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November 03, 2007

Using the Articles 'A' or 'An' Before the Words 'Historic' or 'Historical'

The rule seems simple enough doesn't it? Except for words such as "heir," "hour," "honor," or "herb" the article "a," (not "an") precedes a word beginning with the letter "h." That's how I was taught, yet the either archaic or exceptional "an" article still crops up here and there, even in more "respectable" venues such as NPR, one of the supposed final bastions of clear, crisp, and articulately spoken Standard American English. Is public media's incorporation of the, for example, commonly-heard British and Canadian usage of "an" before "historic" mere pretentiousness on their part or some refusal to use Standard American English "rules" on the air? To many, this bold grammatical choice is unoffensive, but how are we to--as teachers--properly explain this inconsistency to EL learners and even native-speakers in grammar and writing bridge courses? Below is an excerpt from James Dvorkin's reply to a recent letter by Charles Everest about NPR's on-air grammatical faux-pas. (Please note Everest's own reply to this post below). Dvorkin replies . . .

Pronunciamentos: Saying It Right

'... Dropping Aitches Everywhere...'

Charles Everest notes that NPR reporters and newsreaders regularly misuse the aspirate "h."

Please let all of your reporters, commentators etc. know that words that start with H are not prefaced with an, as in "an historic setting" or "an historic event". The only H words that use "an" are: an hour, an herb (only in the American pronunciation) and an honor etc.... A historic, a history, a hysterical, etc. are correct. Almost every announcer on NPR and WUNC says "an historical" etc.

It really grates on my nerves, and it is not correct use of the language or common parlance.

Mr. Everest's complaint underscores the fact that a spoken language is, as mentioned, a dynamic process, and language does change over time. Checking a number of reference guides and one reference librarian, here's what I found:

The use of "an historic" is in fact, not technically incorrect but is now considered archaic and pedantic. According to Fowler's Dictionary of English Usage:

A is used before all consonants except silent 'h' (a history, an hour); an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (an historical work), but now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become pedantic, and a historical should be said and written...

NPR's reference librarian uses a more journalistic source to back Mr. Everest's concern. According to Kee Malesky:

The AP Stylebook 2005 agrees:

Use the article a before consonant sounds: a historic event...

(As we discussed, this is just a personal affectation. It should be discouraged.)

Link to Full Article by James Dvorkin HERE

Dr. Grammar also addresses the issue of "a" or "an" before "history and ends his statement with an interesting quotation by American writer Mark Twain. Dr. Grammar claims:

According to The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, "The indefinite article a is used before words beginning with a consonant sound, including /y/ and /w/ sounds. The other form, an, is used before words beginning with a vowel sound. Hence, a European country, a Ouija board, a uniform, an FBI agent, an MBA degree, an SEC filing. Writers on usage formerly disputed whether the correct article is a or an with historian, historic, and a few other words. The traditional rule is that if the h- is sounded, a is the proper form. Most people following that rule would say a historian and a historic--e.g.:'Democrat Bill Clinton appears within reach of capturing the White House in Tuesday's election, but Republicans hope that late momentum, can enable President Bush to win a historic upset' (Dallas Morning News). Even H.W. Fowler, in the England of 1926, advocated a before historic(al) and humble (MEU1). The theory behind using an in such a context, however, is that the h- is very weak when the accent is on the second rather than the first syllable (giving rise, by analogy, to an habitual offender, an humanitarian, an hallucinatory image, and an harassed schoolteacher). Thus no authority countenances an history[emphasis added], though a few older ones prefer an historian and an historical. Today, however, an hypothesis and an historical are likely to strike readers and listeners as affectations. As Mark Twain once wrote, referring to humble, heroic, and historical: 'Correct writers of the American language do not put an before those words' (The Stolen White Elephant,1882). Anyone who sounds the h- in such words should avoid pretense and use a (Garner 1).

