Ran across this at work tonight: "an historical encyclopedia"I assumed this was easy: it's "an historic," isn't it? But then I start looking at other sources, and it turns out I've been making a historic error. Merriam-Webster recommends:
"An historical" or "a historical"? To n or not to n?
The court made a historic decision last week.But why? Oxford Dictionaries:
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’.
Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage:
You should use “an” before a word beginning with an “H” only if the “H” is not pronounced: “an honest effort”; it’s properly “a historic event” though many sophisticated speakers somehow prefer the sound of “an historic,” so that version is not likely to get you into any real trouble.Whoever Jim Loy is:
Many people think that it is correct to say, "an historic event." Of course, the indefinite article is "a" when followed by a consonant sound ("a boy"), and "an" when followed by a vowel sound ("an ace"). The sound is what is important, not whether the word actually begins with a consonant or a vowel. For example, "a uniform" is correct because "uniform" begins with a "y" sound. Similarly, "an honest man" is correct because "honest" begins with a vowel sound; the "h" is silent. In some languages, Cockney English in particular, "h" is always silent. And so, we hear "an historic event" or "an historian." "H" is a soft (the softest) consonant. The phrase should be "a historic event." The American dictionaries and grammar books tell us that "an historic event" is British or an attempt to sound educated or superior.And indeed, this Language Log post titled A Shibboleth of Gentility is all about how Brits dropped those initial 'h' sounds for a while. (Also, I like using the word 'shibboleth.') So, for once, there's a clear answer ... right?
final poll results: "I always said 'a'" -- 85 (66%); "I always said 'an,' but I was wrong" -- 17 (13%); "I'm still saying 'an.'" 25 (19%).