A Historic vs. An Historic

By Maeve Maddox

My post A Useful Reminder About ‘An’ prompted an outpouring of emails asking, “How about an history or an historic?”

Some points of English usage stir strong feelings. Placing the indefinite article “an” in front of the words historical or historic is one of these. Here are some comments prompted by a post I wrote on this topic several years ago:

When people use “an historical” on NPR, it’s because [they’re] snooty.

Only a Cockney or an hidiot [would say] “an historic.”

[People who defend “an historic”] are pseudo-intellectual, American linguistic “posers.”

For certain Americans, it’s all about self-consciously pompous affectation!

I 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.

The simple facts about the use of “an historical” and “an historic” are these:

1. Style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style, The AP Stylebook, and The Penguin Writer’s Manual regard the following as correct in modern usage:
“a historical event”
“a historic event.”

2. Many speakers still say and write “an historical”–and they do so with no intention of sounding affected, pompous, or pretentious.

Pronunciation changes from generation to generation, but never in one fell swoop. Pockets of older forms continue to exist even after the majority of speakers have made the switch and authorities have recorded the new rules.

The Google Ngram Viewer provides an interesting look at the progress of “an historic” vs “a historic.” In 1800, “a historic” barely shows. It begins its rise in the 1820s. In 1869, “a historic” is neck and neck with “an historic.” The two travel along fairly close together until the First World War when “an historic” pulls ahead and dominates until 1938. After that, “a historic” becomes the clear winner, although “an historic” and “an historical” remain in use. Here are two recent examples of the use of “an historical” in the context of educated English:

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period. (Note on the New York University library site.)

The Making of Southern Europe: An Historical Overview (title of a recent publication of the London School of Economics)

Clearly, modern usage prefers “a historic” and “a historical,” as well as a before other “h words” that readers asked about: “a hotel,” “a horrible accident,” and “a horrific statistic.”

The word herb (succulent plant used for seasoning) is pronounced both with and without an aspirated h. “A herb” is modern British pronunciation, although British author Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) wrote “an herb” in one of her novels. Many Americans–although by no means all–say “an erb” and write “an herb.”

Unquestionably, accepted current practice is to use the indefinite article a in front of all but a very few words that begin with the letter h.

The most common exceptions are:

an heir to the throne
an honorable man
an honest man
an hour or two

Speakers who say “an historic” are not necessarily being “pretentious or snooty.” It could be that they learned the usage from family members and teachers educated in earlier generations.

Follow the style guide of your choice. Save your linguistic wrath for things like, “Me and my brother graduated from Georgetown.”

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16 Responses to “A Historic vs. An Historic”

  • Nancy R.

    Maeve,
    Thanks for the comments, style guides’ positions, and Ngram viewer record. I was actually taught in school that “an historic” was correct. I’m happy to know that it is not.
    “Save your linguistic wrath for things like, ‘Me and my brother graduated from Georgetown.'”
    In my opinion, this the BIGGEST problem!

  • Precise Edit

    Thanks for the reminder, Maeve.

    The biggest problem I see is the use of “their” with a singular antecedent, as in “No one wants their children to fail.”

  • tims

    I was once one of those people who thought it snooty and ridiculous to use “an” before historic. Then I started listening.

    There is always a hitch between “a” and “historic” when spoken. It doesn’t sound smooth; spoken, “a historic” is clumsy. “An historic,” on the other hand, rolls off the tongue smoothly. Besides, ahistoric is a word meaning historically inaccurate or ignorant.

    So I’ll make my own outrageous comment: Anyone who uses “a” before historic is a tone-deaf boob who despises both history and eloquence and believes “Who let the Dogs Out?” is the pinnacle of good music.

    A little tit for tat. 😉

  • Tony Whittaker

    For some reason, the London Times style is still ‘an historic’, and our local newspaper maintains the style ‘an hotel’, which I have always presumed went back to the French origin of the word, where the ‘h’ was barely voiced.

  • Danny

    Well said, Maeve.

  • Marilyn

    Or even worse: “Me and my brother graduated Georgetown.”

  • Bill

    I was surprised to read that so many showed what you accurately label as “linguistic wrath” on this issue. I commented on the original post that I grew up saying “an historic” (I swear that’s the way newscasters in the 70s and beyond said it), and the idea of calling me pretentious is, well … cor!
    Note to Maeve: As Amy Einsohn says in her excellent “The Copyeditor’s Handbook,” the tide has turned when it comes to using a plural pronoun after an indefinite subject. She cites Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and the Chicago Manual of Style among those saying it’s now OK to do so, noting that it has a four-hundred-year history in English literature. If it was all right for Addison, Austin, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare, Chicago says, it’s fine with us. I like it because it helps avoid sexist word choices.

