Pet Peeve: “An Historic”

I know this seems an awfully petty thing to write about right now, but it’s really an example of something much more important, which is a lack of the use of critical thinking skills. Besides, it drives me absolutely insane and I have to vent somewhere.

I can’t stand it when people use the phrase “an historic”, as in, “this is an historic occasion” or, “this commemorates an historic event”. It bothers me especially because the primary offenders tend to be people other people look to for examples of proper usage, such as academics and pundits. I assume some misguided English teacher told them at some point that this was the correct thing to do, and there probably exists some textbook somewhere that gives the same ridiculous guidance, but if you have fallen under this same spell, please, just consider the following basic, logical, obvious train of thought:

1. The word “an” is used in front of a word that starts with a vowel or an unvoiced consonant.

2. In the vast majority of dialects of English, the “h” in “historic” is a voiced consonant. (If you happen to speak one of the few remaining dialects in which this “h” is unvoiced, it doesn’t bother me at all if you say “an historic”.)

At this point, QED, but if you are not convinced, consider the following:

Would you say “an house”, “an heart”, or “an hug”?

Do you think the part of speech matters? Would you say, “an hopeful sign” or “an hellish experience”?

Do you think it matters that the letter after the “h” is an “i”? Would you say, “an hill”, “an hippo”, or “an hip new saying”?

Would you even say, “an history”?

If you wouldn’t say (or write) any of those things, then why, oh why, would you use the annoying, abominable, anachronistic “an historic occasion”?

I say anachronistic because there was a time when commonly used dialects of English included many fewer voiced “h” sounds at the beginning of words. I am not an etymologist or a linguist, but I believe that is because many of those words came from French. In French, “history” is “histoire”, and the “h” is not voiced.

There are English words beginning with an unvoiced “h” (see how I used “an” there, because “unvoiced” starts with a vowel?) The one that springs first to mind is “honor”. It makes perfect sense to say “it would be an honor” or “she is an honorable person” (or “honour” and “honourable”, for my British, Canadian, Australian, Newnon-American friends). In those cases the “h” is unvoiced, which means those words begin with vowel sounds, even though they don’t begin with vowels, and it is therefore appropriate to use “an”.

Again, if you happen to speak one of the dialects in which the “h” at the beginning of “historic” is silent, it makes perfect sense to use “an” in front of it, and it doesn’t bother me. Similarly, if you have, for example, a very strong French accent, your usage of “an” in this situation would not cause my teeth to grind and my heartbeat to speed up.

If, however, you are a native speaker of English and you pronounce that “h” and yet put “an” in front of it, I will feel as if I want to punch you. The reason is that if you thought about it for a moment you would realize it makes no sense. There is no reason to do it except that you have heard other people do it. This indicates a blind following of perceived rules without any consideration of why or even if there actually is such a rule. It demonstrates a lack of critical thinking skills, or worse, a refusal to use them, and that is not at all a petty concern.

So please, especially if you are in a position to be an example for others, think about the words you use and why you use them. If you do that, you will never use the phrase “an historic” again, and you will no longer cause my blood pressure to spike. Thank you.

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