a, an and the letter h

Just got back from an absolutely lovely visit to Austin, Texas, where I spotted this sign on the fabulous South Congress Ave.

Generally, words that start with vowels take the article “an” instead of “a.” Words that start with “h” sometimes need “an” as well — but not as often as people think. The rule is that you only use “an” if the word starts with a vowel sound: “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” If the h-word starts with a hard consonant sound, you use “a”: “Kathryn Bigelow winning the Oscar for Best Director was a historic moment.” (Similarly, if a word starts with a letter that is a vowel, but the sound is a hard consonant, you should use the article “a”: “For the cast of The Hurt Locker, March 7 was a euphoric night.”)

It’s hard to tell from the design of this restaurant sign, but if the correct word order is, “Please see an inside hostess to be seated,” it’s fine. If it means to say, “Please see an hostess inside to be seated,” that’s wrong.

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