Grammar question: Should I say “an historical” or “a historical”? Which is correct?
A student recently asked me this. He had heard an American co-worker say “an historical” but thought it sounded funny. This is a great question.
There are two opposing possibilities:
1. If you pronounce the /h/ (as in “hospital” or “heart attack” ), then you should use the article “a” in front. This means “h” is a consonant.
2. If you make the /h/ silent (as in “honor” or “hour” ), then you use the article “an” in front. This means the pronunciation of the word starts with a vowel.
I know a few people who don’t pronounce the “h” in “historical” and therefore use “an” in front. These people often work in academia. To a middle-class Michigan ear, it can sound affected, so I avoid it in my own speech.
However, there is a “logical” reason for not pronouncing the /h/. It is related to the stress placement in “historical” (which has second-syllable stress: hiSTORical). Because of the second-syllable stress, the first syllable (his-) is reduced and the /h/ can kind of get swallowed. Notice that you never use “an” in the following context: ___ history lesson. This is because the first syllable is stressed (HIStory) and the “h” is nice and strong (a history lesson).
Test it out in other parallel contexts; could you imagine (or hear) yourself saying the following?
1. a hysterectomy
2. an hysterical patient
3. a hypnotist
4. an hypnotic suggestion
If you’re a person who likes using “an historical X” in your speech, then you would logically also say 2 and 4 above.
The long and short of it: I recommend going with “an” if the “h” is always silent (herb, honest, hourly). Otherwise, speak the /h/ out boldly and put the article “a” in front! It will be a historic moment for you!
- In this post, I am using a convention which employs slash marks ( / / ) for sounds and using quotation marks ( “ “ ) for words or letters of the alphabet. “Sounds” = /saundz/
- The word “affected” means “stilted, formal, trying to sound fancy.”