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More on 'A' vs. 'An'

A
couple of readers took exception to an entry from The Slot's FAQ that was published in the August issue of Writer's Digest:

Is it "a historic" or "an historic"?

Do you live in an house? I didn't think so. A historic.

Not the best example or the most complete answer, I admit. My books do a better job.

From "The Elephants of Style":

For choosing a or an, spelling doesn't matter; pronunciation does. A is for consonant sounds; an is for vowel sounds. The ever-popular an historic is incorrect, at least for American speakers, because historic does not begin with a vowel sound. Even those Americans who say "an istoric" will admit that they say "historic," with the consonant h, when the word stands alone. I don't care whether "an istoric" rolls off your tongue more easily than "a historic"; you don't go altering your pronunciation of a word in order to change the article you use before it. Your comfort is none of the language's concern.

Most of the times I've heard "an historic," however, it has been from blustery types who heartily pronounce the h. Think Howard Cosell.

There is a similar entry in "Lapsing Into a Comma." The entries are absolutely correct, but they fail to address an alternative position that I did not realize was held by some published authorities.

One of my detractors cited "The Correct Word: How to Use It" by Josephine Turck Baker:

In the case of words beginning with h, an is always required when h is silent; as "an heir;" when h is aspirated, a is required, unless the accent is on the second syllable, when an is used; as "a history;" an historian."

Baker, it turns out, wrote this in the first quarter of the 20th century -- an important point, because things appear to have evolved. My reader said Baker isn't the only authority who holds this position, but he didn't name any others. I also cited numerous authorities without naming any, but I was in a (an?) hotel room, away from my books.

Now I'm back home, so here goes. (Thanks to Barbara Wallraff -- who agrees with me on this point -- for pointing me in the right direction in a later on-the-road exchange.)

I found nothing outside my inbox advocating "an historical" as correct and "a historical" as incorrect in American English.

The stylebook of the London Times calls for an hotel, an historic and an heroic. But, remember, that's British English.

H.W. Fowler (writing in British English and, near as I can tell, about the same time as Baker) says an was "formerly usual before an accented syllable beginning with h," citing an historian, an hotel, an hysterical scene, an hereditary title and an habitual offender. He continues: "But now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become anomalous and will no doubt disappear in time. Meantime speakers who like to say an should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h."

R.W. Burchfield's New Fowler's Modern English Usage, according to Wallraff's "Word Court," criticizes those who consider "an historic" pretentious and calls the issue a matter of personal preference. (I don't own, and am more than a little puzzled by the concept of, the Burchfield book. I hope to leave a legacy, but I don't want "bill walsh's new elephants of style, by justin4326@aol.com" to come out after I'm gone.)

I found one source that could be called sympathetic to "an historical" in modern written American English: The American Heritage Dictionary says "an historical" and the like are outdated but "acceptable in formal writing."

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage is more descriptive than prescriptive, but it advises: "You choose the article that suits your own pronunciation." Theodore Bernstein gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation but allows that you should indeed say "an hotel" if you think "hotel" is pronounced "otel."

I agree with Merriam-Webster and Bernstein, but I'm writing about writing, not about speech. And, as I wrote, I think most of those Americans who think they say "istoric" and "otel" are fooling themselves.

Among the authorities on my side:

  • Garner's Modern American Usage acerbically supports the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound position: "An humanitarian is, judged even by the most tolerant standards, a pretentious humanitarian."

  • Patricia T. O'Conner's "Woe Is I," in so many words, gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.

  • The Chicago Manual of Style gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.

  • The Associated Press Stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.

  • The United Press International stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.

  • The Washington Post stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.

  • The New York Times stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.

  • The USA Today stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.

  • The U.S. News & World Report stylebook gives the straight vowel-sound-vs.-consonant-sound explanation.

  • Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words addresses a slightly different problem ("an FBI," but "a NATO") but Bryson explains himself in terms of vowel sounds and consonant sounds.

    To restate my position: First you must deal with the word. Repeat after me: "Historic, hotel, hysterical, Hispanic." Did you pronounce those h's? Then it's a historic, a hotel, a hysterical, a Hispanic. If you truly said "Istoric, otel, ysterical, ispanic," go ahead and say "an." But you are in the minority. The standard pronunciations include the h, and so you must write "a."

    One reader told me the syllabic stress, not the pronunciation or non-pronunciation of the h, is the point. Wrong. The point of the stress argument is to offer a rationale for why it might be easier on the tongue, when an article is present, to drop the h.




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