It Was Not an Historic Event

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?
An elephant.
An igloo.
An orangutan.
An umbrella.

All these words begin with vowels—and more importantly, with vowel sounds.

So far so good.

A boy.
A cat.
A dog.
A house—and also a historic occasion.
A zebra.

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.
A uniform.

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.

But you know about grammar rules. They change over time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. (I love this guy’s rant about that.)

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 MBA.
A PhD.
An FAQ page.
A CD.
An SAT test.
A jpeg.
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.
An MD.

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?

Tweet: Sounds like—it’s a very simple rule. Yet an historic still persists.
Tweet: Bottom line—no more an historic. All the style guides agree with me on this.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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6 Comments

  1. Leon says:

    Thank you for clearing this up, it makes perfect sense.

  2. Sacha Black says:

    LOVE this. Really. This is something I have thought about a LOT of times. I see An historic all the time. I believe it is in the opening lines of one of the Xmen films too with Patrick Stewart saying it, and I thought it sounded weird then too. Thank you for the clarification, I can now waltz around smug in the knowledge I will be right (thanks to you) and the pompous idiots are wrong!

  3. John says:

    Jamie, this was very informative.
    Thank you.

    Of course the use of phrases like this (a historic event!) .. even if correctly using “a” vs “an” .. is often still just hyperbole.

    Hyperbole, acronyms and misleading headlines which the general media loves to use to excess have become a primary source of pain to my ears and my soul.

    My concerns range from:
    – the minor (as you expressed- pompous and pedantic, AKA: annoying) to …
    – significant ( making money by selling fear to the general public while ignoring how small the actual risks are) to…
    – major (training our children to lose all concern for appropriate levels of expression)
    Moderation doesn’t “sell” well enough.

    Sorry .. couldn’t contain myself.

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2 Trackbacks

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