Friday, January 28, 2011

ALOTT5MA FRIDAY GRAMMAR RODEO: Over the transom from Watts:
Ran across this at work tonight: "an historical encyclopedia"
"An historical" or "a historical"? To n or not to n?
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:
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%).


  1. Emily8:53 AM

    I would say a historic event, but I pronounce the h. If you're too lazy to say the h, that's your own problem.

  2. Did someone say "shibboleth?"

  3. Meghan9:31 AM

    I know the rule is to use an a, not an an, but I think "an historic" and "an horrific" sound better, mainly because the accented syllable is the second.  We wouldn't question a hayride or a habit, but doesn't "an habitual use" liaise just a little better?

    It's all about the syllable, regardless of rule.  However, as a staunch supporter of the way things should be, I say a.  Even when an sounds better.

  4. christy in nyc9:33 AM

    In a way, this is the opposite of last week's, in that both pretty much look fine (as opposed to neither looking quite right). "An historic(al)" seems to be one of those pesky exceptions where, simply because people do it, it's OK.

    I have two reasons for leaning toward "a historic(al)":
    1. Logic, as per the above passages. That's how it works for every other word that begins with a consonant sound, so why not keep it consistant, and
    2. "An historic(al)" strikes me as something of a mock pretension here in the US, even though in the UK it's sort of the opposite, in that it would come from dropping the H, which would be low-class. But it's distinctly British low-class. Here in the US it looks fancier simply by looking British. Being, myself, neither fancy nor British, I stick with what feels natural to me.

    But if I saw it, I wouldn't call it wrong, just a variant. Our copyeditors would probably change it, though, unless it was in dialogue and made sense as such.

  5. Professor Jeff9:45 AM

    As a historian (and it's definitely "a" for me), I naturally thought about this problem historically.  My gut instinct was that older sources would tend to use "an," while more recent ones would use "a," as British usage declined and American influence grew.  Sure enough, Google's amazing Ngram has the proof:

    "an historian" (blue) vs. "a historian" (red)
    "an historical (blue) vs. "a historical" (red)
    "an historic" (blue) vs. "a historic" (red)

  6. Professor Jeff9:57 AM

    And by the way, I don't think anyone here yet has highlighted the awesomeness of Ngram before, but holy cow, is that a fascinating time-waster.  Mine the corpus of Google Books to trace the evolution of any words or phrases you want.  Blizzard!  Muktuk!  Panda vs. Koala!

  7. The Pathetic Earthling10:04 AM

    I might mention 'an historical event' but I was 'a history major.'

  8. patricia10:12 AM

    I'm firmly in the "a" camp because it sounds better to me.  I've been reading Connie Willis's* Blackout and All Clear, and she uses "an historian" throughout.  It trips me up every time- I'm reading along pleasantly, and she throws this "an" in there.  Completely jarring.

    *I remain loyal to the in the "add an 's unless it's plural or one of the exceptions I was taught in school" rule for possessives.

  9. A quick title search of our library catalag reveals 2,962 instances of "an historical" and 2,428 of "a historical."  But I can't easily do cool ngram-like analysis to determine country of publication and date of publication.  My instinct is that it would back up what Profess Jeff found.

    I use "a historical" or "a historian" myself, because otherwise, in my own head, I start sounding like Eliza Doolittle.  "An 'istorical encyclopedia, guv."

  10. Fred App10:36 AM

    FWIW, the Associated Press stylebook says "a historic event," and counsels to use "a" before consonsant sounds. So it's also  "a one-year term" and "an honorable man."

  11. Paul Tabachneck10:38 AM

    "A historical," definitely.  Never been a question for me.

    Oh!  Has this feature ever been about "beg the question?" 

    Because I wanna talk, about, that.

  12. J. Bowman10:39 AM

    I use "an historic," but it occurs that it's the only exception I make--I say "a horrific," "a hotel," etc.
    On the other hand, after reading the smug explanations about why someone might choose to "wrongly" use "an," I think I'll make a point of using it more often.

  13. J. Bowman10:40 AM

    Excuse me. I meant I'll make AN point of it.

  14. We can do that.  

  15. Tangent thought - just asked my Nottingham-born coworker what she does about the word "herb."  Because she's English (and it starts with a f***ing aitch) she says it "a herb."  I asked her about if she were writing it out and she said she'd still write "a herb."  But for those of us Americans that drop the h in herb, do we write it "an herb"?  I would think so.

