A/an: historic, historian, historical, hotel, humanitarian, Hawaiian, honour, herb, hypothesis, etc

Discussion in 'English Only' started by drei_lengua, Jan 9, 2006.

  1. drei_lengua

    drei_lengua Senior Member

    << This is a composite thread formed by merging several on the same topic - or very similar topics. The humanitarian thread starts at #61 >>

    I was recently reading an article and came across the phrase "an historic". Shouldn't it be "a historic"? I know that "a" precedes vowels and other letters sometimes pronounced like vowels (e.g. "h" in herb) but with "historic" the "h" is pronounced.

    Thanks in advance,
  2. Kmanx Member

    Mexico / Spanish
    according to rules "a historic" is the proper one but now a days both are valid
  3. drei_lengua

    drei_lengua Senior Member

    Thanks Kmanx.

    Could this be British English? I read "an historic" in The Economist. Maybe the pronunciation in BE makes the "h" silent thus justifying the use of "an" for the letter "i".

    Thanks again,
  4. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    the system is:
    if the stress does not fall on the first syllable, then an rather than a is used. The h is not silent.

    a history of England.
    an historical timeline.
    an historian of note

    a hysterisis curve
    an hysterical outburst

    a hospital
    an hospitible working environment

    Just to be different, in BE the h in herb is not silent,
    so in BE a herb, in AE an herb (silent h)

    a herb (pronounce the h in BE)
    an herbarium (pronounce the h in BE)
  5. drei_lengua

    drei_lengua Senior Member

    Just what I was looking for. :thumbsup: Thanks.

  6. MrPedantic Senior Member

    UK, English
    In British English, most people say "a historic", "a hospitable", "a hotel", etc.

    However, a minority of BrE-speakers do use "an" before an unstressed, voiced H. (Some people regard this as "affectation".)

    In written English, it's a little more tricky. Many people who would say "a historic" write "an historic", because they feel it's somehow more "correct".


    PS: There are of course many regional versions of English where the H is unvoiced; in which case, "an 'istoric" is heard.
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    My choice of a or an before historic depends on one of two things.
    If I am writing for me, how does it sound to me?
    If I am writing for someone else, what is their house style.

    I think I'd go for an historic, given a free choice. Some people do indeed consider this an affectation, but I'm used to that and I don't intend changing now:)
  8. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I think it's clear that for some English speakers the 'h' is silent. Thus, they say "an historic". :tick:
  9. GenJen54

    GenJen54 Senior Member

    Downright Pleasant, USA
    USA - English
    I've noted that in many early 19th Century British novels I've read (Jane Austen as of late), the "an + h" construction was very commonly used.

    Obviously, this has evolved for the most part. I am assuming that even then, the proper pronunciation was:

    an historic (voiced "h")
    as opposed to an (h)istoric (unvoiced "h")
  10. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Why do you assume that?
  11. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    As an historian, I tend to gloss over the "h" and not give it the same breathy weight it receives when I pronounce "history" and "homophone." I don't feel that my dialect of Western U.S. English is affected.

    It's also a matter of convention -- in university history departments, I suspect that "an historian" and "an historic" are pretty common (since that's where I learned it). It's so ingrained in me that it doesn't sound right to me to say "a historian" ("ey Historian").

  12. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Or "uh historian", Fenix. "Ay historian" is emphatic.
  13. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    maybe you're right -- I would probably say "uh Historian" normally, and "ey Historian" to be emphatic.
  14. DaleC Senior Member

    "An historic" is a venerable mistake that some people insist on preserving.
    It would seem that at some point in the 1800s in Britain certain speakers started dropping the 'h' from the pronunciation of 'history', 'historic'. At least, this is the only justification for saying and writing 'an historic', 'an historical'. But these were educated people, not people speaking some regional dialect where initial 'h' was dropped regularly.

    English spelling does of course have a handful of words (honest, honor, hour) in which a long since disappeared initial 'h' is spelled anyway. But "history" was not one of these words.

    In America, you will hear some pathetic people say "an historical", pronouncing the 'h'! These individuals would never say "an house". They just dutifully place 'an' before 'historic', 'historical' because they were so taught, despite that it doesn't correspond to their own pronunciation.

  15. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    The "H" in "history" is aspirate because the stress is on the first syllable, just like in "house".

    The "h" in "historian", "historic", "historical" can be silent because the stress is on the second syllable.

    So, was dropping the "h" at the beginning of a word only for the uneducated, until the misguided "silent h" fad of the 1800's led the educated classes to start this practice?

