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"a historic" vs. "an historic"

English translation: 'a historic' for modern English

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GLOSSARY ENTRY (DERIVED FROM QUESTION BELOW)
English term or phrase:"a historic" vs. "an historic"
English translation:'a historic' for modern English
Entered by: Lesley Clayton
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07:22 Jul 25, 2005
English to English translations [PRO]
Linguistics
English term or phrase: "a historic" vs. "an historic"
In recent years, I've seen "an historic" used more and more often, usually in more highbrow texts. Personally, I don't see any grammatical justification for this - after all, the H is not silent - or any other good reason for doing so. Having spent a few minutes browsing the internet, I have come to the conclusion that both are acceptable, but I still can't understand why.

Can anyone shed any light on this?

Many thanks


Ian
xxxIanW
Local time: 14:17
'a historic' for modern English
Explanation:
Personally speaking, 'an historic' and 'an hotel' have always grated on my ears and I've always thought it was a snobbish way of speaking (a bit like 'orf' instead of 'off'). However, I consulted Oxford, which says:

"There is still some divergence of opinion over the form of the indefinite article to use preceding certain words beginning with h- when the first syllable is unstressed: 'a historical document' or 'an historical document'; 'a hotel' or 'an hotel'. The form depends on whether the initial h is sounded or not: an was common in the 18th and 19th centuries, because the intitial h was commonly not pronounced for these words. In standard modern English the norm is for the h to be pronounced in words like hotel and historical, and therefore, the indefinite article a is used; however, the older form, with the silent h and the indefinite article an, is still encountered, especially among older speakers.
Selected response from:

Lesley Clayton
France
Local time: 14:17
Grading comment
Thanks for all this input ... now I can happily continue saying "a historic" like I always have :-)
4 KudoZ points were awarded for this answer

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Summary of answers provided
4 +9'a historic' for modern EnglishLesley Clayton
4 +3an historical perspective... NFG
Tony M
4 +3a historic
R. A. Stegemann
4 +3Both
Kurt Porter
4 +2Both (not for grading)
Gareth McMillan
4both although "a historic" is "technically" correctFrench Foodie
5 -2Two very good arguements for bothzaphod


  

Answers


5 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +3
Both


Explanation:
Interesting question that I'm now hooked on too! Below is from the link:

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.



--------------------------------------------------
Note added at 8 mins (2005-07-25 07:30:17 GMT)
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http://www.betterwritingskills.com/tip-w005.html

You probably know the grammar rule that says you use an before vowel sounds (e.g. an accident, an item, an hour) and a otherwise; e.g. a book, a report, a hotel.

Following this rule, we would say \"a historic\", not \"an historic\".

Words of three or more syllables that start with h are treated differently by some speakers, though. For example, which of these pairs of sentences sounds correct to you?

It is a historic occasion.
It is an historic occasion.


We can\'t agree on a hypothesis.
We can\'t agree on an hypothesis.
A quick bit of Googling reveals that the phrase \"a historic\" is used on 1.43 million pages (68%), and \"an historic\" on 675,000 pages (32%).

Which form you use seems to be little more than a personal preference. Both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct in modern English.



--------------------------------------------------
Note added at 8 mins (2005-07-25 07:30:25 GMT)
--------------------------------------------------

http://www.betterwritingskills.com/tip-w005.html

You probably know the grammar rule that says you use an before vowel sounds (e.g. an accident, an item, an hour) and a otherwise; e.g. a book, a report, a hotel.

Following this rule, we would say \"a historic\", not \"an historic\".

Words of three or more syllables that start with h are treated differently by some speakers, though. For example, which of these pairs of sentences sounds correct to you?

It is a historic occasion.
It is an historic occasion.


We can\'t agree on a hypothesis.
We can\'t agree on an hypothesis.
A quick bit of Googling reveals that the phrase \"a historic\" is used on 1.43 million pages (68%), and \"an historic\" on 675,000 pages (32%).

Which form you use seems to be little more than a personal preference. Both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct in modern English.




