Friday, August 3, 2007

Another Swig from the Linguistic Trough, and Another Poll

I also happened to invite the Linguistic Mystic to have a look at my July 31 post. He did so and was kind enough to give me a nice credit as the inspiration for his latest post, an interesting discussion of the mysteries of whether "tomorrow" begins at midnight or at wakey-time. Thanks, Linguistic Mystic.

Today's the third in my little series of linguistic discussions, again inspired by newscasters:

Why would you say "an historic event"?

I believe Peter Jennings used to do this. I always considered Peter Jennings to be the perfect exemplar of accent-free American English, despite his Canadian origins (Eh?). (Of course, it's all accents, really...and what I think of as "accent-free" is just as much an accent as is Apu-speak from The Simpsons. At the very least, however, Jennings didn't drop his R's or his H's and there was no chance of confusing the white race with the white rice.)

So why Jennings (and others who don't drop their H's) would use "an historic event" always seemed an inexplicable oddity to me. The best explanation I could come up with is a bizarre Anglophile motivation to try emulating The Queen's English by adding that "n".

Here's the rule I learned in school, which has always served me well:

Use "a" before any consonant sound or a long "u". Use "an" before any vowel sound except a long "u".

The a/an choice is based entirely upon pronunciation of the following word, not ever based on spelling.

So, for example, we get:

an egg -- vowel sound (short e)
a house -- consonant sound (h)
an umbrella -- vowel sound (short u)
a unique experience -- long u (the specified exception in the consonant sound versus vowel sound divide)
a potato -- consonant sound (p)
an honest man -- vowel sound, as the "h" is silent.

So to me, "an historic event" sounds just as wrong as "an potato", unless it's coming from someone with a British accent (for example), where historic is pronounced 'istoric.

If you don't drop your H's, then why would you use "an historic event"? Would you also use "an house"? How about "an halfhearted attempt"?

Note: The use of "an historic event" is certainly not isolated to Peter Jennings. And it's not isolated to spoken usage. I've noticed it in writing as well. And it always puzzles me, especially when I know the author is American.

Comments are invited. If you say "an historic event" and you pronounce the "H", what's your justification? If you know of other examples of people making different exceptions to the rule, please share. If you learned a different rule, what is it?

Here's my second poll:


  1. I think an historic is a bit of an irregularity these days, but the motivation was that words that derive from French should observe french phonotactic constraints. One of which was that h is silent.

    One would expect it to have happened to other French-derived H-initial words, like herpes, helmet, helicopter and harlequin. The fact that none of these collocate with 'an' over 'a' indicates to me that history is a hangover of this, it is indeed an historical accident.

  2. Hmmm.... Interesting notion, jangari. And it certainly doesn't match with my guess about the phrase's usage having an Anglophile motivation behind it.

    I'm willing to buy into your theory. But as you say, it seems "an" historical accident, given that none of your other examples of French-origin H words seems to be regularly paired with "an".

  3. I am British and I don't say "an istoric event" and neither would anyone I know in normal conversation. Newsreaders do tend to, but it sounds crazy to me. I actually came across this blog after watching a TV programme where an upper-crust interviewee used the phrase "an hotel", dropping the H. It sounded ridiculous.