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Should You say ‘A Historic’ or ‘An Historic’?

For a Filipino, this really should not even be a relevant question; and especially so before the age of cable television. But then cable television did come along, and with it beamed live into our living rooms international news networks like CNN and the BBC.

These networks and their suave British-accented newscasters brought with them a curiosity that was also confounding to us Filipinos: the frequent use of the phrase ‘an historic.’ Educated as most of us were in – at least we like to think – our version of American English, we would never think of using the phrase other than as ‘a historic.’

Of course, what was more confusing was that these were native English speakers using what to us was so obviously a grammatical anomaly.

Indeed, the rules of grammar that we were taught in school said that the indefinite article ‘an’ should be used to precede nouns that are pronounced beginning with vowel sounds.

Confusing? The word ‘hour’ begins with the consonant ‘h,’ but is generally pronounced as ‘our.’ Hence, we say ‘an hour.’ Similarly, we say ‘an heir’ or ‘an honour’ because the ‘h’ in both words is likewise omitted in pronunciation.

Things get more complicated with words like ‘hotel’ and ‘horrific’ because leaving the ‘h’ sound out of pronunciation is largely a preference issue. The use of the indefinite articles ‘a’ and ‘an,’ therefore, is dependent on the speaker’s preference.

If the ‘h’ is preferred in pronunciation, then the phrase is ‘a hotel’ and ‘a horrific.’ If the ‘h’ is omitted, then the phrase is ‘an otel’ and ‘an orrific.’

The word ‘historic’ draws special attention because the article ‘an’ is used by many native English speakers whether the ‘h’ is omitted in pronunciation or not. This is in complete defiance of the rules of grammar.

Those who did not snore through World History will recall the Franco-Norman era in England during which the fledgling English language evolving as it was from the Anglo-Saxon dialects was being enriched by French words.

Any words beginning with an ‘h’ that is nonetheless not pronounced, we suspect, are of French origin. Historic, hotel and horrific are among these, we rather suspect; and up until the 18th and 19th century, these words were generally pronounced with the beginning ‘h’ omitted. (Language Matters, Oxford Dictionaries)

Note that the rules of grammar governing the use of ‘a’ and ‘an’ apply to both British and American English. In that case, ‘an historic’ is technically wrong even when used by somebody British.

As a further curiosity, while native English speakers may diverge in preference for either ‘a historic’ or ‘an historic’ (or ‘a historical’ or ‘an historical’), it is always ‘a history’ and never ‘an history.’

To conclude, ‘an historic’ does indeed violate the rules of grammar; albeit Better Writing Skills says that its ‘usage is common enough to be considered correct.’

Preference for its use is not a British thing either; and Americans continue to exercise preference for it as well. However, as the Google matrices show below, there has been an increasing preference for the use of ‘a historic’ as opposed to ‘an historic’ over the recent decades.

Thus, the rules of grammar may prevail, after all.