    Reference: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html
Kurt Porter
Local time: 17:17
Native speaker of: English
PRO pts in category: 8

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  David Knowles: The point is surely that it used to be "an istoric", but the h started to be pronounced (cf herb in UK and US)
10 mins
  -> David, thank you. I think I'm going to stick with "a historic." Although, Ian's questions does give one food for thought.

agree  Robert Donahue
4 hrs
  -> Thank you, Robert!

agree  Will Matter: "a historic is correct", "an historic" is not.
8 hrs
  -> Thank you, willmatter. I much prefer "a,"...lots of evidence out there that both are ok.
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15 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5
both although "a historic" is "technically" correct


Explanation:
Hi Ian, you said you've been googling this, so you may have already come across this link, but I found it one of the most interesting I've read on this debate (and there is a surprising amount of stuff on the Net written about this, isn't there?!). And it seems that everyone comes down to the same answer, that grammatically speaking "a historic" is correct, but that more and more speakers prefer the sound of "an historic". Language is evolving and so this will no doubt eventually be grammatically correct as well - an accepted exception to the rule :-)

http://www.sharbean.ca/main/template.php?EntryID=719

I'm a bit of a word snob; and, a fanatic about proper grammar. So, when Chris approached me about me writing "a historic" instead of "an historic" in the Mission to Mars post and claimed I was using bad grammar, I had to prove that French / English grammar guy wrong.

As it turns out - after a bit of research I discovered that we were both right...sort of. This is one of those language anomalies that we English speakers hear so much about but never really identify because we speak the language.

My thinking was that you placed 'n' between two vowels as in 'an apple'; but, because 'h' isn't a vowel, there is no need for the 'n' in 'a historic'.

But, this is not entirely correct.

It appears that what you use is dependent on the word and the consistency of the 'h'. With a strong 'h' like you see in 'hotel' it would be 'a hotel'; but, with a soft 'h' like in 'herb' you would use 'an herb'.

This is the direct result of a mixing of British English, where the 'h' is seldom pronounced, and the evolution of American English where the is no such thing as a soft 'h'. Though in talking to a few Brits about the 'h' their preference is to also move away from using 'an' in front of the 'h'.

Of course the argument doesn't stop here, because if you give people something to discuss they will discuss it.

Spencer Howson from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) asked his listeners which they preferred to use - 'an historic' or 'a historic'. The result: 62.5% preferred 'an historic' while 37.5% preferred 'a historic'.

Whether you believe the Aussies on this is up to you - but Spencer took this matter one step further and spoke with the linguistic professor Roly Sussex. Roly says which version you use is dependent on where the word is stressed. For example the word 'history' would use 'a' and the word 'historic' could go either way depending on the speaker's preference. The current trend is leaning towards using 'a'.

Well, all this confuses me more than it helps. I'll stick to the 'vowel rule' in this case.

© 1992 - 2005 sharbean.ca. All Rights Reserved

French Foodie
Local time: 14:17
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
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40 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +9
'a historic' for modern English


Explanation:
Personally speaking, 'an historic' and 'an hotel' have always grated on my ears and I've always thought it was a snobbish way of speaking (a bit like 'orf' instead of 'off'). However, I consulted Oxford, which says:

"There is still some divergence of opinion over the form of the indefinite article to use preceding certain words beginning with h- when the first syllable is unstressed: 'a historical document' or 'an historical document'; 'a hotel' or 'an hotel'. The form depends on whether the initial h is sounded or not: an was common in the 18th and 19th centuries, because the intitial h was commonly not pronounced for these words. In standard modern English the norm is for the h to be pronounced in words like hotel and historical, and therefore, the indefinite article a is used; however, the older form, with the silent h and the indefinite article an, is still encountered, especially among older speakers.

