An Hideous Error

by Dave

Problem(s)

It was an historic moment the first time I tasted ice cream.

Solution(s)

It was a historic moment the first time I tasted ice cream.

Explanation

Here’s the thing with this: if you were born in America, this is an error. No “But my teacher told me…”, or “But educated people…”, or “But in Britain they…” No. This is an error: it is wrong.

“If this is an error,” say you, “why do so many people do it?” Indeed, even, the Berkeley English department, from which I graduated, commits this egregious and embarrassing error on their page explaining undergraduate requirements. So why do so many make a mistake that is the rough equivalent of pronouncing “hour” with an “h” (e.g. pronounced the same as “how’re”, in “How’re you doing?”)? Why indeed.

Here’s the problem. English has a very, very simple rule for when to use “a” and when to use “an”. When the word following “a(n)” begins with a vowel sound, you use “an”. When the word following “a(n)” begins with a consonant sound, you use “a”. Children pick this rule up naturally and easily. Of all the errors children make, you never hear them saying, “an union”. The very sound of it is absurd to the ears of a native English speaker. When children are introduced to writing, though, they can naturally become confused. After all, “u” is a “vowel”, so shouldn’t it have an “an” in front of it? It should, if English had a spelling system with a head on its shoulders. But it doesn’t, so we simply have to remember to listen to the words we spell and remember which letters are silent, and which vowels begin with hidden glides.

In Britain—and in several other English-speaking areas of the world—there are places where speakers drop all initial “h” sounds, so that “hour” and “house” both begin with the same sound: a vowel. In such dialects, it is appropriate to use “an” before all words that begin with “h”, because the “h” isn’t really there. As such, in a word like “historic”, there is no “h”, and so you say “an historic”, as it’s really pronounced, “an ‘istoric”.

If you are American, chances are you pronounce all but a few words that begin with “h” with an actual “h”—including the words “historic” and “historical”. As such, you must say (and write) “a historic” or “a historical”, unless you want to look (and sound) silly. But it sounds “educated” and “proper”, you say? Well how about these:

  • What an happy child!
  • I want an home I can be proud of.
  • That gentleman from Indiana is an Hoosier.
  • He is an homeboy of mine.
  • I’ll take an hot one.
  • I wrote an “how to” on ice cream eating.

This is exactly how an American sounds saying, “An historic peace accord”. The Berkeley English department should be ashamed and humiliated. I sent them an e-mail way back when telling them how foolish they were, and received no reply.

So, what to do?

  1. Determine how you pronounce words that begin with “h”.
  2. If you pronounce the word with an actual “h” sound, use “a”.
  3. If you pronounce the word without an “h” sound (i.e. it begins with a vowel), use “an”.

Follow those simple rules, and you’ll avoid looking foolish, like the Berkeley English department. If a teacher ever tells you to write “an” with “historic”, point them to this page, and, in particular, to some of the examples above. You’ll be doing them—and the rest of us—a big favor.