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A Herb or An Herb (Pronounced "urb")

Filed on: June 23, 2007 | Written by | 14 comments

I came across a peculiar issue this Saturday while reviewing a document: the use of "a" versus "an" with the word "herb." Now, MS Word shows "a herb" as an error, irrespective of the language settings (US/UK). After scouring a couple of dictionaries, I came across this:

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.



Ûrb, hûrb


1. A plant whose stem does not produce woody, persistent tissue and generally dies back at the end of each growing season. 2. Any of various often aromatic plants used especially in medicine or as seasoning. 3. Slang Marijuana.


Middle English herbe, from Old French erbe, from Latin herba.




The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The (h) sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words. In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English. In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.

Also, M-W unabridged uses "an herbaceous" in an explanatory note. So after a small chat session with one of my colleagues, Veena, we decided that both pronunciations are acceptable and either can be used. Just thought I'll share, what say?



[Word/Phrase Choice is a series of posts dedicated to the appropriate and gentlemannerly usage of some of the more peculiar words and phrases in the English language.]

Anonymous says:
On July 20th, 2011

Oh, and also to add to my previous post, here's another link in case some people are still thinking that it's "a herb" rather than "an herb".


Please note that it states, "using 'a' or 'an' depends on the sound that begins the next word." Listed in the section below, it also states, "'an' is used in nouns starting with SILENT h's". 'Herb' is pronounced 'urb', not 'hurb', which is why we place 'an' in front of it and not 'a'.

Anonymous says:
On July 20th, 2011


QUOTE: "The form "an" is always prescribed before words beginning with a silent h, such as "honorable", "heir", "hour", and, in American English, "herb".[9] Some British dialects (for example, Cockney) silence all initial h's (h-dropping) and so employ "an" all the time: e.g., "an 'elmet". "

Anonymous says:
On July 9th, 2011

I agree that the way you phoneticize the word (not how you write it) has become the modern means by which we determine when to use "a" or "an". Another example is "m". When you say, Michael starts with an "m", we apparently are applying the "an" rule because the name of the letter "m" is pronounced "em".

Anonymous says:
On May 8th, 2011

Herb is a French word, and they don't pronounce the H. In fact, it wad originally spelled "erb", until a few centuries ago, when the French added the H (but still did not pronounce it).

Anonymous says:
On May 8th, 2011

To the limey: funny how you complain that Americans are lazy, when I've regularly heard the 'h' dropped from 'hello', etc, with Brits.'Herb' is a French word, adopted into English, and contorted to suit the English tongue. You are the one who has it wrong. I wonder if you pronounce the 'h' in 'hour'?

Anonymous says:
On March 12th, 2011

That's completely wrong, Americas are just plain lazy so 'dropped' the h simply for convenience, like you drop the 'u' in coloUr and 'favoUrite.' Sort it out yanks, and joke's on you Lady because your husband was right in the first place.

Zulfi says:
On November 12th, 2010

When 'h' in a word remains silent or it is not pronounced, we must use 'an' before it. For example words like honest (pronounced onest), hour (pronounced our), herb (pronounced urb) should be followed by 'an'.
Thanks for your patience.

Anonymous says:
On May 15th, 2010

the rule of a vowel sound (remember, aeiou and sometimes y) is a speech sound that is produced by comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract with vibration of the vocal chords but without audible friction.

you use AN before those words, a before the others.

an hour
a unanimous decision
a unified front
an herb if pronounced HERB a herb pronounced URB

Retuningdoc says:
On February 21st, 2010

I agree that the 'a' and 'an' before 'herb' is an issue but I also agree that if the word is pronounced in modern english as 'HERB' it should not be 'an'.

Editage says:
On October 15th, 2009

@Sp33dd34m0n: Its "an hour," and not "a hour." This is because words beginning with vowel sounds, even when they begin with consonants, are preceded by "an." For example, an honest cop. On the other hand, words that begin with vowels but not vowel sounds are preceded by "a." For example, a university.

Sp33dd34m0n says:
On October 11th, 2009

So in your theory it would be A HOUR and not AN hour, right?

By the way, thx alot for the informations! Good job!

Anonymous says:
On September 11th, 2009

The word "an" is used before a vowel. (a.e.i.o.u.) NOT 'h'.
It is completely ignorant to say "an herb".
The correct way is "A herb".
An is used before a noun with a vowel sound, not a letter. That's why you say: a uniform not an uniform or a university not an university. So it would not be completely ignorant when you look at the phonetical spelling in a dictionary.

Anonymous says:
On August 12th, 2009

The word "an" is used before a vowel. (a.e.i.o.u.) NOT 'h'.
It is completely ignorant to say "an herb".
The correct way is "A herb".
Despite where a word derives from, if has been adapted to English, it then follows those rules.
A vowel is a vowel nomatter what !

Anonymous says:
On April 19th, 2008

thank you for all of this information....my husband always say 'herb' with an h sound.....and today, i got to teach him a wonderful lesson on why we pronounce it without the 'h'.....:)


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