with other letters at the beginning of words too though. Consider O and U:

Usually you put "an" before words that start with O, like "an owl," but you use "a" when it makes a consonant sound. For example, you'd use "a" if you were to say, “She has a one-track mind,” because "one-track" starts with a W sound. 

Similarly, it's "a Utopian idea," because the U at the beginning of "Utopian" makes a consonant Y sound, but it's "an unfair world" because the U in "unfair" is making a vowel U sound.

And then you also have to watch out for consonants that can sound like vowels at the beginning of abbreviations, like L, M, N, S and X.

And so on.

One complication is when words are pronounced differently in British and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced “erb” in American English and “herb” in British English. So the proper form in America is "an erb" ("Oregano is an herb"), and the proper form in Britain is "a herb" ("Oregano is a herb"). In the rare cases where this is a problem, use the form that will be expected in your country or by the majority of your readers.

'A historic' or 'an historic'

While we’re talking about different pronunciations, let’s talk about "a historic." Some Americans argue that it should be "an historic," but I come down firmly on the side that says it should be "a historic event." At one of my book signings many years ago, a woman actually shook her fist at me and walked out after I said this, but there's no logical reason it should be "an historic" if you pronounce the H in "historic," which most people do. 

I can see how if you pronounce "historic" as "istoric," which I think people may do in some areas of the east coast like Philadelphia and Baltimore, then you would want to say, "an historic event." That would be right for your region and your pronunciation. So if you are writing for an audience that is in just that area, you actually should write "an historic." But if you're writing for a broader audience than that, you want to go with the more standard pronunciation, and just like you'd write about "a history test" and "a hysterical outburst," you'd write about "a historical event."

That's what makes it so frustrating that the right word is chosen by pronunciation instead of spelling, but that's the way it is.

Definite and Indefinite Articles

And here's a little bit of grammar just to finish up this segment:

"A" and "an" are called indefinite articles. And "the" is called a definite article. The difference is that "a" and "an" don't say anything special about the words that follow. For example, think about the sentence, “I need a hair dryer.” It doesn't sound like you have a specific one in mind. "I need a hair dryer." Maybe you plan to go to the store later to get one. But if you say, “I need the hair dryer,” then you want a specific hair dryer. You're probably at home and asking for the one you know is in the house. Maybe even in your sister's hand right now! "I want the hair dryer." That's why "the" is called a definite article—you want something definite. At least that's how I remember the names.

And "the" actually has a difference based on the pronunciation of the word that comes next too. We don't have two forms of the word like we do with "a" and "an," but it's generally agreed that it's pronounced "thuh" before a word with a consonant sound, and "thee" before a word with a vowel sound — so "thuh" confetti, but "thee" incident. And then you can also use "thee" just for emphasis too. That was "thee" best party. And long-time listeners who know this rule have probably realized that I mess it up a lot. A bunch of people have told me they learned the thee/thuh thing in choir class, and I never took choir, so maybe that's it, but for whatever reason, I never learned that rule, and I don't follow it naturally. I do try though; I do my best.

And if it occurred to you to wonder why we have the words both "a" and "an," that's also really interesting, and you can find that story back in episode 920

Next, I have some fun listener feedback:


Hi, Grammar Girl.  Brian here from Washington DC. I really enjoyed your recent episode about euonyms. I didn't know there was a name for such a thing. But when I was growing up there were brothers who taught in my school district. One taught me art in elementary school, and the other one taught me trigonometry in high school, and their names actually were Art Smith and Math Smith. Thanks for the show and appreciate everything you do. [video/audio recorded on phone]

That's amazing, Brian! I listened to your call a couple of times to make sure I was hearing Math Smith's name right because it's so odd. I do wonder if maybe his given name was something like Matt, and then because he was so into math, he got the nickname "math," but as someone with an unusual name myself, I guess I shouldn't judge! Thanks for the great call.


And I also got an email about a recent episode from Donna, who wrote "I really enjoyed this week’s episode which dealt with the word 'larruping.' It made me think of an expression we use here in Trinidad in a similar way; when a dish is exceptionally delicious, we say it 'lashes.' So I was delighted to learn that one of the meanings of "larruping" is 'to flog soundly,' which is what 'lash' means to us. Maybe both expressions originated from the same word."

"Larruping" is just the word that keeps on giving! This is so interesting, Donna. I looked at the etymology, and I don't think "larruping" and "lash" come from the same origin, but isn't it funny and weird that people seem to like words for blows to describe something that's delicious. Once I started thinking about it, more came to mind. Like we say a good meal "hits" the spot, and I've heard people use "bangs" to describe food, as in "Wow, that cheesecake bangs." And when I asked on social media and Grammarpalooza, people came up with a bunch more.

And I'm told that in Hawaiian pidgin English, you can say "broke da mouth" as in "That pie was broke da mouth" or even "That pie stay broke da mouth."

And finally Walt on Mastodon suggested "cracking," as in "That's cracking good cheese, Gromit," and although "crack" has a huge number of meanings, it can mean a blow, "give that a good crack," so I'll accept it, especially because I love "Wallace and Gromit" … and cheese.

It seems like the whole concept of “hitting” being good when it comes to food is pretty universal. I couldn't find anything about why, but my theory is that it's because words for violence are strong and get attention, so they're useful for adding emphasis or being emphatic, and it could also be from the idea that you're so stunned or surprised when something is so good that it’s similar to how you feel after being unexpectedly hit — like it had a strong effect on you. 

Anyway, Donna, who started this whole thread with her great story about "lashing" also had a familect. She said, "When we were first married, my husband was doing the laundry. At the change of cycles from wash to rinse, he jumped up and said, “I forgot to flavor the clothes,” meaning he had forgotten to add fabric softener. Since then, the act of adding fabric softener to the wash is flavoring the clothes "

I love that too. Thanks for the great info and story, Donna.

If you want to share the story of your familect, your family dialect, a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. It’s in the show notes, and be sure to tell me the story behind your familect because that’s always the best part.

And now, if you're a Grammarpalooza subscriber you can also send a voice memo. To sign up, visit or text "hello" to (917) 540-0876.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to audio engineer, Nathan Semes; marketing associate, Davina Tomlin; ad operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings; director of podcasts, Brannan Goetschius; and marketing assistant, Kamryn Lacey, whose parents named her after the character Cameron in the 1999 movie "10 Things I Hate About You," which I have to say is one of my favorite movies.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. And I was named after a flower called the mignonette. That's all. Thanks for listening.