Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Historic Events and Articles

Shauna writes:

After all the reports on the elections last night, I have a question for you. My husband, son and I believe that the phrase "this is an historical moment . . ." is incorrect. We were taught that "an" preceeds letters beginning with vowels and "a" preceeds those beginning with consonants. So the correct phrase would be "this is a historical moment . . ." Is there an exception to the rule that I don't know about? Or is this another case of a phrase used so many times incorrectly that most people think it's correct?
When the “h” is pronounced, “a” is the proper article. When it’s not—say, like the way everyone but Martha Stewart pronounces “herb,”—then you should use “an.”

Historical, which has a stressed second syllable, has a somewhat weak “h” sound. This is why many people say “an.” Modern language experts such as Bryan Garner think this is a wee pretentious. Meanwhile, "history," which has a stressed first syllable, would never get an “an” because the pronunciation requires us to punch the “h.”)

There’s one other distinction worth noting on a historic day like today.

“Historic” means historically significant. “Historical” just means of or related to the past. So it would be both pretentious and inaccurate to call the election of the first black leader in Western history “an historical event.” In other words, wait for that very thing to happen on cable TV.


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