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Friday, August 24, 2012

What the h...?

With the Olympics over, thank God we won't have to hear every last thing being described as "historic" any more. But is a new world record "a historic event" or "an historic event"?

A recent facebook poll I conducted showed "an historic" favoured over "a historic" by 60% of respondents, and this seemed to cut across generational lines. This is such an intriguing phenomenon. Typically in English, we use "a" before a pronounced h (as in "history") and "an" before silent h (as in "hour", "honour", etc.). So why do so many people (you've probably guessed I'm not one of them) do the counterintuitive thing and say "an historic" even though the h is pronounced?

If you look on the ever-helpful internet, you will find all sorts of wacko "rules" about this, depending on whether it's a noun or a verb, whether the first or second syllable is stressed, how many syllables the word has, what happens in French (in French!) and many other variables. Why do people make their lives this complicated?

Especially when THERE IS NO REASON TO DO THIS!! It's just a result of a quirk in the history (or should I say istory?) of English spelling and pronunciation.

"Historic" and "historical" didn't come into English till the Renaissance, but "history" has been around much longer. In Latin it was historia, but the Romans stopped pronouncing the h long before Latin morphed into Old French. The French didn't pronounce it (still don't) and being sensible people back then, didn't put an unpronounced letter in the spelling. VoilĂ : istorie. We borrowed the word, h-less in both spelling and pronunciation.

But then the Renaissance came along, and we developed a mania for putting silent letters in our spellings to reflect the original Latin word. So "istory" and its derivatives acquired an h in the spelling, but still not in the pronunciation. It therefore was perfectly natural to say "an history" or "an historic event", just as we still say "an hour" or "an honour".

 It was not until the end of the 19th century, and the advent of both mass literacy and social opprobrium for people who "drop their aitches", that we started pronouncing the h in "history" and "historic" (and many other words besides). But for some reason, although we all sensibly adjusted our indefinite article from "an" to "a" before "history", some of us didn't do the same before "historic".

Mastering counterintuitive linguistic "rules" like this is a good way to make you feel superior to those who do the opposite --but naturally idiomatic-- thing, and I believe this has something to do with the survival of "an historic". I am not saying that all my friends who say this are consciously asserting their linguistic superiority, but  I think they must be channelling something they were taught in school.

I even see the tendency spilling over onto other words starting with h. In the last few months I have seen all of the following:

an helicopter
an hospital
an horrific
an hilarious
an Hispanic
an hibiscus

and there is ample evidence on Google for all of these. Admit it, you "an historic" types, you're thinking, "But those are ridiculous!". Aren't you?

(For another example, "an heritage", see this post.)

Something has to give, though.  It's just too much work -- and not natural English -- to say "an" and then pronounce your h afterwards, so either the n or the h has to go. Indeed, I heard a CBC-TV reporter talking about one of those multitudinous historic events at the Olympics, and it certainly sounded to me like "an istoric day". Some linguists believe that the pronounced h"is doomed to die in Standard English as it has done in so many languages, and perhaps this is a sign of it ailing, though there are vast numbers of words in English with a very healthy initial h.

My advice is:

Use "an" before the FOUR (count 'em!) words and their approximately twelve common derivatives, that start with a silent h in standard English (i.e. not those varieties of English, like Cockney, in which all initial h's are silent):

heir, honest, honour, hour

For Americans and about 50% of Canadians, the word "herb" is also in this category.

Use  "a" before h's that are pronounced (everything else). EVEN "HISTORIC"!! (For some speakers, "humour" and "human" also have a silent "h", but since those words start with a "you" sound, they also take "a".)

How easy is that?

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  1. I admit I do use "an" before "historic" (when speaking), but as you mentioned, the "h" is almost silent. I do have a question for you about the word historic. I have been noticing this year how often someone refers to a historical event, while I thought it should be a historic event. Which is correct?

  2. Thanks for this well-researched blog entry on a topic I've been wondering about for some time! I agree with you about the usage of "an" in front of the silent h, too.

  3. Thanks for this blog entry about a topic I've often pondered! I agree with you about the usage of "an" before the silent h, too...

  4. Very easy! Now i know how to use "an" and "a" before the words of H sounds. Thanks a lot!

    english composition


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.