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A Historic Day or an Historic Day?

Since Tuesday, November 4, commentators throughout the world have been speaking and writing about Barack Obama's election as President of the United States. I have been reading about what "an historic occasion" and "an historic event" his election is. 

I agree about the historic nature of Senator Obama's election. However, I have some issues with the grammar. 

The article an is correct before historic if the word is pronounced "istoric." A is the correct article if the word is pronounced "historic," beginning with an h sound.

In print, at least in the United States, where the word is normally pronounced with an h, the correct written form is "a historic."

Here's the basic rule: If the word begins with a consonant sound, the correct article is a. If the word begins with a vowel sound, the correct article is an. Read more about this subject in my earlier post here.

Don't make a/an error in grammar! Be sure to choose the correct article. (In the first sentence in this paragraph, choose an.)

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

11 comments on “A Historic Day or an Historic Day?”

  • Thank you! It annoys me sooooo much when people say an in front of H words. Historic and hallucination seem to be the most common words with this problem.

  • Summary
    A historic is more common in online writing, but both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct.

    A well known grammar rule says that we should use an before vowel sounds; for example, an accident, an item, an hour. We use a otherwise: a book, a hotel, a university.

    Notice that we say an hour, not a hour. The choice of a or an is based upon the sound of the word, not the spelling. Hour sounds as if it starts with a vowel sound (ow); hence, we use an.

    Following this rule, we would say a historic, not an historic because (for most speakers) historic doesn’t start with a vowel sound.

    Words of three or more syllables that start with h are treated differently by some speakers, though. (This may be because of the tendency of some regional accents to drop initial Hs.)

    Here’s another example. Which of these pairs of sentences sounds better to you?

    We can’t agree on a hypothesis.
    We can’t agree on an hypothesis.
    A quick bit of Googling reveals that — as of December 2008 — the phrase a hypothesis is used on 2.22 million pages (80%), and an hypothesis on 538,000 pages (20%). Similarly, a historic gets 70% of the popular vote, and an historic only 30%.

    There is a clear preference on the web in favour of a hypothesis and a historic. Even so, a significant minority uses the other form. This supports the view that both forms are widespread. Which form you use seems to be little more than a personal preference and perhaps a matter of accent.

    In summary: A historic is more common in online writing, but both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct.

  • I know the post is a bit old, but J Smith, I’d like to note that just because many people do it, doesn’t make it correct. Especially on the internet; see: Your/You’re, Their/They’re/There. People misuse these all the time, common=/=correct. A historic is grammatically correct, in American pronunciation, plain and simple. In fact, I’m not even sure if people with British accents pronounce it with a silent “h”

  • THANK YOU!!! I am DISGUSTED at the ignorance of this country. I am an English major, and it has ALWAYS been “A historic day”, not “AN historic day”. I can’t even believe that nearly every stupid newscaster on t.v. can’t even get this right. I don’t know when this started–because I do remember when people actually DID know the correct way to say that– but it drives me up the wall every time I hear someone make this annoying grammar mistake. Thank you SO much for pointing this out!!!

  • Also, with regards to “in an hour’s time”. You would never hear the Queen say that! She would only say something like “in one hour’s time” because that is more proper. “In an hour” is just another version of shortening and convenience.

    I use her as an example since ‘The Queens English’ seems to be a benchmark of speech and pronunciation quality.

  • in an hour is surely correct since it doesn’t start with an “h” sound more of an “o” sound no one says hour and pronounces the H… I hope!!!

  • I agree it should be “A historic day” rather than “An historic day” which is how I found this page. Today they have a banner, on the BBC news no less, saying “An historic day” which to me sounds very wrong.

  • Hello, Lou. Yes, “in an hour” is correct. Pronouncing the “h” would sound crazy, wouldn’t it?

    I don’t actually blame the BBC for “an historic day,” with many British speakers pronouncing the word “istoric.”

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.


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