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A HEA or An HEA: Which is right? 

 October 21, 2020

By  Sue Brown-Moore

Anyone who writes romance should know that a Happily Ever After is a must-have ending for any romance book. But how often do you actually think about how you say "HEA" and why you say it that way? Someone challenged my phrasing recently, and boy did I feel silly when I couldn't pop out a clean answer. So I did some research on A HEA vs An HEA.

And you might be surprised to learn the answer.

Which is correct? "A HEA" or "An HEA"?

Both! You can say A HEA or An HEA. But knowing when to use which is tricky. Here’s why.

There’s no question that Happily Ever After, when spelled out, is preceded by the article a. Such as...

A Happily Ever After is required in any book calling itself a romance.

But I’ve always instinctively assigned the article an to the initialism “HEA” For example:

An HEA is required in any book calling itself a romance.


I need an HEA to feel good about the end of a book.

But some writers (and readers) prefer “a HEA” instead. Why is that? And which one is right?

The editing bible says...

The first stop on my investigation into "A HEA" or "An HEA" was the Chicago Manual of Style. From CMOS 5.74 (v17):

“With the indefinite article, the choice of a or an depends on the sound of the word it precedes. A precedes words with a consonant sound, including /y/, /h/, and /w/, no matter how the word is spelled {a eulogy} {a historic occasion} {a onetime pass}. An comes before words with a vowel sound {an FBI agent} {an X-Files episode} {an hour ago}.”
Woman confused and saying What?

For those of us who don't commune with our Chicago Manuals of Style, here’s the take-away:

If the word following the article (a/an) sounds like it starts with a vowel, use “an”.

If it sounds like it starts with a consonant, use “a”.

Great. So how the heck does that help with our "A HEA" or "An HEA" dilemma?

Even publishers get confused about A vs An HEA

I was especially vexed after I did some digging and found that even Harlequin uses the articles “a” and “an” interchangeably with “HEA”.

When I started looking at the usage conditions, I realized that people tend to use “an” for when the term “HEA” is used as its own noun and “a” when the reader is meant to acknowledge the full words of the initialism in their head as they read it ("HEA" is literally read as "Happily Ever After").

Now, that makes sense! It follows the phonetic rules for words beginning with “H”. Looping back around to my original example, I'm saying (or thinking) the letters H-E-A here:

An HEA is required in any book calling itself a romance.

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When to say "An HEA"

The article an is correct when the reader is meant to interpret “HEA” as the spelled-out the letters H-E-A as they read.

An HEA is required in any book calling itself a romance.

or even

I need an HEA to feel good about the end of a book.

Above, HEA acts as a noun in its own right. It is simply “H-E-A”—a synonym for “Happily Ever After”. Since the letter “h” is pronounced with a vowel sound (ay-ch), use the article an.

When to say "A HEA"

But if the author means for the reader to think the full words instead and read “HEA” as "Happily Ever After" in context, the a article is correct.

A HEA is required in any book calling itself a romance.

would read the same as…

A Happily Ever After is required in any book calling itself a romance.

When the writer wants the reader to think out the actual words, the initialism HEA represents the noun phrase Happily Ever After. Because “happily” starts with a hard “h” (consonant) sound, the article a is correct.

Fun and confusing fact: Grammarly sort of agrees. Is it assuming readers will pronounce HEA as a word— 'he-uh' (probably)? Is it smart enough to know that HEA stands for Happily Ever After (seems unlikely)? Or does this advice contradict CMoS? Who knows what sound their engineers programmed for "HEA". When I sanity checked this article, here's the warning it gave. (Proof not to put too much trust in AI editors.)

Grammarly recommends choosing your "HEA" article based on sound.

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Even if you're still a little confused, share this post with a friend. Explaining it to someone else will force you to think about why you make the word choices you do. The more you know about grammar, the more confident you'll be in your writing. 

Is it 'A HEA' or 'An HEA'? Even publishers get it wrong... (but you can be sure you've got it RIGHT!) #amediting #amwriting #romance

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What else is tripping you up?

Got any other grammar questions? Drop 'em in a comment below. I love this stuff!

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

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