  • venqax

    This has always seemed to me a very simple issue and I have never understood the vexation of it to some. You use AN before a word that begins with a vowel sound; A before a word that does not. The end. Since the H in historic is pronounced, you don’t use AN. Since hour, honest and, in American, herb have silent Hs and begin with vowel sounds, you do you AN. In the reverse, you don’t say “an union” or “an utility company” just because the leter U is a vowel. I have always assumed that historic’s H was silent at some place or time, so the AN treatment was a dated hangover. But no one ever says “an history”, so, again, I don’t know what the sensible case for “an historic” would possibly be. It is supposed to be “the exception” for reasons unpresented?

  • limey

    venqax,

    While I agree with the majority of your post. I don’t agree on historic. It may be down to my britishness, but historic isn’t pronounced with an h round these parts.

  • Tim Slager

    Using “an” before an aspirated H, was only recommended if the first syllable in the word was not accented. “Make a house a home” was correct by all standards. But the first syllable in historic, hotel, and hysterical is not emphasized. The rule stemmed from an acute ear. Try saying “It was a historic event” without including a small break between a and historic. “An historic event” rolls off the tongue much more smoothly. Three cheers for the nod to spoken language in the old rule.

  • Bill

    Tim Slager said what I don’t have the knowledge to say. Thanks for that, Tim.
    Try saying, without a sneer or fake Cockney accent, “an historic event” without aspirating the H. You’ll see why so many said it that way.

  • Mike

    Miss Kerstetter, in 7th grade English class, taught us the correct way was to use “an” before a word that had no consonant or no sounding consonant, and to use “a” before a word that had a sounding consonant. “Historical” has a sounding consonant, but “hour” doesn’t. Miss Kerstetter started teaching English in the 1940’s, so there hasn’t been a change for, at least, more than half a century. What the heck; it’s not my place to be angry with people who just didn’t pay attention in Miss Kerstetter’s class.

  • Tim Slager

    Miss Kerstetter was wise. What seventh grader is ready to follow grammar rules based on which syllable is accented when? Even before Miss Kerstetter started teaching, another teacher, William H. Fowler, in 1926 said, “A is used before all consanonts except silent h….Now that the h in [words with unnaccented first syllables] is pronounced the distinction has become anomalous and will likely disappear.”

    But he gives those of us with a sensitive ear an out: “speakers who like to say an should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h.” Exactly. I don’t like the “a [tiny pause] historic” pronunciation. “An [tiny pause] historic” is no better. So I’ll pronounce it “an’istoric.” I could possibly elide it as “ay’istoric” but that sounds like “ahistoric,” which means void or ignorant of history. And by that token, why not do the same with words starting with a vowel? I could do that in ayinstant. I propose that “an” was invented to prevent us from having to interrupt the flow of speech. And it still fills that purpose before unaccented first syllables starting with h.

    As for the rule, it has the virtue of simplicity. Who has time to consider accented syllables and the like? How would you train your writing staff–much less seventh graders? Probably better to follow Miss Kerstetter’s advice.

    But I’ll always admire the hold-outs, provided they pronounce it right.

  • venqax

    @limey: But you are agreeing with me. If you do not pronounce the initial H in historic, then it does follow the rule to use AN. In SAE, the H is pronounced (“aspirated” for the phoneticist linguists here), so in SAE a historic is the proper pronunciation and probably always has been. I can’t speak for British, except to point out that the citation of Fowler from Tim Slager seems to agree, and implies that you are mispronouncing historic by British standards as well. You and Fowler will have to sort that out.

    @Tim Slager: Where does that rule come from? It looks like Fowler didn’t recognize it, and that was a British guy almost a hundred years ago. From the quotation, it looks like no AN before a consonant sound, including an aspirated H, has always been the rule. It is the pronunciation of historic that has changed.

  • Rivka

    Thank you Tim Slager! I know I was taught “an historic” but couldn’t quite remember the exact rule for the use of “an” before a word starting with an aspirated H. Unaccented first syllable was definitely the rule I was taught in school, and drilled into me by my grammarian mom. To put a time frame on that, I graduated high school in 1976, and my mom was born in 1923 (grew up near Amish country). Maybe due to being in the Deep South, my teachers were still on the old standard of using the word “an”? Traditions die hard down there

  • Angie

    I teach elementary school and phonics rules are easy…..if there is a vowel “sound” after the article, use ‘an’, but if the word following the article had a consonant sound, use ‘a’ . This is the simple rule we teach and grammar follows rules that are fairly consistent.
    Examples: a hairy dog; an hour

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