    And what about "honor", "honorable", "honored", "honorary" and "honorific"?
  16. Black_Mamba

    Black_Mamba Member

    Leicester, England
    Gah the English language is so complicated. For example, whilst Brioche would say an hospital environment, I would say a hospital environment. The usage depends on so many things, who you are around (For example, if you were with the Queen, one might sound somewhat posh and say an, or if you were hanging around with a load of youths you might say a, with lots of swearwords around it lol) I think it also depends upon class. Those from an upper class society would be likely to say an, as opposed to the lower class who would stereotypically say a. Just my thoughts. (No offense meant to anyone who does take offense! Tries to put that as politely as I could!)
  17. DaleC Senior Member

    That's very interesting, I hadn't seen that! Using Google: 6 million hits for "an historical", 0.1 million for "an hysterical", 0.02 million for "an histrionic". (see http://www.grammartips.homestead.com/historical.html) But now that you mention it, this phonological process seems to be unconstrained by lexicon and grammar. For it also generates "when 'e went" from "when he went" (provided of course that "he" is unstressed"). So there's still no strong justification for writing the optional automatic sound change.

    I should emphasize that this process doesn't exist is restricted in my dialect. I pronounce 'a habitual', 'a historic', but with a less breathy 'h'. But I DO drop the 'h' in an environment like "when he went".
  18. MrPedantic Senior Member

    UK, English
    The only "an/a historic" quotation in the Shorter Oxford seems to be from Walpole (i.e. C18), "an historic painter".

    However, the entry on "historical" uses "a historical treatise" and "a historical play" among its examples. Similarly, the entry for "historic" uses "a historic work, picture, subject, etc." for the substantive.

    Among significant native pre-1914 authors available as e-texts, I find "an historic" in Kingsley, Wilde, Synge, Henry James (AmE), Wharton (AmE); "a historic" in Stevenson, Kingsley (again), George Eliot.

    Neither form seems to feature in Jane Austen's best-known works; though "an hotel" turns up in Persuasion. (Perhaps JA favoured a "French" pronunciation.) I don't have a copy of her "History of England", though, which seems the most likely location.

    "An hospitable" features in Swift and Conrad (not quite native); "a hospitable" in Dickens, Trollope, Collins, Kingsley, Wharton (AmE), Twain (AmE), George Eliot, Shaw, Stevenson, Thackeray, Hawthorne (AmE), Lamb, Gibbon, Scott, Henry James (AmE), Irving (AmE).

    But "hóspitable" may well have been the preferred pronunciation for the latter set of authors.

    Purely on the basis of my own limited experience, I would guess that "an historical" is more common among speakers of Irish or American English.

  19. cuchuflete

    cuchuflete Senior Member

    Maine, EEUU
    Hi Dale,

    A small, maybe not very pertinent aside...I suspect that the relative frequency of the terms you looked at in google is a function of the frequency distribution of the words themselves, with or without 'an' or 'a'.

    Let's have a look:

    historical: 337,000,000
    47,000 (lots of bad spelling in google?)

  20. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Why, thank you Mr P - for leaving that escape route for me:)
  21. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
    Who, us? not with that n in there. Otherwise, yeah, probably.
  22. river Senior Member

    U.S. English
    According to Fowler, the recommended pattern is an historic(al), an historian, but a history. (The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd ed. Edited by R.W. Burchfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.)

    Merriam-Webster's Dictionary says that we can use an before an h- word that begins with an unstressed syllable. Thus, we might say an hisTORical. Many writers prefer to use a consistently.The choice is a matter of personal taste. An does roll off the tongue easier, doesn't it?
  23. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    It should be remembered that in old English, there was no "indefinite article". Just like modern German, they used the number one, which was an.

    Over time an was weakened to a before consonants - even before vowels in some dialects.

    Compare mine and thine, which became my and thy before consonants, and remained mine andthine before vowels for a while.
    This "mid-term" usage is preserved in old hymns - e.g. Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.
    Then the adjective mine became my everywhere, and the pronoun mine remained mine.
    e.g. That is my book. That book is mine.

    I plead guilty to being one of those "pathetic" individuals who says "an historic".

    But my withers are unwrung. I reckon that "an historic" trips off the tongue, whereas "a historic" jerks. You may jerk, but I'll stay euphonic.
  24. MrPedantic Senior Member

    UK, English
    Sorry, I should have been more specific: "more common among AmE speakers than it is among BrE speakers". But this is only based on personal observation. I expect it's nonsense.

    On the question of Fowler, the original 1926 edition (i.e. the only edition which is entirely Fowler's own) says:

    "...an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h..., but now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become pedantic, & a historical should be said & written..."
    Fowler is extremely BrE-centric, though.

    On the question of "an hospitable", I'm reliably informed that it has indeed been sighted in Sense and Sensibility; so maybe the e-text I searched had been "modernized" in some way.

