“A Historic” or “An Historic” Event?

By Maeve Maddox

A Google search will show more uses of a historic than an historic, but in speech, “an historic event” is the more idiomatic.

To repeat something I wrote in a comment,

“An historic” is idiomatic when the words are run together and the stress falls on the second syllable of historic. The use of “an” becomes self-conscious and unidiomatic when the speaker pauses after the “an” and then puts the stress on the first syllable of historic.

Some speakers tend to use historic and historical interchangeably, but a useful difference exists.

The word historic has the sense of uniqueness. An historic event is one that stands out as having had a significant, history-changing impact. The Battle of Waterloo was an historic event. It stopped Napoleon’s wars of conquest. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 was an historic event. It mobilized the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

The word historical, on the other hand, may be applied to any event that occurred in the past. The Battle of Waterloo was both historical and historic.

On the other hand, if you wish to say that something is not historical, you can use either ahistoric. or ahistorical to mean the same thing: “not concerned with or related to history.”

For example, a political leader who repeats the mistakes of his predecessors may be said to have an ahistoric attitude towards governing. A novel based on an historical person or event may nevertheless be ahistorical if it interprets the character or event in a way to contradict the known facts.

Another, useful, if unlovely, “history” word is historicity. Ex. Some people deny the historicity of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews and Gypsies.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


39 Responses to ““A Historic” or “An Historic” Event?”

  • Saphira

    Forgive me, maybe I’m just clueless, but I just can’t figure out how or when one would ever stress the first syllable of “historic.” “History” yes, “historic” no.

    I do agree that “historicity” is one ugly word, though–to where I thought it was an author’s invention when I first encountered it.

  • joe c

    I absolutely disagree and would never ever use “an” in front of any word with an aspirate H at the beginning. That just isn’t what it’s for, and it sounds pretentious (and wrong to my ear).

  • Brad K.

    When I see “an historic”, I aspirate an almost-silent “h”. When I see “a historic”, the “h” gets a full “h” sound. I hadn’t noticed, until you mentioned it, that the emphasis shifts between the second and first syllable, too.

    When I am writing, I usually use “an historic event” with the nearly-silent “h” and emphasis on the second syllable of “historic”. It seems more euphonious to my inner “ear”.

    It is always “a history” for me.

  • Paul Russell

    Hmm, a little research on the web shows there’s considerable disagreement. One rule states:

    Any word beginning with an aspirated “h” (one that’s sounded when spoken) always takes “a”. For example, a hotel, a holiday, a history professor, and a historic treaty.

    But another says:

    when the first syllable of a word that begins with an aspirated “h” is unstressed a writer may use either a or an, depending on pronunciation.

    Plus:

    In British English in the past, the initial ‘h’ was pronounced weakly or not at all in words with an unstressed first syllable, so ‘an’ was generally used before these words.

    Since I was raised in Britain, “an historic” does not sound strange. However; my father always insisted on “an hotel” which always did, and still does sound weird.

    –paul

  • Sarah Ooi

    I do agree it depends on your accent and how you pronounce “historic” – personally I pronounce it with a aspirated H, so it’s “a historic event” for me.

  • Brian D

    I agree with Saphira that you would never stress the first syllable of “historic”–so I don’t think I’ve ever heard a speaker pause and put the stress on the first syllable. And I agree with Brad and Paul that what is really at play is a distinction between aspirated and silent (or quasi-silent, apparently) “h.” If the initial h is silent, it makes sense for the word to take “an” because it then begins with a vowel sound. I suppose aspirating the “h” can make the first syllable of “historic” sound a little more underscored or stressed in a broad sense, but it’s still not the syllable on which the stress falls.

  • Maeve

    Perhaps “stress” was the wrong word for me to use in the context of

    “The use of “an” becomes self-conscious and unidiomatic when the speaker pauses after the “an” and then puts the stress on the first syllable of historic.”

    Maybe I should have said “and then aspirates the ‘h.'”

    The major stress would still be on the “tor.”

  • Cheryl

    I am confused. Which is more grammatically correct? Are you saying that either usage is acceptable. I always thought ‘An’ was the proper form.

  • Hal

    OK, call me an old fart, but my English teacher in high school would have cracked my head for using “a historic.” Technically, this is a split infinitive when you use “a historic.”

