I’ve noticed a lot of people of a certain age tend to use the indefinite article an before the word historic (or historical):
The radio announcer said, “It was an historic event.”
This is actually incorrect usage, y’all, though I think I may have been taught this in school, and you may have been too. But if we were … why? We don’t say an history, do we? No.
I began to research it (more about which in a moment), and it became clear to me it has nothing to do with this particular word, or words that begin with h. Instead, it has everything to do with the usage of a and an.
That is, there’s a rule—and it has to do with sound: you use a with words that start with a consonant sound, and you use an with words that start with a vowel sound.
An apple is easy, right?
All these words begin with vowels—and more importantly, with vowel sounds.
So far so good.
A house—and also a historic occasion.
These words begin with consonants—and consonant sounds.
But there are some words that begin with consonants that sound like vowels, and these would require an:
An hour, an heir.
An honor to be here.
See? So following this rule, there are also words that begin with vowels but sound like consonants, such as …
A one-trick pony.
Sounds like—it’s a very simple rule. Yet … an historic still persists. I edit it out of OPW (Other People’s Writing) all the time. You can find retired professors and other old farts on the Internet trying to tell you it’s still a rule. But it’s not. It’s incorrect. Once upon a time it was correct—the best I can determine, it was and perhaps still is British usage and was taught to American children at least until the middle of the last century—and it had to do with which syllable in a word got the accent. HIS-tory as opposed to hi-STOR-ic. Oh, it’s ’way too complicated to go into, kids, so let’s don’t and say we did.
And while we’re at it, let’s talk about indefinite articles for abbreviations. These go on sound, too—a for consonants, an for vowels—but be sure to pay attention to abbreviations that have become acronyms to get it right. Here are some examples.
An FAQ page.
An SAT test.
An html shortcut.
A BBC program.
An NCAA game.
A NATO exercise.
An ATM machine.
A PIN number.
An SSN number.
A HUD directive.
An HIV drug.
A K9 cop.
Bottom line—no more an historic. All the style guides agree with me on this—Chicago, Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, and on and on. At best, an historic makes you sound old and at worst it makes you sound pompous and pedantic and pretentious. And you don’t want that, do you?
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