  25. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    That's the bottom line for me too. I'll add that "an historic occasion" is something of a set phrase in AE, often juiced up with a "truly." The stuff said about the elided "h" in "he" (after a consonant) was very pertinent-- and it implies to me that "an" before words beginning with an "h" is not commonly heard in AE. So why should it be written that way?

    Huh! I just wrote an "h."
  26. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Ah - river and Brioche are also saving my sanity. I am Fowlerless at present, so it comes a a relief to see river quoting the NFMEU as supporting an historical and an historic - and of course - a history:)
  27. ElaineG

    ElaineG Senior Member

    Brooklyn NY
    Count me among the pathetic or affected or whatever it is. I can't imagine saying "a historical", or "a h", for that matter, fox. "A h" just sounds like a lot of grunting to me.
  28. gian_eagle

    gian_eagle Senior Member

    Peru - Castellano
    this is very confusing indeed. "An historical" is silent or not? :confused:
  29. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    A "h" doesn't sound grunty if pronounced "A haitch", as it often is here.
  30. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    the H in historical is not silent.
  31. te gato

    te gato Senior Member

    Calgary, Alberta
    Alberta--TGE (te gato English)
    You can use both..and be correct...it is personal preference..
    Rule- use 'an' before words that start with a vowel or a vowel like sound..(an hour..an honor)and 'a' before consonants (a horse..a house)...
    as for historic..you can use 'an historic' if you stress the 'tor' part of the word...or..'a historic' if you stress the 'his'...
  32. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    but you don't stress the 'his'.. in historic !!!
  33. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    Only if it "historical" stands alone.

    Historically (hard "h"), Hitler is considered to have had a negative effect on Europe.

    But in my pronunciation, the the H is often swallowed by the sounds around it and is not heard.

    This moment has yet to be placed in an historical (silent "h") context. :thumbsup:
    This moment has yet to be placed in a historical (soft, not-silent "h" preceded by schwa "uh" pronunciation of "a") context. :thumbsdown:

    My thumbs above do not imply that the last example is wrong... merely that I prefer the first of these two examples.

    Hitler and his hordes happened to have hurt hundreds of hound dogs.
    /Hitler and 'is hordes happened to '3ve hurt hundreds of hound dogs./

    The historical (nearly silent "h") ramifications of this moment have yet to be fully understood.

    I'm having trouble figuring out if there is a rule or a vague guideline that my pronunciation of "h" follows. Meaning: I can't explain it, I just do it.

    Something I can explain: When referring to one letter "h", we say "an aych" (or "an aitch") because the name of the letter begins with a vowel sound.
  34. gian_eagle

    gian_eagle Senior Member

    Peru - Castellano
    thankyou cousin pollo! good explanation!
  35. Tabac Senior Member

    Pacific Northwest (USA)
    U. S. - English
  36. boonognog Senior Member

    Charlotte, NC
    English (U.S.)
    Purely on the basis of my own limited experience, I disagree, as regards speakers of American English, in casual conversation.

    In public (i.e., formal) discussions or presentations, people often speak in a manner that is not customary for them in informal conversation. Call it affectation if you must.

    (My guess is that the urge to use 'an' before 'historical' goes back to the Norman influence in England. 'House', on the other hand, is an older, native English word, so the Norman influence would have been weaker. But I don't know that this has ever been explored as a possibility.)
  37. boonognog Senior Member

    Charlotte, NC
    English (U.S.)
    The rule, more correctly, is not about vowels per se, but rather vowel sounds.

    So honest is preceded with 'an' -- an honest answer. But huge is preceded with 'a' -- a huge increase.
  38. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    I've heard "huge" pronounced with a silent "h" in some speakers of the Northern dialect of AE (Matthew Broderick comes to mind). I agree that, while "an historic" might be more common in AE than in BE, it is not said by a majority of AE-speakers. Therefore, I supposed that it could easily be seen as pedantic or affected. I will continue to use it, however, until I become an historical artifact.
  39. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Why should the "wrong" pronunciation be considered pedantic?
  40. GenJen54

    GenJen54 Senior Member

    Downright Pleasant, USA
    USA - English
    Dr. Grammar cites both the Oxford Dictionary of American Usasge and Style, and Fowler in his treatise of the conundrum. Unfortunately, it appears as if there is no solid "correct" answer to the problem, at least in AE.

    Fenixpollo's use is obviously more "industry specific" to his field of study/line of work, and thereby more widely accepted among his peers.

    The rest of us just have to muddle through as best as we can.

