A Historic vs. An Historic
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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