Pronunciation Usage

Historic article

Q: I cringe when a politician or news anchor uses “an” in front of “historic.” I was taught to use “an” before an “h” word when the “h” is silent. Am I right? I think I am, but I’m just a guy who drives the A train in NYC.

A: Yes, you are right. There’s no reason to use “an” before “historic,” unless you pronounce it without the “h” (an ’istoric). After all, we don’t say “an hippie” or “an hysterectomy” or “an hot dog.”

Here’s an example from a usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.): “a historic house.  And here’s one from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): “a historic occasion.”

The article “an” before a sounded “h” is unnatural in English and in fact is discouraged even by the British. (We regard it as an affectation.)

If you’d like a British authority, here’s an example from the Cambridge Dictionaries Online: “In a historic vote, the Church of England decided to allow women to become priests.”

Of course, it all depends on whether you actually pronounce the “h” in “historic.” Though all the dictionaries we’ve checked recommend pronouncing it, a lot of people don’t. And that’s why “an historic” shows up so much in speech and writing.

For any “h”-droppers out there, the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has this bit of advice: “A number of commentators prescribe a here, but you should feel free to use an if it sounds more natural to you.”

We had a blog entry on the subject a few years ago. And we touched on it sometime later in a posting about British vs. American English.

Check out our books about the English language