An Historic Question

Why do we use the word “an” preceding the word “historic”? I hate that.

You dont hear people say “he plowed the field with an horse” or “she had an historectomy”.

First of all: your name is genius…pun half-intended.
Second of all: Only grammar sticklers use this in writing. I’ve never heard anyone anywhere actually say this. In fact, when I find him, I’m sure he/she will pronounce forte “fort” and claim that that’s the proper way. Sure it is, but it’s so out of the vernacular that it’s like using Chaucerian English.

Because the leading phoneme in the word ‘historic’ is a vowel not a consonant like in ‘horse’. Technically if your particular dialect of English pronounced ‘historic’ as ‘his’-‘to’-‘rick’ and not ‘ees’-‘to’-‘rick’ it would be more proper to use ‘a’ and not ‘an’.

Yep, I hear people say it as well as write it. And they’re grammar sticklers to the point of being wrong. (The decision-maker being Googlefight, which hands it to 'a historic").

In seriousness, this type of grammar pedant is the type that believes in following rules for rules’ sake. They’ve never stopped to think about what the purposes of rules of grammar are, such as clarity, precision and conciseness. ‘An historic’ fulfuls none of those criteria.

So what is your historic question?

Do you have a question that we will look back at and say “Wow, that was one heck of a question”?

That makes no sense, unless you are trying to transcribe the actual dialect. Otherwise, for consistency, every other deviation in pronunciation would need to be included in the written form. Such as if I were reading this out loud I would ellide “th’actual”. Doesn’t mean it needs to be written that way.

I think it does make sense because ‘a’ vs. ‘an’ is based on phonetic difference, and phonetic difference is based on the dialect. Sure, you could have convention, but I think you should write it how YOU would pronounce it, since it does not affect the meaning as much as readability. If you propose to standardize on ‘a historic’ i propose to standardize on ‘an historic’, both claims are valid because ‘a’ vs. ‘an’ have absolutely nothing to do with leading letters, but rather sounds. Best is not to standardize and let people use what they are most comfortable with. This has nothing to do with being a grammar stickler, any direction you chose, there’s going to be millions of people who would have to remember it as a rule. Better leave it to natural language evolution and leave it out of style guides.

Also, I’m not talking about writing phonetically, I’m talking specifically about ‘a’ vs. 'an ’ which is one of the few phonetics-derived rules in the English language. Writing down things incorrectly phonetically is still incorrect, but putting ‘a’ in front of a vowel sound is very hard to pronounce.

I have tried this both ways, and I think I can see logic in both sides of the argument. If I am speaking clearly and distinctly, and pronouncing “historic” with the full “h” sound on the front, it definitely sounds better to say “This is a historic occasion.”

On the other hand, if I’m not emphasizing the “h” but running the words together, it sounds perfectly natural to say “This is an 'istoric occasion.” YMMV.

I always thought the “an” was simply an English thing, since (I’ve noticed, at least) many of their dialects tend to pronounce fewer “h” sounds than, say, mine.

Ok, do we all take issue with “an herb” (pronounced in the American manner, not English)?

Personally, “an herb” is waaaay less hateful to me. Because it “erb” not "H"istoric. In fact, if you said “a erb,” I’d probably just shove a lozenge down your throat.

It’s the extra-strength glottal stop. Stupid glottal stops.

I’ve no clue about english, but there’s a similar issue with words beginning by “h” in french which maybe is related and could shed some light.

When a word beginning by “h” is preceded by the article “un”, it can be pronounced in two different ways :

-either the the article and the word are clearly separated : un haricot (a bean) is pronounced un…arico

-either the article and the word sound like they were fused un historien (an historian) is pronounced un nistorien.
The “h” is never sounded in french. So, there’s no obvious current reason for this diference o pronounciation.

However, the words pronounced in the second way are the words of latin origin, where the “h” wasn’t sounded (hence they actually began, when pronounced, by a vowel : “i” in the case of "historien) so the liaison between the ending “n” of the article and the sound “i” at the beginning of the word was natural

On the other hand, the words pronounced in the first way are the words of germanic origin where the “h” was sounded. So, originally, you couldn’t make a liaison, the articly finishing by a consonant, and the word begining too by a consonant.
I can’t help but notice that in english, it seems to be the same. The words preceded by “an” seem to be of latin origin, while the words preceded by “a” seems to be of anglo-saxon origin. I could be mistaken, though.
So, if I’m tight, it could be that the issue mentionned by the OP is completely unrelated with the current pronounciation of the words, but related to their original pronounciation, either with a mute “h” for latin words, or with a sounded “h” consonant for anglo-saxon words.

My history prof (who paid his way through grad school as a proofreader) always gave me the noodle-slap for using “a” before “historic”. Now I just do it out of force of habit.

Sort of related, google for “dropping aitches”. Well, if you’re into that sort of thing (like me).

Did he insist on being called “An History Professor”?

(Not intended as an entirely facetious question)

If it’s “An historic” simply due to most English speakers dropping the H, then why not use ‘an’ for other dropped aiches? ‘An Hispanic’? ‘An hissy-fit’?

A nice idea…but there’s all sorts of other influences to consider - particularly from the Low Countries, where H had all sorts of roles.

I say both of those, as do most of my friends.

I suspect that the reason some people say “an historic”, but “a history professor” is that in the latter example the stress is on the first syllable, which emphasizes the initial ‘H’.

The H in those two words aren’t dropped…not in my mouth they’re not! In any case, though, I don’t think hissy-fit is applicable here, because it’s almost certainly a native English word, rather than something based on a Greek or Romance language borrowing.

To the OP: I’m not sure that you wouldn’t see an hysterectomy in older literature.

A nice idea…but there’s all sorts of other influences to consider - particularly from the Low Countries, where H had all sorts of roles.

Great. I try to point out that it’s futile to base grammar based on etymology, and we get a guess at an etymology for a word which is quite likely to be homegrown onomatapea. (Just what is a ‘native English word’? :wink: )

In case I wasn’t clear, I meant “English” as in “people from England.”