a historic an historic

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Historic: A or An?

After vast and copious and sexy amounts of research consisting entirely of googling the above phrase and visiting the first two sites found, we're surprised this question renders over 390 million hits.

We're not surprised that no one has any clear reason for why it should be one way and not the other. Better Writing Skills, for example, appeals to numbers:

A quick bit of Googling reveals that — as of March 2008 — the phrase "a historic" is used on 5.1 million pages (68%), and "an historic" on 2.34 million pages (32%).
Before throwing its keyboard out the window in frustration:
Both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct in modern English.
Others, such as dictionary.com, offer this beast of an explanation:
An is in fact a weakened form of one; both an and one come from Old English ānān "one." In early Middle English, besides representing the cardinal numeral "one," developed the special function of indefinite article, and in this role the word was ordinarily pronounced with very little or no stress.
But we've studied Old and Middle English, and despite the hours we spent sifting through Pearl, L'Morte D'Arthur, Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf and its sequel Scream Beowulf Scream, we never noticed this.

Many, such as Tina Blue, in a rather lengthy monograph, or the poster Brioche on the WordReference forum, claim that An is appropriate when the stress is not on the first syllable, so , to use Brioche's examples:
a history of England.
an historical timeline.
an historian of note
Still others argue that it's a matter of vowel sounds and consonants--we use A for consonants; we use An for vowels, and since the aitch in Historic is pronounced, it should be A.

And we prefer the latter, if for nothing else because it's the rule for every other letter, and we're not about to make an exception for snooty ol' aitch.