About The Joy of English

Grammar: a historic or an historic?

a historic: The use of 'an' before words such as historic is one of those things that self-appointed pedants like to tick other people off for not using. They will argue until they are blue in the face that it should be 'an'. They are wrong. The fact that BBC news newsreaders and correspondents are some of the more frequent abusers of this so-called 'rule' does little to quell the hysteria surrounding its use.

Do not be afraid to use the correct 'a historic', 'a hotel', 'a historian' or even 'a hotelier'. The only exception to this would be a direct quote where the speaker says "an historic". Although journalistic praxis is to not correct grammar abusage in reported speech, such as in "I never did nothing", sometimes journalists (or subs) will iron out obvious grammatical errors that don't – such as the wrong use of a word (affect, effect). If I had my way, the proper use of the direct quote should be to follow 'an historic" with the very useful '(sic)'. That would soon put paid to this old wives' tale.

No matter how many people use 'an historic', including on the BBC, they are still wrong to do so. It is a historic for the same reason that It is: a happy, a house, a hippy, a harvest, a habit, a hobbit, a handbag, a half, a handle, a health centre, a heart, a hill and a horrible, hot-blooded hoodie holding her househusband hostage. How much more convincing do you need?

 


About the author

Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English: 100 conversations about the English Language, Cannibal – the language and history of the discovery of the New World, and Roanoke – the language and history of Early Colonial America.