Words Make Noise

When it comes to making choices concerning proper English, you're usually forced to recall some sort of rule that's applied to the structure of a sentence or the individual words therein. But although the process of writing seems more visual than auditory, every word makes noise. Whether it's within the reader's mind or in a more tangible way—converted to sound waves in the air—the final result always has an echo of its own.

Somewhere within my first years of elementary school, the teacher wrote the vowels on the chalkboard: a, e, i, o, and u. Then, almost as an afterthought, she wrote and sometimes h. I didn’t like ambiguity then any more than I do now, so that h was relegated to Vowel Purgatory, where I left it for future contemplation. At the time, it didn't dawn on me that the problem had everything to do with sound, and nothing to do with the letter's established identity as a consonant. Although I had no trouble with an apple, an elf, or an understanding, certain words beginning with the letter h caused my pencil to stall while I evaluated the letter's disordered personality.

If the sentences I see floating around out there are any indication, the question over whether to treat the letter h as a vowel or a consonant continues to confuse. This is unfortunate, because unlike many English-related questions, the answer to it is delightfully uncomplicated: if you can't hear it, it doesn't exist.

Paul had been an honorary member of the club since 2004.

She thought the painting was a horrible example of watercolor technique.

As you can see, both sentences contain a word beginning with the letter h, followed by the same vowel, o. And as you can hear, the h in honorary is silent, so all you hear is the vowel that follows. On the other hand, horrible begins with a very definite h sound; there's no doubt it should be treated as a consonant.

Some words, such as herb, are pronounced differently depending on where you live. If you're British, you almost certainly pronounce the h at the beginning of this word; if you're American it's more likely you do not, although regional dialect may prevail. But the delightfully uncomplicated answer to the question remains the same: treat it as you hear it. Unless you're writing for a foreign audience or living abroad, you won't go far wrong.

There are a few words that persist as examples of words commencing with h, but which are often treated as though they begin with a vowel. Hysterectomy, hereditary, and historical continue to receive special treatment in many cases, usually those that require above-average formality.



  1. "Every word makes noise." Gnomically put! It reminds me of the song "Enjoy the Silence," about how words come crashing in to break the quiet.

  2. Gnomically. Now there's a word you don’t see out for a stroll just any day. I like! When the words-make-noise thing was reeling about in my brain it was to the tune of Suzanne Vega's Blood Makes Noise, but Depeche Mode would've been good, too.