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A Honor or an Honor: Understanding Grammar, Meaning, and Proper Usage

Grammar has tricky rules — some phrases that are indeed correct do not always sound so. For instance, is it “a honor” or “an honor”? Whether it is “a honor” or “an honor” is an important concept to understand when writing an essay or even an email. 

“An honor” is the correct way to word this phrase. Examining the word’s initial sound following the article “a” or “an” helps to understand why. “A” is always used before a word that starts with a consonant sound, and “an” is always used before a word that begins with a vowel sound, like “honor.”

Keep reading to learn more about honor. Afterward, you will be able to decide when you should use “a” and when you should use “an” before any word and why you should choose one over the other. 

Is It “A Honor” or “An Honor”?

There are rules governing grammar, and a key one will help you figure out whether to use “a” or “an” in any circumstance. For instance, consonant sounds should follow vowel sounds, and vowel sounds should follow consonant sounds. 

To apply this rule, focus on the sound each letter makes and the sound the following word will make.

For example, you will use “a” when the next word has a consonant sound, such as “a cat” or “a dog.” In contrast, using “a owl” or “a umbrella” would be grammatically incorrect because both of these words have initial vowel sounds following the “a.”  

Instead, you will use “an” when the word that follows has a vowel sound. For example, the correct way to use “an” would be “an owl” or “an umbrella.” You would not say or write “an cat” or “an dog” because of the consonant sound at the beginning of each word.  

A vowel sound is the sound any vowel would make, and “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” and “u” are vowels. However, specific rules govern “y” as to when it is a vowel and when it is not. All other letters in the alphabet are consonants.

Vowels make a sound without limiting airflow from your lungs. When you do restrict airflow while pronouncing a word, the sound you make is that of a consonant (source).

You can also judge whether you’re pronouncing a vowel or consonant by the way your mouth is moving. To test this, try saying the vowels above aloud. When you round your mouth as you speak, you are pronouncing a vowel. When you do not round your mouth, you are pronouncing a consonant.

Does Choosing “a” or “an” Change the Meaning of a Word?

While selecting “a” instead of “an” will not change the meaning of the phrase, choosing “a” or “an” will make your writing sound grammatically correct (source). We need to mix vowel and consonant sounds to ensure proper speech patterns and pronunciation.

Because of the grammar rules above, you will choose “an honor” when writing this term in any context. Examples of when you can use “an honor” are as follows:

  • Working with you and your staff is an honor; thank you for the opportunity.
  • Today I met the Vice President of the United States; it was an honor to meet her. 

What Does “An Honor” Mean?

When you say that something is “an honor,” it shows a high level of respect toward the person who presented it to you, and it acknowledges their level of prestige or position of authority. In addition, using this phrase shows high respect when you or someone else achieve an award.

Synonyms for “honor” as a noun would include “acclamation,” “distinction,” or “tribute.” A synonym for “honor” as a verb would be to recognize or provide recognition, while “credit” and “celebrate” are also words related to honor (source).

As a noun, an honor can include an award that a person of higher rank grants for many different reasons. For example, the person accepting the award might receive an honor for their hard work and dedication to a project or assignment. Using this word lets everyone know the level of authority or recognition behind such a statement.

When introducing a person of high authority, you can say it is “an honor to introduce you.” Likewise, you might say it was “an honor” to work or collaborate with a particular person when giving an award.

Additionally, when addressing a judge in court, you’ll say “your honor” as a sign of respect for their higher authority.  

Examples of How to Use “A” or “An”

We will now look at some examples using “a” or “an” to understand these indefinite articles better. As determiners, articles go before nouns or their equivalents and function much like adjectives (source).

In the following example, the speaker uses the indefinite article “an” to speak about their appointment generally. If they had instead used the definite article “the,” it would imply that whoever they talked to knew about the specific meeting.

  • Today I made an appointment to see my counselor and discuss degree options.

The above example uses “an” correctly because, as you’ll recall, we must add it before a vowel sound. 

  • I have a need to help people when I can and donate my time to others.

This example uses “a”  properly, placing the indefinite article before “need,” which starts with a consonant sound. 

These examples sound and look grammatically correct. Using this pronunciation flow will help you sound clearer and help your audience understand what you are conveying.

Reading sentences aloud to yourself before submitting what you are writing or before giving a speech will help you see whether it is correct or not, too.

Practice With “A” Versus “An”

Try saying the following examples aloud to decide if they sound correct. Remember that “a” has a vowel sound, and you should only place it before words with consonant sounds, while “an” has a consonant sound, and you should only place it before words with vowel sounds.

  1. I enjoy an fruity wine with a delectable dessert after a savory dinner. X
  2. The horses at the ranch eat fruit, and you can buy a apple for 75 cents to feed them. X
  3. Have you seen the elephant at the circus this week? He wears an green tutu. X

The italicized, bolded parts of each sentence are incorrect. Reading through them, you can see that the word following the chosen article in the phrase for the first and third sentence have consonant sounds. 

Reading them aloud should help you hear and sense that these words begin with consonants and, therefore, require the article “a.” 

