Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Election teaches me grammar

I was going to write, "isn't it *an* historic moment?". But before doing so, I googled, and came up with:
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You probably know the grammar rule that says you use an before vowel sounds (e.g. an accident, an item, an hour) and a otherwise; e.g. a book, a report, a hotel.

Following this rule, we would say "a historic", not "an historic".

Words of three or more syllables that start with h are treated differently by some speakers, though. For example, which of these pairs of sentences sounds correct to you?

* It is a historic occasion.
* It is an historic occasion.


* We can't agree on a hypothesis.
* We can't agree on an hypothesis.

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%).

There is a clear preference here in favour of "a historic". Even so, roughly one-third of the usage is for the other form. This supports the view that which form you use is little more than a personal preference.

Both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct in modern English.
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How fitting that both are acceptable.

11 comments:

craig andrew said...

I think it's 'a' historical moment and that 32% of people on the internet are wrong. C;)

Squirrel said...

#1 I agree with CA. "An historic" sounds pretentious to me.

#2 The spelling of "favour" in the source you quoted suggests that it was written in England (or Canada, Australia, or NZ, but probably England). I wonder if this is viewed differently in the US?

Franki said...

i figured a way around that conundrum by saying, "It's a fucking historical moment."

thanks NoR. :)

NoRegrets said...

Craig, crap. So I'm wrong.

Squirrel - what's wrong with sounding pretentious if it's grammatically correct? Do you also oppose subjunctive just because people have stopped using it?
And crap again, I'll have to go look. Or check with my editor friend, who is American.

Franki - Good solution!!!

laura b. said...

I'd base my preference on the fact that on Indecision '08 last night, Jon Stewart kept say 'a' and Steve Colbert kept insisting it was 'an'. Gotta go with my man JS. haha!

Churlita said...

I agree with both Franki and LauraB., Use as many swears as possible to avoid the situation, and if there's no way to avoid it, then go with the hottest guy's use. He's usually right because he's hot. It's the law.

Tera said...

Wow NoR...thanks for the Grammar lesson! If you notice, in the news coverage last night, they used, "an historic."

NoRegrets said...

Laura, glad to hear some people were arguing about it. Very important issue. ;-)

Churlita, you might be right.

TERA - yeah, but I saw it this morning on CNN I think with 'a'

The CEO said...

I ALWAYS agree with Franki. I never deviate. It would be an historic event.

dmarks said...

I think "an historic" is for those too lazy to say the H at the beginning of words. The same folks who say "yuman" instead of "human".

Glamourpuss said...

I think 'a' is strictly correct, but 'an' sounds better - more gravitas and the occasion deserves that.

Puss