Lesley Clayton
France
Local time: 14:17
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 4
Grading comment
Thanks for all this input ... now I can happily continue saying "a historic" like I always have :-)

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  xxxsarahl
1 hr
  -> Thaks, Sarah.

agree  Vicky Papaprodromou
3 hrs
  -> Thanks, Vicky.

agree  Charlie Bavington: That is pretty much how I see it too.
4 hrs
  -> Thanks, Charlie.

agree  TranslateThis
6 hrs
  -> Thanks, TranslateThis.

agree  Will Matter
7 hrs
  -> Thanks, willmatter.

agree  Clauwolf
8 hrs
  -> Thanks, Clauwolf.

agree  humbird: You have done your homework, and I agree the art of language is merculial.
13 hrs
  -> Thanks, humbird.

agree  John Bowden: Good explanation
2 days10 hrs
  -> Thanks, John.

agree  Andyboylin: Sounds good. I'm probably posting this in the wrong place as I'm new here, but Lesley, the indefinite article is "a" or "an", whereas the definite article is "the"
2033 days
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55 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 5/5 peer agreement (net): -2
Two very good arguements for both


Explanation:
But I'll stick with "an" even when the H isn't aspirated. It's more a matter of continuity of form.
An Hilarious Half Hour
An History
An historic

Poor pronunciation is probably at the base of the use of "A" in UK English, but it shouldn't stop the rule from being applied. In my book(s) "A" would simply be wrong.

zaphod
Local time: 14:17
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish, Native in FrenchFrench
PRO pts in category: 8

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
neutral  Tony M: Although I support the 'an hotel' variants, I do'nt think one can be so dogmatic as to say this is a 'rule', or that either is 'wrong'
1 hr
  -> It's not Dogma, it's Strunk and White - and correct English

disagree  Will Matter: What, exactly, do you mean by "learn the language"? It's my native tongue & i've been speaking it since before your parents met. Unlike you I both know & understand the rule being used here.
7 hrs
  -> Learn the language. Nothing in English is simple.

neutral  R. A. Stegemann: Many non-native speakers at a loss for proper pronunciation of many English nouns would prefer an orthographical rule to simplify things. Unfortunately, what commands in this situation is sound, not sight. See Bavington's note to Dusty.
16 hrs
  -> I agree, and there is one. Many just find it convenient to ignore it.

disagree  John Bowden: Wrong - and somebody who can't spell "arguments" should be a bit less dogmatic...// If you really say "an history", I'd 'ave a word with 'Enry 'Iggins if I were you!
2 days7 hrs
  -> BIOYA Call it tired. ANyway, prove I'm wrong AH
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1 hr   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +3
a historic


Explanation:
What appears to be missing in Kurt Porter and Mara Bertelsen's response is the way in which the article "a" is pronounced when it appears before the word historic. Rather than being pronounced as the u- and a-sounds in cut, what, but, the article is pronounced like the stressed vowels in the phrase "stay away". This same approach to understanding the problem can explain why the word herb is often preceded by the article "an" rather than its "a" counterpart. In effect, the rule of when to write which article is not, and could never be orthographically based; rather, it is how one pronounces the noun that follows that is determinant.

I never pronounce the h-sound in the word herb and always write the article "an" before it. In contrast, I always pronounce the h-sound in historic and write the article "a" before it.

Consider the word university by way of further example. Like the h-sound in historic, the u-sound in university is a semi-vowel that is half consonant and half vowel. I never write the orthographically determined phrase "an university"; rather, I write "a university" and pronounce the a-sound as in the two stressed vowels in the phrase "stay away".

Surely, I hope my explanation has removed Mara's confusion. In the end I find it difficult to find agreement with Kurt. Of course, some people may prefer the phrase "an historic" over "a historic", because the latter could be easily confused with the word "ahistoric", and this may have been your point all along.

No politics is the politics of the status quo.

Of course, the problem does not end here, because I pronounce the articles in the phrases "a hole in the wall" and "the whole thing" with the unstressed, mid-vowel found in the words cut, what, but, rather than with the stressed a- and e-sounds found in the words may and see. I suspect this has to do with the fact that the o-sound in hole and whole is that of a high-back vowel. Once again, pronunciation takes a back seat to orthography.