    As far as Google hits, I don’t see the relevance with that. Using “an historic” appears to have fallen out of style, but we all tend to use words the way we originally learned. I will continue to use an historic. Either seems to be acceptable now.

  • Maeve

    I seem to have missed the spot where this post turned into an attack on the use of “an historic” or a defense of “a historic.”

    I’m probably as old a fart as you are, Hal, and I do not say or write “a historic.”

    I learned the same rule you did:
    Use “a” in front of a word in which the initial h is aspirated; use “an” in front of a word in which the initial h is silent.

    However, in speech the pronunciation of words shifts. An individual speaker may pronounce the same word differently, according to where it falls in a sentence. Depending on context, I would not throw stones at a speaker for saying “a historic.”

    PS “a historic” has nothing to do with a split infinitive.

  • Hal

    An attack? Discussion and disagreement is not an attack.

    I realize that word usage changes over the years. And you are right about the split infinitive.

    Finally, I’ll stick with my old, long dead English teacher as far as an historic… .

    That was not an attack.

  • Maeve

    Hal,
    I wasn’t calling any of the comments an attack! I was referring to the post. I don’t think the post has anything in it to suggest that I’m against the use of “an historic.”

    I’m very sorry if any of my responses suggest that I don’t welcome disagreement and discussion.

  • cmdweb

    Like many others, I would never write “an historic”. For me it’s a speech thing. I would never say “an ‘istoric”, so would never write. The letter H is always sounded. Maybe it’s an accent thing??

  • John Doll

    I am glad that I am not the only person in the world that this bothers. From what I have read, the ‘an historic’ is appropriate if you speak the queen’s English and don’t pronounce the h. However, if you speak American English and pronounce the h then it should be ‘a historic’. This explains why it bothers be when certain people say an historic. Our president elect for instance said ‘this is an historic event’ and it grated on my soul, while some nameless news media talking head said ‘this is an istoric event’ and it didn’t seem to grate me. Either way I will continue to say a historic event for the same reason that Eddie Izzard said Americans say erb and the British say herb “Because there’s a f***ing ‘h’ in it.” 😉

  • Brett

    Ridiculous. Really, what a ridiculous argument. Wait, is it an ridiculous??? C’mon, why does “historic” get this special treatment? Listen, the word has an H, by itself you pronounce the H, so when it’s in the middle of a sentence, you shouldn’t suddenly change that. It’s that simple, isn’t it? Um, yeah, it is.

  • Mike

    I’m confused…. do you say,
    “…an event or a event”?

    As in, “an historic event” or “a historic event”…

    Perhaps the idiomatic expression has “the best of me”.

  • Storm

    Only a handful of nouns (hour, heir, honor, herb) have a silent h and thus should be used with an.

    The remainder (history, house, hat, hill, hobo, etc.) are pronounced with the “aitch” sound and should be use with a.

    Only a Cockney or an hidiot would do otherwise…

  • Anonymous

    According to the Oxford American Dictionary,

    “The distinction between a and an was not solidified until the nineteenth century. Up to that time, an preceded most words beginning with a vowel, regardless of how the first syllable sounded. The U.S. Constitution, for example, reads: “The Congress shall have Power . . . [t]o establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” But that is no excuse for a twenty-first-century writer.
    People worry about whether the correct article is a or an with historian, historic, and a few other words. Most authorities have supported a over an. The traditional rule is that if the h- is sounded, then a is the proper form. So people who aspirate their h ‘s and follow that rule would say a historian and a historic. This is not a new “rule.” Even the venerated language authority H. W. Fowler, in the England of 1926, advocated a before historic, historical, and humble.”

    (Under the word “an” in the USAGE section)

  • Alex

    I have two theories regarding the misuse of “an historic”:

    1) People are making a connection between “an” and “event ” in the phrase “an historical event”. They probably think that the connection between “an” and “event” is more important since “historical” is only modifying the noun.
    But this is incorrect since the logic behind using “an” over “a” is to dissolve back-to-back vowel sounds (when spoken). So “an hour” makes sense not because “hour” is a noun, but because the “h” is not pronounced.

    2) People assume that because we use “an hour”, they can apply it willy nilly to whatever “h” words come their way.

    In either case, and from what little research I’ve done, contemporary views support the rule that “an” is only used to break up back-to-back vowel sounds. So when people use “an historical” on NPR, it’s because their snooty.

