A historian or AN historian

Ok, I know the general rule: use an when the following word starts with a vowel. e.g. an elephant. But some words that start with a ‘h’ throw me off (historian for one).

And do you use an when the following word has a vowel sound? That is, would an Englishman say an 'ello, while an American would say a ‘hello’?

Thanks for the help.

Depends on what stylebook you’re using.

The easy way: if the H is pronounced, use A. If the H is not pronounced, use AN.

The “an historical” and that ilk came from a rule that if the first syllable of a word starting in H wasn’t emphasized, it needed the N to make it sound right. But really this is true only for people who don’t emphasize the H in those words. And in some parts of the US as well as lots of other English-speaking nations, a lot of people routinely drop some H’s (most notably in words of French origina such as history, honor, hotelier). You hardly ever see anyone refer in words or print to “an Hispanic” (although I’m sure it has happened).

Thanks for the help; that clears things up for me.

My rule of thumb (which may or may not be supported generally) is that if the word starts with an “H” and that syllable is stressed (as in “HIS-tory”) then you don’t need the “an.” But if the first syllable starts with “H” and isn’t stressed (as in “hi-STOR-i-cal”) you do need the “an.”

Probably because it’s an english word but I understand the example you were trying to give. Hispanico is spanish. It is more tricky when you mix foreign words into english. “H” is always silent in spanish but most english speakers don’t know that. “An hombre” sounds correct with spanish pronunciation it but it sure looks funny in print.

I know the UK clipped initial consonant isn’t the same but it reminds me of the Eric the Half a Bee sketch.
Cleese: a 'alibut
Palin: What?
Cleese: AN HALIBUT

Well, there are stylebooks that support your use, so you’re not wrong.

However, the consonant sound was added originally for ease of pronunciation. It was deemed more pleasing and easier to say “an hour” than “a hour,” for instance. In the case of “historic,” if you pronounce the H, you don’t really need the N for this reason . . . so it’s a style thing. As English has evolved its speakers have more usually chosen the easier, simpler pronunciation, but not always–which is why learning spelling is a nightmare for non-native speakers (and some native speakers as well). It’s made even harder by the fact that the English language happily embraces additions from many other languages, not necessarily always with their original pronunciation. Consider the Greek sandwich, the gyro, which gets pronounced with a hard G, a soft G, and H (almost like “hero”), and a long I sound or short I sound, and I’m probably leaving out a few alternative pronunciations . . .

Another example, we put the N onto the article before a vowel (an article, an apple, an aphid), unless it’s a long U sound (a euphemism, a useful item). Does this make any sense at all? Yes–because the sound in question is actually a Y sound. Some people pronounce certain words beginning with H with this sound (Youston, Texas).

For the most part the rule follows the way the word sounds, not the way it looks. Hence, “he’s an M.D.” and not “he’s a M.D.” Or “an SAT score,” if you’re calling it an ess a tee test, but “a SAT score” if you’re pronouncing it “sat.”

[QUOTE=Cicada2003]
Consider the Greek sandwich, the gyro, which gets pronounced with a hard G, a soft G, and H (almost like “hero”), and a long I sound or short I sound, and I’m probably leaving out a few alternative pronunciations . . .

[QUOTE]

[hijack]
Since you seem to have a decent grip on this topic, and I have no clue, how do genuine Greeks pronounce this word, and what would be a reasonably correct Americanization for it. I’ve been using “YE-ro” (rhymes with “hero”), and I wonder if old Mr Stefanopolis at my local Greek diner is laughing at me every time.
[/hijack]

It’s YEE-roh. You were close, but the “ee” sound should be longer.