The second sentence, however, is the opposite. Because “apple” begins with a vowel sound, you’ll need to use “an” in front of it to create a vowel-consonant-vowel pattern in your pronunciation.   

  • Mark and Chloe have a pact always to help each other with homework.
  • Kraft mac and cheese has four different flavors, including a thick and creamy option.
  • To choose an appropriate location for studying, decide what you need most.

The italicized/bolded parts of these sentences are correct since the correct sounds follow the articles in each. Remember, you shouldn’t have to round your mouth when you say “appropriate” following “an” in the last sentence.

A round mouth proves you’re saying a vowel sound, and that is the sound that should come after “an,” which ends in a consonant sound.

Using “A” or “An” With Y-Words

Vowels in English include “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” “u,” and, of course, sometimes “y.” This is because “y” functions at times as a vowel and at times as a consonant.  

In our article, “Is it a Year or An Year?” we explain the difference between “y” as a vowel and as a consonant and when to use “a” or “an” before different y-words. Take a look to learn more. 

What Does “My Honor” Mean?

Using the phrase “my honor” shows your feelings toward a prestigious award. Someone using the phrase usually expresses a sense of humbleness that someone recognized them as worthy of a specific award.

Using this phrasing when introducing a person sends the same message. You are showing your appreciation for the opportunity to introduce a person of this level of prestige.

Here is an example showing an award that you are giving:

  • Today, Tom Hanks will be awarded the medal of freedom, a high honor in America.

Here is an example of a person that you are introducing: 

  • Today it is my honor to present to you Tom Hanks, an American actor.

When speaking or meeting with someone of higher prestige, you can use the phrase “it is an honor to meet you” to show the respect they deserve. 

In a correspondence email with a potential employer after an interview, you can also incorporate “It was my honor to meet with you today.” Using this language when conversing with potential employers will show them you respect and recognize their place in the company.

Wording emails and letters carefully to show respect will make you stand out from others, earning you respect with professors and colleagues as well.

While introducing fellow students or students you or someone else has taught as honor students — students tiered in a more challenging course of study — you can use “an honor” to describe working with the student, as well as an award you or someone else may give to them. 

This shows the prestige of the student and the award they worked for. We’ll discuss this in a bit more detail further in this article.

woman wearing black mortar board
Image by Juan Ramos via Unsplash

Is It “What an Honor” or “a Honor”?

Adding “what” before “an honor” is another phrase you will commonly use when speaking about an experience with a person. Adding “what” before “honor” emphasizes the scale of the honor and prestige behind the interactions with the person you had.

“What an honor” is still the grammatically correct way to write this phrase. The word “what” does not change the word’s sound following the article “an.” The sound of the word preceding the article is what dictates the use of “a” or “an.” 

Remember that grammarians refer to both “a” and “an” as articles in English. Articles are essentially noun “markers” because they indicate or show that a noun is general or specific (source). 

Examples are as follows:

  • What an honor it is to receive this award for my work throughout this school year.
  • What an honor it was to work with you as you completed this project on time.
  • I’d like to say what an honor it was to work with the VP of our company.
  • Can you please describe what an honor it was to work with the esteemed celebrity?

You can use “what an honor” in both statement and question form.

“An Honor Student” or “A Honor Student”?

“An honor” is also the correct choice when discussing honor students. Based on the grammar rules we’ve discussed thus far, this should be clear, but we’ll review a bit more here.

Remember that “an honor” is correct whether another word precedes or follows the phrase. An honor student is someone who has worked towards high honors in their classwork and might be on a more rigorous course of study. These “honors” can reflect perfect attendance or the result of excellent grades.

To introduce an honor or honorable student, you can use examples similar to these:

  • It is an honor to introduce a student who has earned a 4.0 GPA this entire year.
  • Jack is an honor student due to his attendance and academic progress.

Either of the above examples would be correct and work to introduce an honor student. The second sentence reflects a student who educators have classified as an honor student, while the first shows a student introduced with honor.

Understanding the Difference Between Honor and Honour

“Honour” has the same meaning as “honor,” and the only difference is that the former is British English spelling, while the latter is American English spelling. Words in the British dialect have a “u” after an “o” in many words, and other examples include “favourite,” “colour,” and “humour.”

When using different variations of the word, such as “honored” and “honoree,” the spelling changes if you are writing in the British English dialect to “honoured” and “honouree.” 

Still, not all versions of the word “honor” will require a “u,” even in the British dialect, as “honorific” is one exception (source).

Here are examples using both “honoured” (British English) and “honored” (standard American English):

  • I am so honoured to receive this award from the dean of our school.
  • I am so honored to receive this award from the dean of our school.

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The examples above each convey the exact same meaning. Leaving out the “u” will not confuse a British audience; however, it is better to include the “u” after an “o” in words like “honour” if you are writing for a British English-speaking audience.

Final Thoughts

We use the indefinite article “an” before the noun “honor” because “honor” starts with a vowel sound instead of a consonant sound. Even though “h” is a consonant, it does not make a consonant sound.

This is one of those tricky spelling rules that can catch us off guard. Just remember that it’s the sound that’s important and not necessarily whether or not the word begins on a consonant or vowel.