  • John

    Alex, I am totally with you. However, I can’t resist but comment on the irony of your use of the incorrect form of “their/there/they’re” in the last paragraph. I am sure that it was a heated omission, but funny none the less! 🙂

  • MD

    If you don’t aspirate the H and say ‘it was an ‘istoric event’, do you also drop it at other times? For example: ‘That event was ‘istoric’?

  • Gavin

    The difference is how the syllable with the stress is prioritized. I use “an historic” because the syllable with the ‘h’ has tertiary stress, while I would say “a history” because this syllable has secondary stress here.
    Also, the point that “ahistoric” is an antonym of “historic” makes for less confusion by using “an historic.”

  • Carol

    I recently viewed a video clip of George H. W. Bush when he was U.S. President in which he said, “…an historic event.” As mentioned above, our current President Obama says the same. I would think perhaps it’s the Ivy League educations, except for the fact that I grew up in southwest ranch country, graduated high school in a class of twelve, and graduated from a state university. Use of “an historic” was required throughout my education. Maybe it’s the time frame? No, Mr. Obama is younger than I and much younger than G.H.W. Bush. I love the English language. It’s certainly not boring.

  • Luap

    From Oxford English Dictionary: “People often believe that they should use the indefinite article an in front of words like historic, horrific, or hotel. Are they right or wrong? Should you say ‘an historic event’ or ‘a historic event’?

    An is the form of the indefinite article that is used before a spoken vowel sound: it doesn’t matter how the written word in question is actually spelled. So, we say ‘an honour’, ‘an hour’, or ‘an heir’, for example, because the initial letter ‘h’ in all three words is not actually pronounced. By contrast we say ‘a hair’ or ‘a horse’ because, in these cases, the ‘h’ is pronounced.

    Let’s go back to those three words that tend to cause problems: historic, horrific, and hotel. If hotel was pronounced without its initial letter ‘h’ (i.e. as if it were spelled ‘otel’), then it would be correct to use an in front of it. The same is true of historic and horrific. If horrific was pronounced ‘orrific’ and historic was pronounced ‘istoric’ then it would be appropriate to refer to ‘an istoric occasion’ or ‘an orrific accident’. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people often did pronounce these words in this way.

    Today, though, these three words are generally pronounced with a spoken ‘h’ at the beginning and so it’s now more logical to refer to ‘a hotel’, ‘a historic event’, or ‘a horrific accident’.”

    By the way the words herb and herbal do not have a silent h.

  • jeannine

    Would appreciate an opinion on the use of the word “historically” as I can not find any information related to its proper use in The Elements of Style or my AP Stylebook. Most people tend to use this word in a split-infinitive manner (i.e., “has historically resulted…”, “that have historically used…”) and I would like to edit this with confidence. Any thoughts?

  • Maeve

    jeannine,
    H.W.Fowler (Modern English Usage) goes into great detail on the question of the placement of adverbs.
    The short version of what he says about the position of an adverb in a compound verb (a verb with one or more auxiliary verbs such as “have”):

    “When an adverb is to be used with such a verb, its normal place is between the auxiliary (or sometimes the first auxiliary if there are two or more) and the rest.”

    Ergo, nothing wrong with writing “Haphazard immigration policies have historically resulted in…”

  • Leigh

    I don’t know why people have just, out of the blue, started saying, “An Istoric…” since there is no such word as “istoric”. It’s not like the word ‘honest’, which begins with an O sound. History, Hispanic and Historic all begin with hard Hs. They always have. Where this started, I don’t know. It seems as if bad grammar has become correct grammar. Imagine if someone pronounced ‘hand’ as ‘and’, and said “an hand.” That’s how bad it sounds when someone says, “An istorical…”

  • The Ceej

    When I hear newscasters use the phrase, “an historic,” I say to them through the television, as if they could hear me, “You must have an grammar problem. You must have never graduated from an school. How did you get an show on television?”

    Well, do I have an point?

  • KME

    If “an historic” is a grammatical error, it’s the odd error that actually makes its user sound better educated. I think the original post had the right idea: it’s an idiom and we shouldn’t be too concerned with its nonconformity. Perhaps the reason “an historic event” persists is because it seems a particularly fitting nod to the meaning of history.

  • Ben

    A silent “h” is preceded by “AN” as in:
    “an honest” fellow
    he is “an heir” to the throne!

