A/an homage?

“A homage to P.G. Wodehouse” is the subtitle of Sebastian Faulks‘s novel Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (2013). I picked up the book in our local library because, inspired by my colleague’s earlier query about a peculiarity in Wodehouse’s language, I went for a Wodehouse novel, but found that none were present. The book proved no disappointment, far from it.

But I was struck by the use of a before homage in the subtitle. Surely it should be an homage? No, says the OED: it is an homage in British English while usage is variable in American English.

Does that qualify (h)omage as a potential usage problem in American English? I checked our HUGE database of course, and found that a/an is indeed dealt with by many usage guides, from 1829 onwards, but that homage is not discussed as an example.

What I did like about the novel, Lisa, is that Faulks kept in the linguistic mannerism you identified, and that Bertie even used it in his disguise as a gentleman’s gentleman (e.g. on p. 76). Very subtly (“There was a silence.”), we are made to conclude that this is one of the things that was to give him away. So here is another answer to your question.

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9 Responses to A/an homage?

  1. Tony Parr says:

    Definitely an ‘a’ here:

    “Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edi­tion, University of Chicago Press, (5.72) says that the choice depends on the sound of the word it pre­cedes. “A” comes before words with a con­so­nant sound, no mat­ter how the word is spelled. Further, an “an” comes before words with a vowel sound.
    Examples: a his­toric occa­sion — an X-Files episode.

    Before a word start­ing with a pro­nounced, breathy “h,” use “a.” Examples: A hotel; A happy time; A his­tor­i­cal day; A healthy, happy baby.

    You attend a his­tory class, not an his­tory class. Same with “his­tor­i­cal.” It was a his­tor­i­cal occasion.
    Honeymooners go to a hide­away, not an hide­away. The don­key car­ried a heavy bur­den, not an heavy bur­den. “Historical” is no different.”

    (Not my own research, I hasten to add. Found it on the internet: http://editingandwritingservices.com/a-or-an-before-words-beginning-with-h/)

  2. Paul Nance says:

    Yes, Ingrid, some of the variation may be explained by whether one pronounces homage as in English (with accent on the first syllable) or as in French (with accent on the second). The Burgess Never Too Late to Learn: Five Hundred Mistakes and the Dick & Fitzgerald Over 1000 Misktakes Corrected: Live and Learn (both published in New York City) provide a variation on the contemporary rule which might apply to this example. They advise using “an” when the initial h is pronounced, but that syllable is not accented. By their rule, we would say “a history of Rome” but “an historical novel.” The identical advice is probably in the Shaw Never Too Late to Learn: Mistakes of Daily Occurrence (published in London), but our only source for that text truncates the entry, so we can’t be sure.

    • This is why we need an historical approach to the topic! Thanks, Paul!

      • Tony Parr says:

        Is this perhaps a good illustration of the complete unsuitability of English as a world language (as claimed by Geoff Pullum at the Sense Jubilee Conference in 2015)? After all, who’s to know that ‘homage’ is pronounced as ‘hommidge’?

  3. Garner addresses it and says that “homage” is best pronounced /hom-ij/ (that’s /’hɑmɪdʒ/ in real IPA). He says, “It is a silly (but quite common) pretension to omit the /h/ sound.” Merriam-Webster actually lists the h-less pronunciation first.

  4. Josina Floor says:

    Charles Harrington Elster has a very definite opinion on ‘homage’ in his “Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations” and Ben Zimmer also wrote an interesting short column about it in the New York Times Magazine.

    In Google’s American English corpus (any excuse to use Ngram) ‘an homage’ seems to be winning: http://tinyurl.com/j85uso9

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