Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The horse, the hotel and the hospital.

Can anyone help me on this little question that foxed me the other night?

The eldest was reading out her homework to me last night. She had to write an estate agent's type of advert for Hampton Court, a local former Royal Palace over 500 years old. For the benefit of any Americans I'll explain that an estate agent is a realtor and a Royal Palace is a place of residence of a member of the Royal Family. And yes, all of us in England know each member of the Royal Family personally, apart from Caroline Aherne, who I've only seen on TV.

She started reading:

"It could be used as a theme park, a multiplex cinema complex (my ideas, of which I am rather proud), a hotel or a hospital."

Generally I'm not much use as far as homework is concerned. I'm ok with music stuff and I would imagine that, as Dad's go, I'm pretty useful to have around when you have to do drum practice and drum related stuff, which happens relatively often. I'm not one to blow my own trumpet though, as my strengths lie more on the percussive side of things.

But this time I spotted something that I thought might benefit from my advice. I proceeded to point out one of those idiosyncrasies of the English language that we all know and love.

"Did you know that it should actually be "an hotel" not " a hotel"?" I said. (I hope you liked my rather excessive, but wholly correct, use of quotation marks there).

"No, why's that Dad?"

"I don't know really, but it just is. Even though most of us say "a hotel" it should actually be "an hotel, especially in writing". I said.

"OK I'll change it. So should it be "an hospital" too?" she asked.

Ah, I thought. She had me stumped.

"Errm I think so. Errm actually I'm not sure about that. Errm actually I don't think so." I replied, with considerably less certainty than I may have implied.

So you linguistic types out there. Does anyone know for sure? Should it be "an hospital", "an horse", and so on, for anything beginning with an aitch, or does this rule only apply to hotels.

What's the official ruling on this?

After all I don't want to be the one who is known to discriminate against horses or hospitals.

Or even hoppers for that matter.

Thanks in advance.


Manshark said...

Heya, I was looking for this exact answer last week for some writing thingy and found an easy explanation..but I can't seem to find that article any longer! :o( But the explanation ran something like this:

With a word beginning with "h", if you use a hard H (that is, you sound the h) when you speak, then you use "a". If you drop it and use a silent h, then it's "an". Eg, AN hour or AN honour (silent h) but A hospital (hard H). The rationale is similar to the one for saying A European instead of AN European - when you speak it, the beginning letter doesn't sound like a vowel (european sounds like 'y' and hospital is 'h').

But with the word hotel, if you speak it as 'otel then it's AN hotel, but if you pronounce the h, then it's A hotel - your choice! But apparently the "an 'otel" is a bit old fashioned :o)

Oh dear, sorry this got so long! :o( Hope it all makes sense though!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Thanks manshark, it makes perfect sense but I'm not clear on one aspect of it. Is there a specific rule for written english or is that down to personal preference as well?

Sach where are you? You'll know this for sure!

drac said...

the article.

No, there isn't a specific rule. I looked around for a link (since the Oxford dictionary I have available isn't going to travel well) and I found this .

FWIW, I always use "a hotel" and "an MP", as far as I can remember.

I always knew my expensive university education would come in handy one day ;) Horses, hospitals and hoppers can breathe easy now.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Thanks drac, I think I am even more confused now, but I'm not sure!

I'll have to try and invent a joke involving a horse, a hospital and a hopper.

sach said...

Hey Rhythmic,

Was at uni so missed the whole thing. Manshark is correct and while there's no specific rule as to how you should write it, it is better to write the word the way you say it. So if you say "an (h)otel" then you should write "an hotel". But saying otel is considered old fashioned now so it is apparently not a big deal anymore. That is with the exception of fathers who like to confuse their kids while helping them out with homework :p

I googled it just to double check so to add to that, the issue of 'an' before 'h' comes up when British and American pronunciation differs. Americans who say erb for herb can say and write "an herb".

Try askoxford.com and please save your daughter from the confusion you left her in. Then again, if she is anything like most daughters I know (I'm talking about myself), she must have just ignored you and forgotten about the whole thing.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Thanks to all of you for your help in this.

Sach - You're right on 2 counts. I think I confused myself more than I confused the daughter, who has since progressed onto more important issues like will she get a Nintendo Lite for Xmas.

At least you have cleared up my own confusion, which was quite large scale and cluttering up my mind!

Indyana said...

I wrote this whole big thing on the usage of a and an out here,and I find you probably didn't get it...I guess.Well, just in case , here it goes again,the abridged version(believe me):Use 'A 'before words that start with a consonant or even a word that starts with a vowel but the sound is that of a consonant(European is pronounced YU-ropean,so also University=Yuniversity) and therefore starts with a consonant sound)

Use AN, similarly, with words starting with vowels, and vowel sounds eg hour=our, honest=onest.

So the sound is the clue.Please say you understood!!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Thanks Indyana - I hunderstand!