With this I hope that I have left no holes in the whole of it.

R. A. Stegemann
Saudi Arabia
Local time: 21:17
Specializes in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 20

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Tony M: I agree at least in part with what you're saying. if the artcile 'a' is pronounced as 'ay', then that satisifies the desire for euphony and obviates the need to put 'an'...
1 hr
  -> Bravo! Thanks!

agree  silfilla
5 hrs
  -> Thanks. We are of the same mind.

agree  Mario Marcolin: Indeed, I think the pronounciation of the article is the key in this issue and the article is a matter of personal choice ( or accent)
8 hrs
  -> If you are saying that the choice of article is determined by the pronunciation of the noun that follows and the pronunciation of the latter is a matter of choice, then we, too, are of like mind. Thanks!

neutral  John Bowden: If I've understood you correctly, you're saying the "a" in "a historic day" etc isn't a schwa but a full vowel - well, I for one pronounce it as a schwa (BE)// Again, the difference may be US/BE - in BE the article is never a stresssed vowel
3 days7 hrs
  -> This suggests that you never pronounce the article "a" as a stressed vowel, except when you refer to it as the article. In short, you simply ignore the rule. Many members of my family also ignore the rule. Thank you for your input.
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2 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +3
'a' or 'an' historic
an historical perspective... NFG


Explanation:
I just wanted to add that back in the 50s and still 60s, people who considered themselves 'educated' speakers in the UK would say 'an historic' and even sometimes 'an hotel' (and I've even known a few say 'an unique...'). Nowadays, it sounds like a slightly quaint middle-class pretension, though I have to say that i still prefer it.

There is clearly a AE / BE difference here, as no-one I know in the UK would dream of saying 'an herb garden'

I see the following as being fiarly clear-cut in everyday oral usage [UK English]

a house
a history book
a herb garden
a holiday
a hypothesis
a humorous anecdote
a hopeless case
a university

an hour
an hilarious moment
an uneventful week

but I see the following as being much more debatable

an historic
an hotel

I think there is a trend to move towards what follows logical orthographic 'rules', and to be less based on 'what it sounds like when you pronounce it'. Look at the way French prefers euphony over logic. My parents always used to say (referring to many words) "If you pronounce it correctly, it will help you remember the correct spelling"




--------------------------------------------------
Note added at 4 hrs 42 mins (2005-07-25 12:04:24 GMT)
--------------------------------------------------

I should have said \"By contrast, look at the way French...\"

Tony M
France
Local time: 14:17
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 156

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  Vicky Papaprodromou
2 hrs
  -> Thanks, Vicky!

agree  Charlie Bavington: Especially with the "herb garden" :-) I think we *tend* to go with "it depends how you say it" - for example, I'd write "a UFO" (pronounced as separate letters) but "an RFC", even tho' both break the rule about 'words' that start with a vowel....
2 hrs
  -> Thanks, Charlie! Good examples!

agree  Will Matter
7 days
  -> Thanks, W/M!
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10 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 4/5Answerer confidence 4/5 peer agreement (net): +2
Both (not for grading)


Explanation:
The endless debates to establish "rules" to ensnare the elusive and self inventing thing called the English language falters yet again.

Have a look and Dusty's answer:

"an hour" is normal and common, therefore it's correct. Just try saying "a hour"- ridiculous.

Now tr<y saying "an hilarious"- just as ridiculous.

Modern doesn't even come into it- it's what feels right IMVHO.

Gareth McMillan
Local time: 14:17
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 8

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  John Bowden: Yes, some people seem determined to use invented "rules" to justify their own preferences, and to beat other people around the head with! (sorry for ending the sentence with a prepopsition...)
4 days
  -> Yes....the Irish invented the shillelagh for this (sorry 1an!).

agree  Tony M: I entirely agree with your point about spurious rules for comofrt reasons; I have to disagree, tho', about 'an hilarious...' --- it's something I say quite naturally, all the time, without even stopping to think about it...
7 days
  -> Like I say, if it feels right........
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