usage ridicule

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Tue Mar 27 15:11:40 UTC 2012

On Mar 26, 2012, at 9:57 PM, W Brewer wrote:

> RE:  an historic  vs.  a historic.     When I was a student, I mulled this
> problem. The convention of the time seemed to have been:  Americans must
> write <a historical>. My impression was that British wrote <an historical>.

> ... My problem with [uh h-] and [ay
> h-] and affinity for [Anne h-] I think has to do with the fact that [h-] is
> merely a voiceless anticipation of the following [small-cap eye] (as Ohala
> later taught me), and my articulators tend to precede it with the
> prescribed pre-vocalic <an>.

i'm sure we've been through this topic before.  the facts are complex, but for most speakers they're not at all closely tied to the pronunciation of the word following the indefinite article.

the background is that some words with historical initial h lost it across the board (HEIR, HOUR, HONEST), and so now always take an, and that some other words preserve the h in some varieties (HERB in BrE) but lost it in others (HERB in AmE), and these take a or an according to the pronunciation of the following verb.  and -- here's the crucial fact -- for some period of time, for a great many speakers, many words with unstressed or weakly stressed first syllables lost initial h in their pronunciation and so took an rather than a; HISTORIC and HISTORICAL were two such words.  but even then the h-loss was specific to particular words, and, worse, as initial h-loss became associated with non-standard varieties (like Cockney) it was undone: h's were restored in pronunciation in all of these words.

however, the spelling of the indefinite article tended to be conservative (AN rather than A), and to some extent the pronunciation (with an rather than a) followed. that leaves us with a patchwork of facts about *specific words*.  the big generalization is that words with stressed h-initial syllables always take AN in spelling and an in pronunciation: HISTORY, for example (a history, *an history).  and most words with unstressed (HILARIOUS, HISPANIC, HOMOGENOUS, HABITUAL -- note the small-cap eye in the first two) or weakly stressed (HIATUS, HIBISCUS) h-initial syllables do so as well (a hilarious story, *an hilarious story).  there's a small residue of words that exhibit variation in spelling and pronunciation: HISTORIC, HISTORICAL, and for some BrE speakers (according to MWDEU) HOTEL.

(note that i'm talking about speakers who've preserved the h in pronunciation in these words; the phenomenon is not phonologically conditioned.)

with HISTORIC(AL), the AN/an variant came to be seen as formal (perhaps because it's historically conservative), and so was prescribed by a fair number of sources.  the variation has tended to shake down as BrE AN/an vs. AmE A/a for these words, but some American sources still insist on AN/an as more "correct" (this is what i was taught as gospel truth in my American elementary and high schools; if you wrote A HISTORIC MOMENT, that would count as a misspelling); my impression, though, is that AN/an is steadily losing in the US.

thanks to my early training, i've been inclined to go first for AN/an with these words, but increasingly that looks/sounds old-fashioned and silly to me, so i've been moving to A/a.

then there's HISTORIAN.  i can't manage AN HISTORIAN/an historian myself (though it's phonologically similar to HISTORIC(AL)), but there are a fair number of instances -- for instance, in the Wikipedia entry:

  An historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it.

A HISTORIAN hugely outnumbers AN HISTORIAN, however.  entertainingly, from the very same Wikipedia entry:

  If the individual is concerned with events preceding written history, the individual is a historian of prehistory.


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