    Edit: I've also heard "huge" pronounced as euge, likewise "Houston" pronounced as ewe-ston.
  41. DaleC Senior Member

    Just to confirm that we're talking about the same things: I disapprove of "an Historic", not "an 'istoric". Although I don't speak the latter, I don't disapprove of it.
  42. DaleC Senior Member

    It's not silent for some individual speakers, or for some dialects.

    As fenixpollo noted in post #15, in some dialects, only stressed syllables can start with 'h'. This is the (unconscious) phonological reason to have "an 'istoric".
  43. MrPedantic Senior Member

    UK, English
    In the Preface to his 1485 edn of Malory, Caxton writes:

    As for the Paynyms, they were tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst, whiche were named, the fyrst Hector of Troye, of whome th'ystorye is comen bothe in balade and in prose, the second Alysaunder the Grete, and the thyrd Julyus Cezar, Emperour of Rome, of whome th'ystoryes ben wel knowen and had.
    In the previous paragraph, however, he writes "...the noble hystorye".

    This suggests to me that the H in "history" (and related words) was originally silent (at least in some dialects), as in their modern French equivalents. Perhaps our "an" is indeed a relic of that early usage (as was suggested by Fowler 1926, in the passage quoted above).

    On the question of the physical effort involved in saying "a historical" (I think it was described as "grunting"), I note that if I pronounce "a historical" in my poor attempt at an American accent, it does indeed feel slightly uncomfortable; maybe because the "i" in "hist-" is more distinctly pronounced, in AmE, and the vowel in "-or-" is different.

    If I pronounce it in a normal southern British accent, on the other hand, it feels much easier: the schwa of "a" glides happily into the near-schwa of BrE "hist-"; and since the vowel in "-or-" is lower in the mouth, very little throat movement is required.

    (Apologies for the somewhat over-detailed description of my guttural

  44. BasedowLives

    BasedowLives Senior Member


    it wasn't said that it "should" be considered pedantic.

    but if the wrong pronunciation has a holier than thou connotation (which i suppose to easily offended people it might), of course it's going to seem pedantic. of course i don't think that saying it like that is, i'm just trying to explain this point of view.

    i probably say both of them not knowingly. because saying uh historical, and an historical (without breathing the H) both sound fine to me.
  45. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I just thought it was ironic that people who used a pronunciation nowadays considered inferior (by some) would act holier-than-thou... ;)
    But looking back I think I had misunderstood Fenixpollo's point, which was that the pronunciation "an (h)istorical" might be seen as pedantic because few people use it.
  46. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
  47. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    I should say you did! I was admitting that I am probably in the minority by saying, as Dale put it, "an 'istoric", and that I care not one whit that people find me pedantic. I don't see that as a holier-than-thou attitude, because I'm not saying that my way is better. I'm just arguing that my way is equally valid.

    On a more philosophical note, that which is pedantic is, in one sense of the definition, inherently wrong; since the definition of pedantic is that it is a "narrow" focus on "trivia;" and since many people consider wrong anything that deviates from the norm.

    The irony is that stubborn insistence about the correctness of one particular answer is one common pitfall of perfectionist pedants.
  48. laurahya Senior Member

    BC, Canada
    British English
    My mother and I saw an advertisement for 'A Hawaiian Experience' the other day, and proceeded to have an argument about whether or not it should be 'An Hawaiian...' (yes, this is what we have arguments about in my house :rolleyes: )

    It set me to wondering what is current for English-speakers these days. I know that 50 years ago you would always hear 'an' before an aspirated 'h', but nowadays I for one certainly don't do it, and I know many other people that don't. What would the rest of you say? For those of you who have learned English, what were you taught?

    Thanks in advance...
  49. kayokid

    kayokid Senior Member

    English, USA
    I always use "a" before an pronounced (aspirated) "h" and "an" before a silent "h". I would therefore agree with the advertisement that you quoted, because the "H" in Hawaii is pronounced. This is what was taught to us in school as kids as well. I do notice that times and pronunciation/rules/uses of the language are changing, probably in part because people are apt to use a more colloquial/slangy form of speech. One other interesting point is the very often seen "an historical event..." which in my mind is dead wrong because I pronounce the "h" (although it is considered the correct form by purists).
  50. petereid

    petereid Senior Member

    selby yorkshire
    This question a rose recently about "an" or "a" before "hotel" I and most of my aquaintences say "an hotel" I wouild write it like that
    When I read out loud this post, I said "an Hawaiian". Otherwise I have to force a pause before the H like a glottal stop. But I don't have to force a pause in saying "a horse" or "a hose pipe" even though I aspitate the "H"
    It could be how I learned it as a child. I can half understand the "an Hotel" from its french origins. But "an Hawaiian"?? Help

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