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An Honor and a Horror

beckham

Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interview with John McRae of the University of Nottingham (here, at 41:49) containing a totally confused account of what “a honour” means for English. And the coverage in the Daily Mail carried the following eyebrow-raising caption:

Inspiring: Brooklyn Beckham shared this picture of him with Stephen Hawking, when he paid a visit a visit to the professor on Monday, although his grammar would no doubt have horrified the esteemed physicist

Notice, the paper commits a clear grammar blunder of its own: Mistaken doubling of an article (see my recent observations about the the) is not uncommon, but accidentally doubling a whole noun phrase (as here, with a visit a visit) is a rather spectacular grammar flub.

Brooklyn Beckham, by contrast, committed at most two small spelling mistakes (“Stephan” for Stephen and “a” for an). So let’s not have any charge of carelessness leveled at this young man: Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye.

I doubt that Professor Hawking shares the Daily Mail’s small-minded snobbery and hypocritical pretense at grammar shock. But it is true that Brooklyn either dropped the letter n when typing an, or wrongly thought that a was correct (notice, we don’t know which).

I wonder whether anyone at the Daily Mail could correctly state the key generalizations that govern the a/an alternation. There are some subtleties.

The basic rule is that if the pronunciation of the word following the indefinite article begins with a vowel sound, then an is the correct choice (spelling has nothing to do with it); and if the word begins with a consonant sound, then a is the correct choice. Hence we find an apple, an orange, an hour, an honor; but a pear, a ghost, a host, a horror.

But there are some few complications when we come to words spelled with an initial letter h. They come in three types:

  1. habit, hero, history, horror, hostel, etc.
  2. hour, heiress, honest, honor, etc.
  3. habitual, heroic, historical, historian, hotel, etc.

Group 1, the overwhelming majority of h-words, contains all the words with a stressed initial syllable beginning with a clear phonetic [h] in standard varieties of English. The [h] sound is consonantal, so a is correct: a habit; a hero. (In Standard British English, herb belongs in Group 1.)

Group 2 comprises a small set of words in which nobody uses a phonetic [h], so an is correct: an hour; an honor. (In American English, herb belongs in Group 2.)

Group 3 comprises words that begin with an unstressed h-initial syllable. The [h] sound is often dropped in unstressed syllables: Even in careful educated Standard English speech varieties, a sentence like Did historical novels interest her? would have no audible [h] on either historical or her. So which form of the indefinite article is used in writing? An older tradition recognizes the consonantal elision (an historical novel, an habitual criminal, and even an hotel among older speakers), while the modern trend is toward assuming the initial consonant (a historical novel, a habitual criminal, a hotel).

Into this already confusing situation we must now inject a significant dialectal fact: In the vernacular speech of the London area, initial [h] has completely disappeared, as if all the Group 1 words had collapsed into Group 2.

And Brooklyn Beckham is a native speaker of the London vernacular: He was born in London to parents who both came from working London-area families. All of his closest relatives speak a dialect of English which in its purest form has no [h] sounds at all. For such speakers, the spelling system is even more annoyingly irregular than for you and me: It’s not just that our and hour are pronounced the same but spelled different; the same holds for eel and heel, eat and heat, owl and howl, ale and hail, I’ve and hive. … Positively perverse.

So if the casual writing on Instagram of a 16-year-old from north London didn’t occasionally have a wrong indefinite article before an h-initial Group 2 or Group 3 word (Brooklyn may have mistaken honor for Group 1), it would be utterly amazing.

But, typically, the British press made a kids-today grammar horror story out of it. Show British journalists a trivial spelling slip with an angle that opens the door to mockery of a famous working-class teenager and they’ll hop all over it like vultures on a corpse. Forgive me if I look away in disgust.

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