Is it a honest person or an honest person?

The phrase “a honest person” versus “an honest person” is a common source of confusion in English grammar. The honest/a honest dilemma exemplifies the complexities surrounding the use of the indefinite article “a” versus “an” before words beginning with the letter H. While there are rules governing article usage, inconsistencies in pronunciation and changes in convention over time have muddled the guidance. This article will explore the nuances involved in choosing “a” or “an” before “honest” and provide recommendations for current usage. A review of the historical evolution of the conventions around indefinite articles will shed light on how we arrived at the disagreement over “a honest” versus “an honest” that persists to this day.

The Rules of Using “A” Versus “An”

The basic rules regarding “a” and “an” are relatively straightforward:

  • “A” is used before words that begin with a consonant sound.
  • “An” is used before words that begin with a vowel sound.

For example:

  • a cat
  • a dog
  • an elephant
  • an igloo

The distinction depends on the first sound of the word, not the first letter. This accounts for why we say “a unicorn” and “an umbrella”—the pronunciation begins with a consonant “y” sound and a vowel “u” sound respectively, despite the fact that both words begin with the letter U.

Following this rule, most usage guides advise using “an” before “honest” since it starts with a vowel “ah” sound:

  • an honest person

However, exceptions and inconsistencies in pronunciation have rendered this guidance open to debate.

Inconsistent Pronunciation of Words Beginning with H

A complicating factor with words that begin with the letter H is that sometimes the first syllable is pronounced with a consonant sound and sometimes with a vowel sound:

  • A hotel
  • An honor

Whether you use “a” or “an” depends on how you pronounce the first syllable.

The word “honest” falls into a gray area when it comes to pronunciation. Some speakers give it a consonant H sound, beginning with “huh.” For those speakers, “a honest person” sounds more natural based on the consonant sound rule. But other speakers pronounce “honest” with a silent H, giving it a vowel “ah” sound at the start. For those speakers, “an honest person” aligns with the vowel sound rule.

Regional accents and dialects account for much of the variation in pronunciation. The next section will explore how historical pronunciation shifts have also played a role.

The Evolution of H Pronunciation in English

The pronunciation of words beginning with H in English has changed dramatically over time. Up until around the 17th century, all words starting with H were pronounced with a hard consonant H sound. This means “an hotel” and “an history” would have been used.

But in the 17th century, some words beginning with H started being pronounced with a silent H instead, giving them an initial vowel sound. “An hotel” morphed into “a hotel” and “an history” became “a history.” Words like “hour,” “honest,” and “honor” made the switch to a silent H and vowel sound beginning.

However, other H words like “house” and “human” maintained their hard H pronunciation. And pronunciation distinctions that emerged in the 1600s-1700s were not consistent across England. This resulted in flexibility in how H words could be pronounced.

The variable H pronunciation contributed to uncertainty over whether to use “a” or “an” with particular words, including “honest.” Some writers used “a honest” while others preferred “an honest,” depending on their speech patterns.

This variability has persisted into modern usage, with individual preference and regional speech differences determining whether “honest” has a hard H sound or a silent H sound for any given speaker.

Prescriptive Grammar Guidance Over Time

In the 18th and 19th centuries, grammar guides began codifying rules for “proper” article usage. Some took a descriptive approach and acknowledged flexibility based on pronunciation habits. But others took a more rigid prescriptive view.

Early prescriptivists like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray mandated “an before every vowel and a before every consonant.” This directive failed to accommodate regional and idiomatic speech variations, but it was an attempt to clarify article usage.

Following this rule strictly requires using “an” before all words starting with H, including “an hotel” and “an honest person.” Some schools of thought continued to promote this view well into the 20th century.

But as the consonantal pronunciation of some H words became more entrenched in common usage, strict adherence to the “an before every vowel” rule created a disconnect with actual speech patterns. Modern grammar guides acknowledge this and allow for optionality depending on pronunciation.

This has paved the way for both “a honest person” and “an honest person” to be potentially correct depending on who is speaking and how they pronounce “honest.”

Examining Corpus Data

Corpus linguistics provides insight into current usage patterns with “honest” based on analysis of vast databases of written and spoken English.

Data extracted from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) shows:

  • “An honest person” is used approximately 3 times more frequently than “a honest person” in edited written English.
  • “A honest person” does occur, but is rare.
  • Use of “an honest person” has held relatively steady since 1990, while occurrence of “a honest person” has declined.

Among unscripted spoken English samples in COCA, “an honest person” occurs almost exclusively, with only 1 instance of “a honest person” compared to 116 instances of “an honest person.”

This corpus analysis verifies that “an honest person” dominates modern written and spoken usage. However, it also demonstrates that “a honest person,” while uncommon, does appear and cannot be considered strictly incorrect given the ongoing variability in H pronunciation.

Style Guide Recommendations

Leading style manuals acknowledge both options for article usage with “honest,” but they differ in their guidance:

AP Stylebook

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends “an” before “honest” with no mention of “a” as an alternative:

“Use an before honest, honor, heir, hotel and human.”

Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style highlights the pronunciation variability and allows for both:

“An is usual before unstressed syllable beginning with h (an honor, an honest mistake) but a is also correct in such instances, especially when h is strongly articulated (a hotel, a historic event).”

MLA Style Manual

The MLA Style Manual takes the most flexible position, treating “honest” as a free choice:

“If the initial h of a word is sounded, use a; if the h is mute, use an. Where custom is divided, use the article you prefer.”

Based on these guides, “an honest person” is universally accepted, while “a honest person” is permissible depending on pronunciation tendencies.

Current Recommendations

Given the evidence of predominant usage and the endorsements of style authorities like AP and Chicago, “an honest person” is the safer recommendation for most writing contexts. Exceptions would be dialogue or quotations mimicking regional speech where “a honest person” is idiomatic.

However, the variation in H pronunciation prevents a definitive rule. Writers who naturally give “honest” a hard H pronunciation have grounds to use “a honest person” following their own speech patterns. But it may appear jarring to readers who expect “an.”

To summarize key points:

  • Standard usage favors “an honest person,” but “a honest person” does occur.
  • Pronunciation differences account for the variation.
  • Use discretion based on your pronunciation tendencies and audience expectations.
  • Both options have defensible rationales.


The “a” versus “an” choice before “honest” has a long, complex history without a definitive solution. While “an honest person” dominates modern usage, “a honest person” cannot be considered an outright error due to ongoing inconsistency in pronouncing words with initial H.

Writers should rely on their own speech patterns as a guide but be aware the issue may confuse readers who pronounce “honest” differently. As with many aspects of language, flexibility and sensitivity to context are key in navigating this subtle grammatical gray area.

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