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.”