An historic moment in pedantry

Did anything jump out at you in the above title?

Last week A few weeks ago I posted the following on a popular social networking site that allows for more than 140 characters:

This is an English usage post. Not a political one.

If you are USAmerican you probably don’t want to type or say “an historic” and *should probably stick with “a historic” because you probably do pronounce that h in historic.

Thank you for your kind attention to this. It’s been an honor to share this information with you.

The background for the post was that it was just after Hillary Clinton secured the Democratic Party’s nomination. I got a variety of responses including some nice quips like, “You mean, ‘It’s been a honour’?!” and “As an British person with an poor grasp of grammar, I say “the historic” in every cases.”

Many people agreed with my point and some said this was a pet peeve for them and one guy said it drives him crazy. My mother, a known pedant, “liked” it. So, that was pretty cool.

I also got some of my fellow Americans stating they would say, “an historic” which I found somewhat surprising. One gentleman was kind enough to send me an MP3 file.  Well actually he sent a few files but I wanted to illustrate my knowledge of the rule by typing “an MP3” much like I did in the original post when I wrote, “an honor.” The common thought among those USAmericans who’d say “an historic” seemed to be some blending of the sounds or simply dropping the H sound. Regional variations were suggested as well (which makes some sense to me).

I found myself wondering if any of these folks  would say “an history” or “an hit” but nobody said they would. So, for whatever reason it seems like  the word “historic” is somehow considered to be different than other similar words.

grammar police

Before sharing my thoughts and getting the responses on this point I was under the impression this usage of “an historic” was more of an over-learned  (or mis-learned) rule or an attempt to sound posh by sounding British. I don’t usually get too worked up about usage which doesn’t match my own. That said, I think this “an historic” is especially aggravating to my ears because it strikes me as an attempt to be too correct or too posh for American English users. For example, I could care less if someone used the word ain’t.

Here is what the  “Grammar Girl” had to say in relation to this an/a issue with historic  (and a full post on a/an here)   What I found most interesting in her post was the line, “There’s nothing special about historic that exempts it from the standard rule.” Speaking of the Grammar Girl, I always liked Russ Mayne’s post on her, who vs. whom, and “The (false) Gods of Grammar.”

I had some mixed feelings regarding posting my thoughts on this issue and the resulting responses because I feel like doing so seemingly placed me in a position of looking down on those who don’t say it the same way I would. I guess it’s the risk one takes when opining on language issues.

Another aspect for me to keep in mind here is the whole prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate. I generally trend towards being a descriptivist and tend to think harking back to the good old days of yore when English was pure and correct is a losing and inefficient battle.

I think that is all for today. Thank you for reading. All typos and grammar mistakes in this post are completely intended.

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8 comments

  1. timothyhampson

    Interesting post Mike, not a huge amount to add except that is one of my brothers pet peeves and also something I do that annoys him. I could see myself saying “an history” but probably wouldn’t. I definatly pronoucne the ‘h’ in ‘history’ or hit, but barely do in ‘historic’. That’s just how I learned to say those words I guess. Saying “An ‘istory” sounds very Cockney.

    My pet hate is anything other than the ‘speech marks for spoken English, an inverted comma for a thought’ rule, so it drove me crazy when you said your mum “liked” your post. I think that makes us even.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Tim,

      Thanks for dropping in (to see what condition my condition is in).

      Funny you should mention it but I think I saw you write “an hotel” somewhere on a blog or Powerpoint or something and it jumped out at me but then I figured it was fine because you might not hit that H. I think you make an interesting point about learning to do things and that sticking. In my “extensive research” on this issue I found that hitting the H in historic has become more common even in British English lately.

      I make no apologies for my use of double quotes above or in the post. 😉 American English doesn’t use single quotes much as far as I know (mostly just when quoting within a quote). It interesting to see how pet peeves (or pet hate depending on your English) can be standard in other varieties. Here is the Grammar Girl on double quotation marks and I think the scare quotes applied to my use of “like.” http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/single-quotation-marks-versus-double-quotation-marks

      Maybe that makes us roughly even?

      On Sat, Jun 25, 2016 at 10:56 AM, ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections wrote:

      >

      • timothyhampson

        I expected no apologies. When we were doing excitELT, I had to learn lots of American grammar rules because those are the ones we were using. I’m kind of aware of a lot of it, I’ve reached acceptance of the letter ‘u’ where it shouldn’t be. I think maybe the British way of doing quotes shows more information but is also a bit more confusing. Double scare quotes look very weird to me.

        Maybe that pronunciation comes from lots of people studying French in the UK? We learn ‘une histoire’ ‘un hotel’ said without the ‘h’ and it sounds very beautiful. Could I have picked it up from there?

  2. Tyson Seburn

    I was always under the impression that it was a leftover rule based on an antiquated pronunciation choice i.e. pre 20th-century peeps often left the ‘h’ silent in more words, like many of us still do with ‘herb’, for example.

    • mikecorea

      That completely matches my understanding… I am still a bit confused why “an historic” would be preserved but “an history” wouldn’t.
      I think it is exactly a leftover rule but I am surprised how commonplace it is.
      One thing I intended to link to in the post was an article that says “Hillary Clinton says it was an historic victory” but she actually (at least to my ear) said “a historic.”
      Thanks for the thoughts!

      • Tyson Seburn

        I bet this was solidified more recently in some sort of media-related usage, like “an historic victory”, though clearly not Clinton’s.

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