a historic / an historic ?
March 8, 2005 12:39 PM   Subscribe

"A historic occasion," or "an historic occasion?"

I'm also curious about the etymology or origin of such a rule, if such a rule exists. And I'd love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of "an historic", given that "a historic" sounds far better to my ear and far more logical, and also given the prevalence of such similar constructions as "a hotel downtown" and "a high bar" and "a hitman killed my dog."
posted by evinrude to Grab Bag (29 answers total)
Inspired, of course, by this FPP.

I just thought of "a histogram." Seriously, I don't understand "an historic." Please send help.
posted by evinrude at 12:44 PM on March 8, 2005

I always thought 'an' was only used if the following word started with a vowel/vowel sound (i.e. an apple, an hour, a horse). But I'm not a linguist...
posted by rooftop secrets at 12:47 PM on March 8, 2005

Oh, to be clear, that would mean 'historic' would use 'a'.
posted by rooftop secrets at 12:48 PM on March 8, 2005

Google gives it 3million to 1.5million in favour to "a historic".
I've a tendency to drop my H's, and when i do, I use "an historic". When I'm talking posh - like, I'll say "a historic". I think that's the only rule. Silent H's *demand* the "an". If your local accent doesn't like the H, then use "an". If not, use "a"
posted by seanyboy at 12:49 PM on March 8, 2005

"and historic." Maybe the correct wording.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:49 PM on March 8, 2005

It's an old-fashioned convention, once thought to be more mellifluous. I say it's only an historic occasion if you live in an house and wear an hat.
posted by scratch at 12:49 PM on March 8, 2005

In many accents, words beginning with "h" do sound as though they begin with a vowel. H is not always aspirated, and it's acceptable, even normal, in cerain English dialects to pronounce "historic" as "istoric," in which case you would use "an historic." If you aspirate the "h", then the initial sound is a consonant, and would take "a" as the article.

Interestingly, "an" is a word which developed because the "n" migrated from words like "napron" -- so "a napron"gradually became "an apron", and the "an" then extended to cover all words beginning with a vowel sound. That's because it's hard to shift from one vowel sound directly into another without a forced vocal stop.
posted by Miko at 12:52 PM on March 8, 2005

Doesn't this have to do with whether the H is aspirated? That is, one would say "AN honor" and "AN hour" because the Hs in "honor" and "hour" are silent, but would say "A historic" because the H in "historic" is pronounced: the word is not pronounced "istoric," unless you have a Cockney accent.

I'm not a linguist, either, but this seems logical to me. Also, personally, I HATE "an historic." Sounds unsufferably pretentious to me.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:54 PM on March 8, 2005

I'd think it is "a historic..." since you're not using an acronym. Acronyms have different rules for an/a indefinite articles than regular words. The confusion results from sounding out a silent "e" in front of an acronym, e.g. "establish an SSH connection".
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:54 PM on March 8, 2005

Are we voting?

A historic occasion
posted by NortonDC at 12:55 PM on March 8, 2005

an Aitch-tee-tee-pee connection vs a Haitch-tee-tee-pee connection.
posted by seanyboy at 12:56 PM on March 8, 2005

More (including the useful example of the word 'honest', in which "That was an honest thing to do" is clearly preferred to "a honest thing to do)... and a scholarly treatment which asserts that a silent h is a "shibboleth of gentility".
posted by Miko at 12:57 PM on March 8, 2005

If the first sound is a vowel it's an, otherwise it's a. Therefore, it's a historic occasion. Unless you have some accent that makes the first sound in "historic" a vowel sound.
posted by duck at 1:00 PM on March 8, 2005

Miko rocks.
'e is truly a 'hofficer of the Metafilter Constabulary.
posted by seanyboy at 1:01 PM on March 8, 2005

'e is also a she. damn..... apologies.
posted by seanyboy at 1:03 PM on March 8, 2005

Actually, it can only be 'An aitch tee tee pee connection.' No such thing as 'haitch.'

But I digress.

I think everything that needs to be said on the matter is here.

On preview - OK, Miko pwns the thread.
posted by stuporJIX at 1:04 PM on March 8, 2005

Seanyboy's right -- I've heard many an aussie say "Haitch".
posted by Miko at 1:05 PM on March 8, 2005

Some stylebook said to use "a," as "an" is old and was never a strict rule but a habit of pronunciation.
posted by NickDouglas at 1:11 PM on March 8, 2005

as the author of the FPP in question, I apologize for offending any of those with tender grammar sensibilites. I put it down to personal preference. Must be the years of listening to doddering old english profs that instilled the need to add gratuitous consonants to my indefinite articles.
posted by cosmicbandito at 1:26 PM on March 8, 2005

From The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Ed.:

"Such forms as 'an historical study' or 'an union' are not idiomatic in American English. Before a pronounced 'h', long 'u' (or 'eu'), and such a word as 'one', the indefinite article should be 'a':

a hotel;
a historical study;
but an honor, an heir;
a euphonious word;
such a one;
a union

posted by AlexReynolds at 1:29 PM on March 8, 2005

Alright, I just wanted to say that this thread sounds like something straight out of My Fair Lady.

That is all.
posted by sbutler at 2:15 PM on March 8, 2005

IMO it depends greatly on how quickly you're speaking. If I were enunciating carefully, it'd be "a historical event," but if I were talking quickly and casually, it might well be "anistorical event."
posted by five fresh fish at 3:08 PM on March 8, 2005

Miko has it.

Aside: Though the pedant in me would never say "an historic", the clarity-junkie is often briefly tempted to, if only to disambiguate from the word "ahistoric", meaning not concerned with or related to history. (This, of course, would itself require a preceding "an", at which point I take a deep breath and have a nice, cool glass of water.)
posted by gramschmidt at 3:09 PM on March 8, 2005

Er, not how quickly you are speaking, but how quickly I am speaking. D-oh.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:09 PM on March 8, 2005

an harmonica.
posted by fixedgear at 4:29 PM on March 8, 2005

"An historic" (in American English) is preferred mostly by old farts who also complain about the split infinitive. However, it seems that it was the convention for a long time, so I think we should give its past use some respect.
posted by lackutrol at 8:23 PM on March 8, 2005

gramschmidt, were you to say 'a historic,' would you say 'aye historic' or 'uh historic'? I would tend to say the second, while the word 'ahistoric' would be pronounced as the former, so I don't think I'd run the risk of confusion.
posted by SoftRain at 8:35 PM on March 8, 2005

"an harmonica" is the most wacked-out thing I've ever heard.

Thanks to everyone who responded!
posted by evinrude at 12:28 PM on March 9, 2005

SoftRain, it would probably depend on how fast I was speaking. You're right; it would usually sound like "uh historic" which would be sufficiently different from the long 'a' at the front of "ahistoric" to avoid confusion. If I were gesticulating, over-articulating and being demonstrably obnoxious (like at a party, in front of an audience or something), I might say, "WELL! This IS quite ay historic occasion," most likely to draw attention to how formally I'm speaking.

At that point, though, it would be enough of a joke that "an historic" would be funnier.
posted by gramschmidt at 4:01 PM on March 9, 2005

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