    The aspirated H is preceded by an “A”, as in:
    This is “a historic” occasion
    That was “a horrendous” accident

    The fact that people of England don’t generally pronounce the “h” in a lot of words doesn’t matter. Everyone else in the English speaking world pronounces it. So learn the language! I’m Irish and have a fairly neutral accent by Irish standards. I was taught the language and speak it as it should be. GET IT RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ben

    Edit, I also recognise that that past presidents and current presidents of America use the wrong phrasing, that’s just bad education and mis-information! And that’s “AN HORRIBLE SHAME!!!!!!!!!!!”

  • Maeve

    Ben,
    “I was taught the language and speak it as it should be.”

    You’re making a joke, right?

    Even “standard” English exists in more than one dialect in the “English speaking world.” Every medieval French borrowing that begins with the letter was pronounced without the aspirate when it came into the language. Although the French themselves spelled the words with (a lingering loyalty of French scribes to the spelling conventions of classical Latin), they did not pronounce them with an aspirate. Words like horrible and horrendous are now pronounced with the aspirate in English because people learned to read. The /h/ sounds in these words are spelling pronunciations, like the /t/ that many speakers now pronounce in often. Previous pronunciations linger longer in some dialects than in others. When a speaker or a writer puts an before hotel or historic, what you are observing is not ignorance or stupidity or bloody-mindedness. It’s a survival of an earlier pronunciation.

  • Helen

    Right on Maeve!

    As a 59 year old Englishwoman I was taught to say “an hotel” and “an historic event” at my excellent Primary and Grammar schools.

    Usage may have changed over the years – that does not make me uneducated, Ben!

  • R Pound

    A fascinating discussion on many levels. I am 63 and attended many schools and colleges, a result of my father being in the forces. I therefore qualify as a reasonably well educated. old fart. I accept the lingering historical reasons as some justification for “an historical” but, now that we pronounce the H, the “an” sounds quaint and a little odd. I was always taught to say “a” before an aspirated H, period. Only when the H is silent should “an” be used. Also, as a Brit, I find it strange that many outsiders think we generally drop aitches. Accents will twist the language and may add colour in films and local broadcasts, but standard English speakers are still common and the aitch is thus healthy in Britain, even in herbs. Strangely, the “haitch” is making a comeback in the younger generation, presumably harking back to the old French….. Oh well, call it evolution or making up the rules as you go along, I won’t lose too much sleep over it.

  • Christine

    It had nothing to do with the vowel sound behind ‘an’ or not, it has everything to do with the fact there is a word-an adjective ‘ahistoric’ which means ‘without concern for history.’ Therefore for practicality and clarity reasons most public speakers will use “an historic” event in order not be misunderstood or quoted out of context verbally! Historic events are always historical (part of history-as in the past). Not all historical events, however, are historic (a special occasion/moment in history)!

  • Billy Sheridan

    I was educated in an Irish National school and in our English speaking classes we were taught to use “an historic”, an horrific and “an hotel” both orally and in written text: I’m not posh or snooty, it’s just the way I was educated

  • Poliwhirl

    Wow, I can’t believe people are defending “an historic” as correct.

    One thing is dropping your aitches in relaxed or informal speech, another is pretending that it’s correct and even adapting other words to fit your mistakes.

    I’ve also heard “an human” (pronounced something like “a newman”), which sounds even sillier, if that’s possible.

  • robert fox

    Count me as being among the members of team “a” (as in “a historic”)! Would any one of the “trendy” Americans to use “an historic” even THINK of saying “an HOTEL”?! I think NOT! This, to me, makes such irregular (and, frankly, willy-nilly) usage of the AN article before CERTAIN “h” words to have a firmer basis in European pronunciation! I was always taught if the word in question has a vowel or vowel sound WHEN PRONOUNCED BY ITSELF, “an” is indeed the correct article; if not, it’s straight-up “a” all the way, baby! I am at a loss as to why pseudo-intellectual, American linguistic “posers” insist on making things more complicated than they should be! For Europeans, it’s a matter of how a letter is or isn’t pronounced! For certain Americans, it’s all about self-consciously pompous affectation!

  • Luc

    http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/words/a-historic-event-or-an-historic-event

    Please do not say “an historic”. It just sounds really, really bad. I hate hearing that on the news all the time from people trying way too hard to sound smart.

Leave a comment: