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An historic

In all main varieties of English, the use of an as the article preceding historic (an historic) is an unnecessary affectation. The rule for the indefinite article is that we use a before words beginning with a consonant sound, and an before words beginning with a vowel sound. The h at the beginning of historic is a consonant sound, soft though it may be. As far as we know, there are no modern English dialects in which the in historic is silent (please correct us if we’re wrong), so there’s no reason for anyone to use an instead of before the word.

The same applies with the words historical, historian, and so on. They start with consonant sound, so their article is a.

Examples

An historic appears about a third as frequently as a historic, even in some normally well-edited publications—for example:


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The very possibility of it marks an historic turning point for the entire region. [New Republic]

At least one of Lord Hutton’s recommendations will mark an historic departure. [Guardian]

And, from an historical perspective, Greece’s track record as a creditor is checkered. [Wall Street Journal]

But in most edited writing, whether British, Australian, Canadian, or American, a historic is thankfully more common than an historic—for example:

The entire five-member City Council was replaced, with a historic turnout and a whopping 95 percent of voters approving the recall. [New York Times]

Maurice Manning, a historian and chancellor of the National University of Ireland who is a former Fine Gael politician, described the mood. [Financial Times]

This collection puts Orchard’s work in a historical perspective and gives an overview of the artist’s career. [Sydney Morning Herald]

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Comments

  1. A.K. Dawber says:

    Regarding “AN HISTORIC..etc.”, I entirely agree with your explanations. TV News bulletins and programmes, in particular Sky News, use “AN HISTORIC” or “AN HISTORICAL” all the time, and it quite annoys me. Someone told me that “An” as indefinite determiner preceding “historic” has older foundations, and was commonly used in earlier centuries, but I haven’t researched this.

  2. While probably not so in America, for British English speakers It comes from a different era in education when the “English ear” was taken for granted and it was understood there were odd, possibly rarely vocalised exceptions to rules, some of which were used in the name of eloquence of diction.

    To illustrate such an instructional paradox, while i before e, except after c was taught as “the immutable rule”, most young students learning these things would be able to suggest several words violating the tenet e.g., freight and abseil.

    Getting back to the crux of the matter, “an historical occasion”, for example, is used in order to make the sentence more fluid preventing the “hard stop” that British English speakers are faced with when using “a” (as in the short sound of ah) before word like horrific, the other option being the heinous use of the “Eh” sound of capital “A” that was expressly forbidden. Obviously the “English ear” was the guide as “an horror” does not sound right at all whilst “an horrific experience” can be spoken fluidly.

    If you search old newspapers (I looked in Australian papers dated from 1870 to 1910), the use of “an historic” compared to “a historic” is marginally more popular in that period.

    • “I before E, except after C” was never taught as an immutable rule, and your examples do not violate the tenet. You appear to have forgotten the rest of the rule, “or when sounding like A, like in neighbour and weigh”.

      As for “an historic”, it depends on the local dialect. Where I live, it is pronounced “ani-storric”, with no h. Granted, people here pronounce “hat” as “:a:” with glottal stops, so I guess it’s just a matter of time before it becomes “an hat”.

      • Deity, science, gneiss, dreidle, vacancies, fallacies, species, society, dioecies, idiocies, policies, either, neither, heist, prescient, feisty, height, protein, seize, forfeit, foreign, heifer, heir, caffeine, leisure.

        Turns out that, with or without your corollary, it’s not a useful rule. Weird.

  3. buttholepunch says:

    you’re wrong

  4. Robert Butler says:

    U.S.A. moderators are notorious for using “an historic” in their news broadcasts and it annoys me as an American citizen.

  5. nathan laurent says:

    Surely the most important reason to use “an” is to make a distinction between the two adjectives “historical” and “ahistorical” in a speech for delivery?

  6. nathan laurent says:

    One justification for using “an historical” might be to distinguish “a historical” from “ahistorical”. For example, “Ahistorical analysis (of such-and-such by so-and-so)…”

  7. Toxic Avenger says:

    It’s always seemed to me that when people use “an historic,” they stop pronouncing the “h” in “historic.” It turns into “an istoric,” which is really baffling.

  8. The reason some speakers today intentionally say “an historic” rather than “a historic” is to avoid being confused of possibly saying “ahistoric,” as it has an antonymic relation and becomes an important distinction to be made in audible verbality. While “a historic” is proper in both English text and speech, one can understand why an exception is preferred by some when used specifically in speech to avoid this confusion. Others dodge this misunderstanding by emphasizing a notable pause between “a” and “historic” to better distinguish the intent of what they are saying aloud (when they don’t mean “ahistoric”) rather than to use “an.”

    Hope this helps.

  9. Neil Dalton says:

    You may be right on the grammar, but I totally disagree on your word choice of “affectation.” In my opinion, using the correct article “a” is the affectation, not the other way around.

  10. Jeremy Salkeld says:

    There are some accents where the first consonant sound in a word is omitted, especially in the middle of a sentence where there may be slurring. Thus, “This was an historic event” where the “h” is slurred out, resulting in what sounds closer to “‘istoric”, “an” is usable.

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