Is it ‘a historic’ or ‘an historic’?
When referring to an important moment in history, is it grammatically correct to say that it was a historic event or an historic event?
The answer is both — but, if you’re writing for an audience in America, it’s a historic.
The grammar rules state that ‘a’ is used before words that begin with consonants, like ‘a pen’, ‘a phone’, and ‘a salad.’
And ‘an’ is used before words that begin with vowels, like ‘an orange’, ‘an ice block’, ‘an ogg’ and ‘an underpass.’
English language expert Tim Collins PHD advises to “use ‘an’ before a silent ‘h’. Words with silent ‘h’ include ‘hour’, ‘honor’, ‘herb’, and ‘honest.’ “Please be ready in an hour.” “It’s an honor to meet you.”
So, according to grammar rules, the use of ‘a’ and ‘an’ before the word ‘historic’ comes down to how you say the word — do you say ‘historic’ with a ‘h’ or ‘istoric’ with no ‘h’?
In general terms, Americans have re-established the silent ‘h’ in ‘historic’ that some British removed.
In America, the Associated Press’ Style Guide says “a historic event is an important occurrence, one that stands out in history.”
In a 2020 tweet, the AP wrote “use the article a before consonant sounds: a historic event, a one-year term (sounds as if it begins with a w), a united stand (sounds like you). Use an before vowel sounds: an energy crisis, an honorable man (the h is silent), an homage (the h is silent), an NBA record.”
US-based, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, recommends “if you’re writing in Britain or writing for an audience where the majority of people pronounce it “istoric,” like maybe a local newsletter for Bostonites, feel free to use “an” instead.”
“I found one source that could be called sympathetic to “an historical” in modern written American English: The American Heritage Dictionary says “an historical” and the like are outdated but “acceptable in formal writing.”
Bill Walsh, who had the Bill Walsh Scholarship named in his honour posthumously, also concluded his advice to Americans by saying “first you must deal with the word. Repeat after me: “Historic, hotel, hysterical, Hispanic.” Did you pronounce those h’s? Then it’s a historic, a hotel, a hysterical, a Hispanic. If you truly said “Istoric, otel, ysterical, ispanic,” go ahead and say “an.” But you are in the minority. The standard pronunciations include the h, and so you must write “a.”
Away from America, the BBC News style guide doesn’t specifically mention how to write, or say, historical, but they have published this in their guide: “Historic means “memorable”, whereas historical means “belonging to history”. As an adjective, both take the indefinite article “a”.
The style guide for London’s Guardian and Observer news outlets also agrees with the BBC: Use a before an aspirated H: a hero, a hotel, a historian (but don’t change a direct quote if the speaker says, for example, “an historic”).
In other parts of the world, for example in Australia, ‘a historic’ and ‘an historic’ are both acceptable — the local government broadcaster published this in their current ABC Style Guide: Some words begin with the eighth letter but have an unstressed initial syllable, which in connected speech often means speakers freely shift between the two articles: an historic, a historic, etc. For these words, neither form is incorrect (though an historic can come across as a slight affectation).
In summary, if you want to stay clear of a grammar debate, use ‘a historic’. But should you get into a debate about ‘an historic’, explain that your oral usage removes the ‘h’, as in ‘istoric’, and send them this article.
I’d like to hear your thoughts about this grammar issue, contact me on social media @BrendenWood.