  16. patricia11:04 AM

    I agree, I would write "an herb."

  17. Jeff, having completed a Ph.D. in history recently, my observation is that historians themselves tend to use "an historian" quite a bit.  I was very aware of this even before today's post.  The description above referencing "an attempt to sound educated or superior" rings true to me.  Have you noticed that as well? 

  18. Joseph J. Finn11:15 AM

    Oh dear god.

  19. Joseph J. Finn11:16 AM

    I would write "an herb" as well.  And now I'm going to do it, as you said, with the voice of Eliza Doolittle in my head.

  20. Benner11:21 AM

    There's nothing to discuss, unless you want to find out how many thing throwers are completely wrong.

  21. "An historic" does not sound right to me at all.  I only use "an" if the next word starts with a vowel sound. 

  22. I was always taught a before consanant sounds and an before vowel sounds.  "An historic" sounds awful -- like nails on a chalkboard to me. 

  23. It's strictly pornunciation based with me. "A horrific," "a historic," but "an herb" because I don't pronouce the "h." Please note that I only left one space between the last sentence and this one because of one of the previous grammar rodeos. I'm re-training myself.

  24. an answer to all this is adding adjectives/adverbs so you never have a/an next to a problem word like historic. "a wonderfully historic documentary"

  25. Paul Tabachneck12:02 PM

    Buckle up, Joseph.  :-)

  26. isaac_spaceman12:18 PM

    An hobbit in an hutch
    Am I an have or an have-not?
    What, I don't even merit an "hello"? 
    This is an hell of an habit to break.
    An hand left an hay bale by an heater, and an horse is the worse for it. 

    Go on, I dare you.   

  27. spacewoman12:23 PM

    It's true.  People, probably including me, misuse this one as badly as Catch-22.

    While I"m here, AN AN AN AN AN.  So there.

  28. spacewoman12:28 PM

    An historic and a historian.  What can I say?  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, people.

  29. I would like an option in the poll for "I might have had a preference, but thanks to this post I've now that about it so much I've confused myself!"

  30. Adam C.12:43 PM

    I'm 92% sure that's a typo, Maret, but I do think many Thing Throwers have dabbled or continue to dabble with pornunciation.

  31. MidwestAndrew1:04 PM

    I've known the "a historic" but "an honest" rule for a while. I remember learning it in high school, where they called it an "aspirate h." As an early high school student (15-16), I found this hilarious, because aspirate looked like "ass pirate."

  32. isaac_spaceman1:05 PM

    Felix Frankfurter would like you to know that this is not a shibboleth.

  33. bella wilfer1:13 PM

    An historic.  An honest.  A history major.

    I know that makes no sense, but that's how I've always done it.

  34. The Pathetic Earthling2:02 PM

    This totally begs the question of why you want to do that Paul!


  35. Paul Tabachneck2:05 PM

    That joke was funny, because all jokes are funny.

  36. Professor Jeff2:30 PM

    Jake, you're absolutely right about the air of professorial pretension behind "an historian," though I think that there's also a generational split, with older scholars using "an" and younger folks preferring "a."  (For instance, my grad-school adviser, b. 1936, was an "an" man through and through.)

    FWIW, I ran a search of the website of the American Historical Association, and the numbers came out heavily in favor of "a," not "an."  So within the profession, it seems, we're witnessing a historic shift.
    "an historian," 66 hits; "a historian," 603 hits
    "an historical," 89 hits; "a historical," 360 hits
    "an historic," 16 hits; "a historic," 95 hits

  37. Anonymous2:33 PM

    'Assassination' as a word always makes me chuckle.

  38. Squid2:57 PM

    it’s properly “a historic event” though many sophisticated speakers somehow prefer the sound of “an historic,”

    Not really that sophisticated, if they're doing it wrong.

  39. Adam C.2:15 PM

    Just had this discussion with the 7-y.o.:

    me - so, do you know when you should use "a" and when you should use "an?"
    her - no.
    Me - a before a consonant sound and and before a vowel sound.
    Her - huh, never knew that.
    Me - yep. Let's try a kind of tricky one - do you know what h-o-u-r spells?
    Her - uh, "whore?"

    We got there eventually.

  40. isaac_spaceman10:16 PM

    An hobgoblin, anyway.

  41. JIM BELL10:29 AM

    An Honorific.