Full Article by Dr. Grammar Available HERE

Judy Vorfield, in her Webgrammar series, claims that this usage is both non-standard for American English a common mistake many users of American English make. Specifically, she says:

A and An before a word beginning with "h": "An historical book" is not idiomatic in American English. Before a pronounced h, the indefinite article should be a. A hotel; a historical. Therefore, precede a word beginning with a "breathy" h with an a.

She goes on to verify her position by citing several standard style-guide sources. For example:

Have you ever been confused about when to use "a" and "an" before words beginning with "h"? You're not alone. Some of the most famous people in the world don't use the rules properly. Here's what the style guides say:

Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage (2003) says that "a" is used before consonant SOUNDS, not just consonants. Use "an" when the word following it starts with a vowel or an unsounded "h."

The Gregg Reference Manual, Ninth Edition, concurs.

Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, University of Chicago Press, says: The indefinite article a, not an, is used in American English before words beginning with a pronounced h.

Examples: a hotel - an honor - a historical study - an heir.

Associated Press Stylebook 2003 says: A historic event is an important occurrence, one that stands out in history.

Many people say, "An historical occasion," but "an historical" isn't idiomatic in American English. Using "an" is common, but not universally accepted by experts. Here's how to figure out which article to use:

Before a word starting with a pronounced, breathy "h," use "a." Examples: A hotel; A happy time; A historical day; A healthy, happy baby.

You attend a history class, not an history class. Same with "historical." It was a historical occasion.

Honeymooners go to a hideaway, not an hideaway. The donkey carried a heavy burden, not an heavy burden. "Historical" is no different.

Use "an" with words beginning with an unpronounced "h." Examples: An herb garden; an hour; an honor; An heir.

Now, let's combine them: "Look! An herb garden in a historical setting. Let's stay an hour, then find a hotel."

In the UK and other countries with British influence, the "h" in "herb" is often pronounced. See what I mean about confusing? We'll almost always find exceptions to every rule. No matter. Just do your best to be a good communicator and move on!

Both of these Short Articles by Judy Vorfield are Available HERE and HERE

Finally, I leave your perusal an answer given to Julie Lewis by Tina Blue on the topic of whether "A Historical" is just as correct (or more correct) than "An Historical."

As is usually the case, Julie's question highlights a difference between American and British usage--though even British usage is moving away from using an in such phrases.

In Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay,* Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis are quite dogmatic about whether or not one should use an before such words as historic and historical:

an historic (never)

"This is an historic occasion," intoned Senator Pfogbottom.

"I don't care to listen to this windbag," said the cynical reporter. "I think I'll go to McDonald's for an hamburger."

. . . When the aitch (h) is silent, as in honor and hour, use the article an. When the aitch is pronounced, as in house, hamburger, history, and historical, use the article a. (33)

Well, sort of.

There is a significant difference between multisyllabic words like hamburger, where the accent is on the first syllable, the one beginning with h, and historical, where the accent is not on the syllyble that begins with h.

The problem is that the h is a bit of a wuss as a consonant. When it occurs in an unaccented syllable and is followed by a vowel, it tends to soften to a vowel-like mushiness.

Say these words out loud: hot, hear, how, hurt, hateful, holiday.

Although the h in each of these words is followed by a vowel, the syllable the h + vowel combination occurs in is fully accented, and the h is aspirated (completely pronounced, in all its consonantal glory). All of these words would, of course, be preceded by a, not an.

But now say these words out loud: historian, historical, hysterical, heredity, habitual.

Do you notice how much less, well, pronounced the h is in these words? Now, put a or an before each one (the adjectives should be paired with nouns so you can get the full effect):

a historian
an historian
a historical reference
an historical reference
a historic occasion
an historic occasion
a hysterical display
an hysterical display
a hereditary disease
an hereditary disease
a habitual liar
an habitual liar

Notice that when you use a before the words, you fully aspirate the h, but when you use an, you do not--and the h sound very nearly disappears into the following vowel.

