"A hereditary" or "an hereditary"

Grant Barrett gbarrett at AMERICANDIALECT.ORG
Sat May 1 11:28:28 UTC 1999

>From Slate's "International Papers" review,


"Britain's Daily Telegraph reported Friday that the House of Lords split
over a point of grammar in a bill to abolish its hereditary members. The
issue is whether to say "a hereditary peer" or "an hereditary peer." The
first version appears in the bill but was disputed in a debate by
Conservative hereditary peer Earl Ferrers, who moved an amendment to change "a" to
"an." He pointed out that Fowler's Modern English Usage cites "an
hereditary title" as a correct example. But a government spokesman responded with a
quotation from a second edition of the same reference book: " 'An' was
formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with 'h' and is still
often seen and heard (an historian, an hereditary title). But now that
the 'h' in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become anomalous
and will no doubt disappear in time." Their lordships voted 63-31 against
Earl Ferrers' amendment."

Personally, when speaking, I never use "an" in front of hereditary,
history, etc. It rings false to my ears, though I will use it in print in order
not to arouse prescriptivist instincts in editors and professors.

Grant Barrett
gbarrett at americandialect.org

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