The controversy surrounding sounds and letters has been demystified in one of my previous lessons, but the choice of indefinite articles (a, an) before words has not received my linguistic intervention; hence, the focus of this treatise.
The indefinite articles are used before singular count nouns. It should be noted that article ‘a’ precedes consonant sounds (not necessarily letters), while article ‘an’ is a precursor to vowel sounds (not necessarily letters). This clarification is essential because consonant letters do not always guarantee consonant sounds and vice versa. It is, therefore, paramount to pay attention to the sound manifesting from each letter before choosing a preceding article.
Accordingly, this piece will shed light on some letters that confound speakers of the English language as regards the choice of the indefinite article.
First of all, there is the need to discuss the variants of the glottal fricative /h/, especially in the Nigerian context. A renowned Nigerian phonologist, Segun Awonusi, discussed h-weakening, h-restoration, variable h-dropping and h-insertion. H-weakening is the non-articulation of h in /h/-full words. Many Nigerians unconsciously omit the /h/ sound in words such as a house, head, hinge, height and heart. In these words and others in the category, the /h/ sound should be articulated, and the article ‘a’ should precede the words. In effect, we have ‘a hungry man’, ‘a heroic feat’, ‘a house’, ‘a haircut’ and so forth. H-restoration, by striking contrast, is the articulation of h in /h/-less words. This is usually born out of spelling-induced pronunciation.
Words in this category are heir, hour, honest and honour. By reason of the reality that the /h/ sound is silent (an aphthong) in these words, the appropriate article that precedes them is ‘an’, since the letters after h produce vowel sounds. In accordance with that, one should say, ‘an honest driver’, ‘an heir to a throne’, ‘an hour’s time’ and ‘an honour’. There is also the variable h-dropping, which accounts for words where the /h/ sound is a variant. Thus, the sound is either dropped or retained in such words.
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Quintessential examples are ‘hotel’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’. As a matter of fact, native speakers often used to refrain from enunciating the ‘h’ in ‘hotel’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’, in the 18th and 19th centuries, thereby necessitating the use of ‘an hotel’, ‘an historic occasion’ and ‘an historical novel’. In contemporary standard English, though, the ‘h’ is now articulated by a preponderant percentage of native speakers.
Consequentially, we have ‘a hotel’, ‘a historic event’ and ‘a historical document’. Having taken that into account, the readership should note that while the older version is not altogether inappropriate, it is advisable to always apply the contemporary variant (a hotel, a historical setting, a historic development), just to be on the safe side (not ‘at the safer side’). As an aside, the general reader should be mindful that, although ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ are adjectives, they have a nuanced difference and should never be deployed indiscriminately. ‘Historic’ means ‘famous or important in history’, while ‘historical’ pertains to ‘something that occurred or is set in the past’. Put in proper perspective, a ‘historic development’ is one that is renowned or extremely important, whereas a ‘historical development’ simply refers to one that transpired in the past.
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In furtherance of that, h-insertion is the use of the /h/ sound in /h/-less words. This is predominately used by second-language users of English, who vocalise words such as ‘egg’, ‘average’, ‘order’ and a repertoire of other /h/-less words with the /h/ sound. Speakers of English must make a deliberate attempt to avoid the unwitting articulation of the /h/ sound in those words.
Another difficult sound to deal with as regards the choice of an article is the yod sound. It is phonologically represented as /j/ and commonly portrayed as ‘y’ in its orthographic realisation. Moreover, it is the initial sound in words like yam, you, youth, yoghurt, et cetera. The confusion with this sound is when it is realised by vowel letters ‘e’ and ‘u’; the yod sound is present in words beginning with the vowel letter u, such as ‘union’ and ‘university’. In such a situation, the readership should note that ‘a’ is the appropriate article to deploy. The glide /j/ is equally found in words like ‘Europe’ and ‘euphemism’, which begin with the letter e. T
he vowel letter should not tempt us into thinking that the article ‘an’ is appropriate in this circumstance, hence we say ‘a European nation’.
Last but not least, some acronyms can make the choice of article difficult to make. Users of English may wonder, for instance, whether to say ‘a SSS2 student’ or ‘an SSS2 student’. Since meticulous attention must be paid to the articulated sound, and not the letter, one can tell that the initial sound in ‘SSS2 student’ is /e/, which is a vowel sound. It will, therefore, be appropriate to say ‘an SSS2 student’—not ‘a SSS2 student’. In the same vein, it behoves you to say ‘an MC’ (though you say, ‘a master of ceremonies’), ‘an SUV’ and ‘an NDA graduate’.
The deployment of the indefinite articles could be technical, particularly with regard to confusing sounds such as the glottal fricative /h/ and the yod /j/. Thankfully, this treatise serves as an eye-opener to the intricacies surrounding such usages among non-native speakers of English.
© 2021 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB).
Department of English,
Lagos State University