An Historical Event? I don’t think so.

Lesson: “a” versus “an” with a word starting with the letter “h”

Once upon a time, I studied French in Geneva, Switzerland, and my teacher was . . . interesting. Aside from chuckling under my breath when she would come to class wearing the same outfit as the day before, I enjoyed listening to her attempts to pronounce the letter “h.” Being a native French speaker, whose main contact with the English language was talking with hung-over college students who could barely pronounce words in their own language at 8:30 in the morning, her pronunciation problems were understandable.

When she spoke to us in English, she would occasionally get hung up. Then she would get this look of desperation in her eyes, and a slow, hissing sound would escape from her throat. A few seconds later, after a couple starts and stops, the word “hospital” or “Henry” would plop out, much to everyone’s relief.

The problem was simple: The letter “h” is silent in French. The sound was, well, foreign to her.

Because “h” is silent, French usually treats it like a vowel when it comes to articles. When a French word starts with a vowel, the article “le” (the) is shortened to “l’,” as in “l’escargot.” The same goes with words starting with an “h,” as in “l’horloge,” which means “the clock.”

But English speakers, we usually like to pronounce the letter ‘h.’ We find it honorable. Wait, bad example. It makes our hearts heave with an emotion that is the opposite of hatred. This is why, as a rule of thumb, we use the article “a” in front of a word starting with “h” instead of “an,” which we reserve for words starting with a vowel (“a horse” versus “an apple”).

Yet, for some mysterious reason, some people confuse this rule when it comes to the phrase “historical event.” Some people say “an historical event,” instead of the correct way, “a historical event.” (I’m looking at you, Rachel Maddow.) Perhaps they mentally connect the article to “event,” which would use “an,” instead of to “historical,” which uses “a.” Whatever the reason, it is incorrect. One historical event is “a historical event.”

So the next time you witness something that will go down in the history books, you can say, “Boy, that was a historical event!”

Fun fact: In Anglian dialects of Old English, “an” was the word for the number “one.”

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6 thoughts on “An Historical Event? I don’t think so.

  1. Love grammar jabber! However, I was always told over and over growing up to use ‘an’ in front of every ‘h’ word, which is now considered pedantic, as a quote from an NPR article mentions …
    “A is used before all consonants except silent ‘h’ (a history, an hour); an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (an historical work), but now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become pedantic, and a historical should be said and written…”
    Other unfortunate ‘pedantic-isms’ I predict will be commonplace in the future: ‘Me and him’; using only one ‘there and your’; no more possessive apostrophes, among many others, because people will be too stupid and lazy to learn and use correct English (e.g. ‘Idiocracy’).

  2. This blog is a historical event in and of itself. Good luck.
    The Librarian
    “I never made a mistake in grammar but one in my life and as soon as I done it I seen it.”
    – Carl Sandburg

  3. Erin, this is absolutely wonderful! Methinks you might be in the wrong profession. How I would have loved to have had an English teacher (grammar) like you! It’s funny, I do remember the eccentric and/or color-coordinated clothing my grade school teachers wore. It’s always in my grammar lessons that I see them!

  4. PS I think the English tend to use the “an” before a hard h more than we. If Rachel is an Anglophile, as am I, she might tend to say an historic event. Might even be a bit pretentious!

  5. Good stuff. I have never liked people saying “an historical event”, but I take the point about the french origins of our usage and the further one about the stressed or unstressed first syllable. As an Australian, I would pronounce the indefinite article as “u” as in “but” before a word like “horse”, but I would pronounce said article as “eh” as in “eh?” in the case of “a historical event”, thus “eh historical event”.

    Few people would say “an hysterical woman”.

    James West

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