Matt Jones

A Historic Post

Ashley Frieze has well documented is annoyance towards missing or mis-placed apostrophes with the Apostrophell page (’Foxed’ being my favourite as the offending Taxi company is just round the corner from me). While I’m nowhere near as adept at spotting such apostrophe abuse and I’m able to witness it without being forced to write a letter, there is one grammatical error that, when I see it, makes me seethe. Some would argue that it’s acceptable and isn’t a grammatical error at all, but for me it’s all wrong:

I saw it twice yesterday; leafing through a copy of Steve Jones’ book Almost Like a Whale in Waterstones and in a BBC News Online article that I can’t remember the address of.

The ‘h’ in ‘history’ is aspirated which means that it should be written ‘a historic’. Conversely, in words such as ‘hour’ and ‘honour’, the ‘h’ isn’t sounded, hence ‘an hour’ and ‘an honour’.

I decided to use Google find out how widespread the use of ‘an historic’ is in two popular news sites:

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Site Query No. of Results
BBC News Online a historic 1780
BBC News Online an historic 2400
CNN.com a historic 2350
CNN.com an historic 895

It appears that British journalists prefer ‘an historic’ and their American counterparts prefer ‘a historic’. So why the confusion? Why does ‘an historic’ sound right to people’s ears? Well, as I have discovered, in Old English, the ‘h’ in ‘historic’ was often not sounded so people said ‘an ‘istoric’ and it sounded correct.

So, it seems that vestiges of this way of speaking exist in our language and how you choose to say ‘historic’ dictates whether it should be preceded by an ‘an’ or an ‘a’. For the written word however, where the rules of the English language should be properly applied, there is no excuse for ‘an historic’.