In the past few days, I have heard newscasters say that a given incident was “an historic event.” I am a knowledgeable, confident instructor, but when professional writers do the opposite of what I teach, I have to check myself.
In case you aren’t sure why “an historic” would make me stop and Google grammar rules as fast as my fingers can type, let me explain the rules that I teach my students. A and an are singular, indefinite articles in English. They can introduce either non-specific nouns or nouns that have not yet been mentioned. The only difference is a should be used before consonant sounds (b, c, d, f, g, h, etc.) while an should be used before vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u).
Assuming these rules are correct, English-speakers would say “an hour” (the h is silent), but “a house” (the h is pronounced). After I’d heard “an historic” a few times in the past week, I began to wonder why anyone would say “an historic?” since the h in historic is pronounced. Had I missed a grammar rule somewhere in my years of studying? Well, yes and no. I found a few different explanations while I was researching.
According to betterwritingskills.com, some regional accents use “an” before words beginning with h and containing three or more syllables (http://betterwritingskills.com/tip-w005.html). Grammar Underground offered another possible explanation: you can say “an historic” because the emphasis in historic is on the second syllable, which begins with a vowel sound (http://www.grammarunderground.com/an-historic-vs-a-historic.html). When in doubt (or when multiple sources are giving you different answers), turn to a trusted dictionary. I went with Oxford. The site, oxforddictionaries.com (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/a-historic-event-or-an-historic-event), concludes that since today we pronounce the h, it is more logical to use a instead of an, reassuring me that I have been correctly teaching my students all these years. Yes!