At one time, an was the preferred usage before an unaccented syllable beginning with h. This is what the grammarian's grammarian, Henry Fowler, has to say on the subject:

. . . an was formerly used before an unaccented syllable beginning with
h and is still often seen and heard (an historian, an hotel, an hysterical scene, an hereditary title, an habitual offender). But now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become anomalous and will no doubt disappear in time. Meantime, speakers who like to say an should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h. (1)**

Since the early twentieth century, those unaccented h sounds have been more commonly pronounced than not, especially in American English. But when Lederer and Dowis insist that an historical should never be used, they are promulgating a rule that is not yet carved in stone.

To many Americans, an historical reference probably sounds pretentious and unlikely. But to many of us who are middle-aged or older, that phrase sounds better (and is easier to pronounce) than a historical reference.

Keep in mind, by the way, that in spoken language similar sounds tend to elide--i.e., to slur together into an indistinct vocal soup. An unaccented h between two vowel sounds is notably unstable. It will eventually collapse into its phonetic environment and become a vowel.

Widespread but half-baked literacy is probably responsible for the fact that the formerly unaspirated h in such phrases is now commonly pronounced, as is also the case with the word herb. When people see such words spelled out, they tend to pronounce the silent or near-silent letters. (Think of how often you have heard the word often mispronounced as of-ten, with the t, which should be silent, improperly articulated.)

Similarly, when most people see the word historical, they fully pronounce the h, so an historical sounds somewhat inappropriate, while a historical sounds fine. However, if you forget that you are looking at an h and simply pronounce the phrase, you will find that the h virtually disappears between the two vowels.

But wait a minute.

When the unaccented syllable beginning with an h occurs in a bisyllabic (two-syllable) word, something a bit different occurs. Say an historical novel. Now say an hotel. Doesn't
an hotel sound wrong, even though the h in hotel heads up an unaccented syllable?

There's a good reason for this.

The strongest accent in a word is called a primary accent, but words of more than one syllable do not usually consist of a single accented syllable plus one or more completely unaccented syllables. One or more of the word's other syllables will also receive some stress, though of a lesser sort.

In the word historical, the first syllable is actually slightly stressed, though far less so than the second syllable, which carries the primary stress. But in the word hotel, the first syllable, though less stressed than the second, is significantly more stressed than the first syllable in historical.

In historical, the first syllable receives only tertiary (third-level) stress, whereas in hotel, the first syllable receives a secondary stress so strong that it is nearly equal to the primary stress on the second syllable. For this reason, the h in a hotel is pronounced almost as fully as the h in a hot day.

So here's the general rule.

If you speak and write British English, you can probably keep using an before historical, hysterical, habitual, etc. I doubt that you will be challenged by your own countrymen, and if Americans challenge you, just point out that British usage and American usage often differ.

If you are American, you probably should use a rather than an, even in a historic occasion or a historical reference. Most of us are comfortable with a historic occasion, because the word historic has fewer syllables than historical, so the h is more fully pronounced. But if, like me, you are old enough to find a historical reference a tad uncomfortable, then go ahead and say an historical reference.

And if you are challenged, simply trot out the explanation I have given you here, or better yet, send your challenger a link to this article.


*Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis, Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1999).

**H.P. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed., revised by Sir Ernest Gowers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965).

Blue's full article on the subject, including Lewis's letter that I was unable to reproduce digitally, is available at the link HERE

Hope this helps someone out there more than it's helped me. I've always been, at least, a little bit pedantic, but I'm still undecided on the actual consensus. Is this really archaic (or, recently 're-discovered'). What do you think? Please let me know by leaving a comment.



Posted by lhobbs at November 3, 2007 12:55 PM

Readers' Comments:

I am Charles Everest and I wrote the e-mail to NPR. I am from England and moved to the United States in 1994. Before that I lived in Germany from 1989 to 1994 and before that London and different parts of England.

