An Historic Election

The time here is 6:07 AM, although I haven’t been that much of a politics geek and stayed up all night, I did get up at 4:30 in order to view the results of this election.

However, I’m not here to bore you with my thoughts on Obama. You can go to 10,000 other blogs for that.

I’m here to talk to you about some grammar.

Whilst watching the various news reporters and politicians, including Mccain; they all said that this was ‘an historic election’.

You probably know the grammar rule that says you use an before vowel sounds (e.g. an apple, an igloo, an hour) and a otherwise; e.g. a book, a report, a hotel.

Following this rule, we would say “a historic”, not “an historic”.

Words of three or more syllables that start with h are treated differently by some speakers, though. For example, which of these pairs of sentences sounds correct to you?

  • It is a historic election.
  • It is an historic election.
  • We can’t agree on a hypothesis.
  • We can’t agree on an hypothesis.

Apparently:

“A quick bit of Googling reveals that — as of March 2008 — the phrase “a historic” is used on 5.1 million pages (68%), and “an historic” on 2.34 million pages (32%).”

There is a clear preference here in favour of “a historic”. Even so, roughly one-third of the usage is for the other form. This supports the view that which form you use is little more than a personal preference.

Both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct in modern English

Anything to take your mind of an historic occasion ‘ey?

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4 thoughts on “An Historic Election

  1. In writing, the form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound, regardless of its spelling (a frog, a university). The form an is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an orange, an hour). An was once a common variant before words beginning with h in which the first syllable was unstressed; thus 18th-century authors wrote either a historical or an historical but a history, not an history. This usage made sense in that people often did not pronounce the initial h in words such as historical and heroic, but by the late 19th century educated speakers usually pronounced initial h, and the practice of writing an before such words began to die out. Nowadays it survives primarily before the word historical. One may also come across it in the phrases an hysterectomy or an hereditary trait. These usages are acceptable in formal writing.

  2. There is a clear preference here in favour of “a historic”. Even so, roughly one-third of the usage is for the other form. This supports the view that which form you use is little more than a personal preference.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that variant usages are merely preferential or cultural drift in the manner language is used. Rather, examples abound where flatly incorrect usage is driven by ignorance and poor writing and speaking skills. After the drift becomes pronounced enough, the error is sometimes normalized as mere preference. The explanation from Answers.com is a good indication that instances must be treated on a case-by-case basis.

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