An historic(al) usage trend: a historical usage trend (part 1)

Update: I have now posted an HTML version of the full paper, finally. It’s at

This the first part of a longer paper. This part, the introduction, is the most concise introduction to the issue; the second part covers the history; after that it goes into more technical depth with a survey of current attitudes that I conducted. The full text of the paper, with the references, is available as a PDF.

One of the most regular and inflexible rules of English is the one governing which version of the indefinite article to use in a given context. It is a useful thing to have an understanding of the rule, and it would take less than an hour to learn a habit of choosing according to the sound of the following word: a before a consonant, as in habit, but also before a consonant sound written as a vowel, as in useful; an before a vowel, as in understanding, but also before a silent consonant (inevitably h) followed by a vowel, as in hour. Although in some dialects a is used before vowels as well, this usage is considered nonstandard and is generally looked down upon (notwithstanding which it has occasionally been predicted that this will be the ultimate use everywhere – see, for example, the editor’s note following Bolinger 1975). An before a consonant would be considered a mark of a nonnative speaker.

There is, however, a salient exception. Before a few words that begin with [h], and most notably historic and historical, an may often be seen and heard used in place of a, even by people whose dialect does not delete the [h]. It seems to have gained an air of greater correctness and formality in many circles. Although a is more common, an is widely seen, especially before historic. Google searches, worldwide and for .ca (Canadian) domain names only, give an indication:

a historic an historic ratio a:an a historical an historical ratio a:an
Google global 2,790,000 1,310,000 2.13 24,200,000 1,280,000 18.91
Google 178,000 128,000 1.39 531,000 360,000 1.48

The Canadian government’s websites (all sites in the domain) prefer a to an for historic by only 1.28:1, with 4,570 and 3,570, respectively, and for historical by 1.83:1, with 8,280 and 4,530.

Nor is this a casual matter of personal choice; it is much debated, and positions are often firmly held. There is no shortage of people who will assert quite flatly that “an historic is actually the correct pronounciation” (Urban Dictionary 2004) and even counsel those who prefer a to “look it up” (Yahoo Answers U.K. & Ireland 2007) – ironically, given that current British and American usage manuals almost without exception either explicitly prefer a or at least allow it. Some speakers will aver that “it sounds better to say ‘an historic’” (Yahoo Answers 2006; see also Opinion L.A. 2007); some will simply say “there’s a case to be made that an is the suitable article before historic” (Opinion L.A. 2007). Many will use it because they are certain that it is correct or more formal; others will choose it because, being uncertain, they choose the more marked version on the assumption that it would not be used by others if it were not correct. As Bolinger (1975) quotes Ralph Long as saying (in a personal communication), there is a tendency among “people who really know little or no English grammar…, when in doubt between two constructions, [to] pick the less usual and presumably more elegant.”

Those on the other side of the issue declare an historic to be “pretty much a sherry-sipping, bowtie-wearing thing” (City Comforts 2006) or “pedantic, fussy, and patronising” (Yahoo Answers 2006), fume “I hate that ‘an’ preceding ‘historic’ … it seems awfully pretentious” (Opinion L.A. 2007), or simply flatly declare it wrong: “Do you live in an house? I didn’t think so. A historic” (Walsh 2006). Some usage guides allow either usage, but the trend among authorities appears to be in favour of a. As Fee and McAlpine (1997) put it, “British usage guides are recommending against the unnecessary an. It is probably time for Canadians to let it go too.” And yet many seem loath to do so.

There are four questions that deserve answers in this regard: First, how did this state of affairs come to be? Second, what in fact do most people consider more correct and more formal? Third, why is this the case? And fourth, what is the trend for the future for this usage?

Read the whole paper at An historic(al) usage trend: a historic(al) usage trend. Or read the whole essay in PDF.

6 responses to “An historic(al) usage trend: a historical usage trend (part 1)

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  3. You will note that I haven’t posted the rest yet, though it’s in the PDF. Shall I put it in HTML?

  4. Pingback: An historically ugly way of speaking – Telegraph Blogs

  5. I think that this is an example of language evolution in progress. Maybe by 2113 an historic will be the standard… and then again, maybe not. Time alone can tell.

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