I went to school in England and enjoyed the benefits of an English public school education.

I was taught in school in England (Copford International College for Boys) that the article before H words is a not an, with the exception of words where the H is silent, as in hour or honour (honor)

An historic, an historical, an hysterical etc. are not correct in British English either.
We were not taught anything about stressed and unstressed syllables. We were taught only that if the H is aspirated (pronounced) then A is the correct article to use and if not then AN. In British English there are very few H words where the H is not aspirated in proper speech. They are the same as the American English words. Actually American English has a couple more H words with un-aspirated aitches, herb and homage jump to mind right now.

Many local dialects in England drop their aitches, especially the Estuary or Cockney dialects of south eastern England and London.

These dialects are looked down upon as being "common" which in this particular case means lower class. In an attempt to connect with the common man, the British media uses an 'istoric (spoken form) an historic when written. It is very common to hear English people, especially those from working class areas of the south east, saying "an 'amburger" or "an 'ospital" or "an 'ouse" etc. It is not however correct. If they do it at school they are corrected. Sometimes it is deliberate and sometimes they know no better.

Posted by: Charles Everest at November 30, 2007 04:22 PM


Hi Charles,

Thanks for your response and for the clarification.

Now we know that it is "wrong" anywhere, but, apparently, heard everywhere.


Posted by: Lee Hobbs at November 30, 2007 06:13 PM

Grammar is Grammar, Life is Life. No more, no less...Useful comment, thanks.


Thanks Jowita!


Posted by: Jowita at January 4, 2008 04:00 PM

Btw. I always wondered why it's an NP(Noun Phrase) and not a NP? Is it because of pronunciation an \en pi\ ?

Posted by: Jowita at January 4, 2008 04:05 PM

even in more "respectable" venues like NPR...

I believe you mean "such as." The word "like" means "similar to" rather than "the thing itself."


Note from Lee:

Thanks for pointing that out. I did mean "like," but, for purposes of clarity, I've revised it anyway. ~Lee

Posted by: Jim Goad at June 25, 2008 03:08 PM

I am Charles Everest. I wrote the e-mail to NPR. I am British. I was born in Islington in London in 1960. The only British dialects or accents where the an is used before H words that would normally have an aspirated H are lower class accents like Cockney.
We were always taught in school that the article to use is a not an (with the exception of words that have a truly silent like hour or honour (honor)
To say that it is acceptable is Britain is incorrect. More people do it, but it is still incorrect. An historic only sounds right when pronounced An 'istoric, which is obviously incorrect.


Thanks for that explication Charles.


Posted by: Charles Everest at November 13, 2008 11:28 PM

"If you speak and write British English, you can probably keep using an before historical, hysterical, habitual, etc. I doubt that you will be challenged by your own countrymen, and if Americans challenge you, just point out that British usage and American usage often differ." You will most certainly be challenged. I am British and we were always taught to use the article a in with words starting with an aspirated H. The only time it is easier to pronounce an historical rather than a historical is if you drop the H altogether, as is the case with a lot of working class British accents or dialects, like Cockney. However, then everything that begins with an H is prefaced with an, for example an 'ouse, an 'ospital, an 'orse, an 'and and so on and so on. It is just as wrong in British English as it is in American English and has absolutely nothing to do with a weakly un-emphasized H at the beginning of the word. Now I fink I' gonna go 'ome an' give me bruvver an 'and wiv 'is 'omework. If we are going to accept that a working class, dialect is going to become correct the we surely should change TH into v or F, as in bruvver (brother) or fink (think) Thank you very much for your time. I do hope you post this.

Best regards,
Charles Everest

Oxford University Press, the world’s leading publisher of scholarly material since 1478
Dominus Illuminatio Mea

Posted by: Charles Everest at July 9, 2009 01:18 PM

Thanks again Charles for that addendum.

Posted by: Dr. B. Lee Hobbs at July 11, 2009 09:21 AM

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