Thursday, September 03, 2009

Grammer, Schmammer

While outlining a paper I intend to write over the next few months, I was faced with a technical scientific problem: should "historical" be preceded by "a" or "an"? Fortunately, as Tina Blue notes, I am not the first to come across this problem:
There is a significant difference between multisyllabic words like hamburger, where the accent is on the first syllable, the one beginning with h, and historical, where the accent is not on the syllyble that begins with h.

The problem is that the h is a bit of a wuss as a consonant. When it occurs in an unaccented syllable and is followed by a vowel, it tends to soften to a vowel-like mushiness.

Say these words out loud: hot, hear, how, hurt, hateful, holiday.

Although the h in each of these words is followed by a vowel, the syllable the h + vowel combination occurs in is fully accented, and the h is aspirated (completely pronounced, in all its consonantal glory). All of these words would, of course, be preceded by a, not an.

But now say these words out loud: historian, historical, hysterical, heredity, habitual.

Do you notice how much less, well, pronounced the h is in these words? Now, put a or an before each one (the adjectives should be paired with nouns so you can get the full effect):
Presumably, we should use "a" before words of the former type and "an" before those of the latter. This creates some interesting cases, though. For example, you would be writing "It was an historical event to be sure. A history professor gets few such opportunities in life." So what is commonly accepted?
At one time, an was the preferred usage before an unaccented syllable beginning with h. [...]

Since the early twentieth century, those unaccented h sounds have been more commonly pronounced than not, especially in American English. [...]

To many Americans, an historical reference probably sounds pretentious and unlikely. But to many of us who are middle-aged or older, that phrase sounds better (and is easier to pronounce) than a historical reference. [...]

If you speak and write British English, you can probably keep using an before historical, hysterical, habitual, etc. I doubt that you will be challenged by your own countrymen, and if Americans challenge you, just point out that British usage and American usage often differ.

If you are American, you probably should use a rather than an, even in a historic occasion or a historical reference. Most of us are comfortable with a historic occasion, because the word historic has fewer syllables than historical, so the h is more fully pronounced. But if, like me, you are old enough to find a historical reference a tad uncomfortable, then go ahead and say an historical reference.
The rule is: there is no clear rule. I hope you appreciate the spontaneity of the order as much as I do.

For no reason other than the shear joy it brought me, I am including this line:
Widespread but half-baked literacy is probably responsible for the fact that the formerly unaspirated h in such phrases is now commonly pronounced, as is also the case with the word herb. When people see such words spelled out, they tend to pronounce the silent or near-silent letters.


Anonymous said...

I am English.

it depends on how you say "a"

there are two ways to say it:
a - a as in ant ... there is _a_ way. _A_ Singular way.

a - as in hay:

It is a a historic duty.
One of many.

"An" is just wrong here.

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