Monday, July 19, 2004

More on 'A' and 'An'

While I was on vacation, I had a couple of slightly testy e-mail exchanges with readers who took issue with my disapproval of "an historic" and the like.

I bolster my case in a new Sharp Point.

12 comments:

Phillip Blanchard said...

May I add that we are not writing for people who move their lips when they read?

Diana said...

"An historic" versus "a historic" has been a real source of drama for me! All throughout my undergraduate English education, I was seeing and learning "an historic." When my husband needed to make a poster for a presentation he was doing, he asked me about it, and of course I said, "An, historic, dear!" There was much snickering in the physics department as the professors read his presentation announcement. THEN we checked the style guides, which said "a historic." However, I never see outlets of authority, such as cnn.com, use anything but "an historic." I so dread writing either "a" or "an" before "historic" that I write around the wretched phrase at all costs.

kmuch said...

I'm firmly in the "a historic" camp. But then I also say "a herb garden" with the aitch pronounced. My English friends persuaded me that I didn't want to sound Cockney, even though the common American pronunciation is "an 'erb garden". I've noticed that more and more botanists in the U.S. and Canada now say and write "a herb". And British academics are moving toward "a history".

The Book Doctor

Eric said...

Most people who drive SUVs don't need them for their practical qualities (four-wheel drive, high ground clearance, powerful engines); they drive them because they want to project a certain image.

Try suggesting that publicly, along with limits on the availability of SUVs, and those people will respond out of all proportion with defenses of their right to drive what they choose and assertions that their choice is about more than a status symbol.

I suspect that's what's going on with Americans who insist on "an historic," to a lesser degree. These sorts of pretensions are closely linked to people's sense of their own identities, and suggesting that the emperor is nekkid is an attack on that identity, so people become defensive and angry and go to absurd lengths to justify their choices.

Bex said...

Nice little write-up in the City Paper this week about tomorrow's book signing and P&P. I've enjoyed reading your blog. I posted a link to it on my weblog (bexgirl.blogspot.com).

blythe said...

I don't know that I'd consider cnn.com an authority on journalistic writing. It tends to do a decent job, but its forte is certainly broadcast news. That makes quite a difference. When you're looking at a medium traditionally focused on oral journalism, it makes a lot more sense to see "an historic." I still think it's awkward and ill-advised in text.

Bill said...

Maybe I 'aven't been listening 'ard enough, but I've never heard an American say "an 'istoric." I have heard Americans say "an historic" with a full-blown h, which is wrong no matter how you slice it.

Paul said...

i'm astonished debate on this continues. A historic is so manifestly correct on either side of the Atlantic or in my case the Pacific.

Le Petomane said...

In 1957 -- 1957! -- Coperud wrote: "'An' before words beginning with h (an hotel, an historic event) is now an affectation in the United States. ... Expressions like 'an habitual' tend to indicate to the American reader that the h is not to be sounded. Instead of achieving the elegance aimed at, such affectations impart a kind of Cockney flavor. One halmost hexpects to find the missing h's prefixed to the words that start with vowels."

Almost 50 years after Coperud addressed the issue, I think we can upgrade "affected" to "pretentious."

I put this error down as a form of hypercorrection, right up there with "between he and I." The poeple who use "an historic" in spoken English also frequently pronounce "aunt" as if it rhymes with "haunt." They don't seem to realize that all of this makes them sound like a minor-league Mrs. Rittenhouse in "Animal Crackers."

Nessie said...

Paul, I'm astonished with you. Does anyone not know how to pronouce words starting with "h"? I could understand it in a non-native English speaker.

Rich Clark said...

It isn't quite true to say that "A historic" is manifestly correct on either side of the Atlantic as Paul suggests. I would agree with you for written text, but when speaking not everyone naturally pronounces a breathy 'H' for Historic (or hotel or happy). The good people of London (and increasingly across the whole South of England) always 'drop' the H from the beginning of words in their every day speech, and so would correctly say "I once did an 'ickup in an 'ospital".

Rich Clark said...

It isn't quite true to say that "A historic" is manifestly correct on either side of the Atlantic as Paul suggests. I would agree with you for written text, but when speaking not everyone naturally pronounces a breathy 'H' for Historic (or hotel or happy). The good people of London (and increasingly across the whole South of England) always 'drop' the H from the beginning of words in their every day speech, and so would correctly say "I once did an 'ickup in an 'ospital".