Vowels [was Re: "monty" < "python"]

Steven D'Aprano steve+comp.lang.python at pearwood.info
Thu Mar 21 05:28:15 CET 2013

On Wed, 20 Mar 2013 20:12:13 -0700, rusi wrote:

> "I did an horrible mistake" [...] is 'h' a vowel in french?

No it is not, and writing "an horrible" is a trivial typo which can 
easily happen if you start thinking "an awful ..." (for example) and then 
change to "horrible". Been there, done that.

But more interesting is the idea that in English we use "an" before words 
that start with a vowel, and "a" with words that start with a consonant: 

a tiger
a car
a house


an elephant
an ambulance
an unit

Wait, what? "An unit"? What rubbish is that?

The rule actually depends on the *sound* of the first syllable, not the 
letter. If the first syllable is a consonant sound, we say and write "a", 
even if the first letter is a vowel:

a unique opportunity

since the U in "unique" is pronounced as a "Yoo" sound rather than "Ah" 
sound. Likewise if the first consonant is silent, we use "an":

an honourable man
half an hour

Now think of somebody who pronounces horrible with a silent "h". In 
English, an initial H used to *always* be silent, nowadays only some such 
words are. It's more common in dialect though.

"I made a 'orrible mistake in getting a 'Arry Potter tattoo on my 

"I made an 'orrible mistake in getting an 'Arry Potter tattoo on my 

Say each sentence aloud. The second sounds far more natural, the "n" in 
"an" creates a bridge between the vowel sounds of "a" and "orrible".

By the way, the "n" in "an" is not the only such "bridging" sound. In 
Shakespearean times, it was usual to use "mine" in the same fashion:

my wife
my peach


mine husband
mine apple

ly y'rs,


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