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A Historical or An Historical?

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When checking Writers Digest about the "snuck v sneaked" conundrum, I noticed a link regarding the rule of "a" before consonants and "an" before vowels. WD says the rule refers to pronunciation. Since the "h" in "hour" is silent, one would still write "an hour."

Similarly, I would write "a history." However, I feel uncomfortable saying "A historical," even though the "h" is not silent. I feel more comfortable saying "an historical..." Am I wrong? (I frequently am.) Thoughts?

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I have the same problem; an historical does sound better, but according to the rules it is wrong.

If, say the sentence is, "In a historical context...blah, blah, blah..." and that seems to grate, you could always cheat a little with, "In the historical context..."

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I think the confusion may come because, if you try it a few times, you'll see the 'h' sound in 'historical' is basically silent when said after 'an'. That makes is sound like: an istorical, which sound correct. Leaving the 'h' sound of out 'a history' sounds nuts, and saying 'an history' doesn't cover the 'h' sound like in 'an historical'.

I'd always say 'an historical', but perhaps, too, it's because that's always the way you see and hear it.

C

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry on a/an runs to many pages, it's a case of the language changing over time. The current rule - in so far as there is one - depends on where the accent falls. History is accented on the first syllable, and an history now sounds awkward. Historical is accented on the second, and an historical sounds OK. In the past, an was much more widely used, even before (say) eunuch and union, though in speech they begin with y. A turned to an first in the spoken word and later in the written word. It sees an historical as on the way out, though still far from dead. I think that's true. My Dad, who was born in Victorian times and was both a stickler and a historian, described himself as just that - a historian. True, he also spoke of an hotel; he explained that was because hotel comes from French, where the h is silent and (in his day) still was in English too: he said the 'otel.

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The rule that you use an before a word starting with a vowel is misleading as it does not refer to the alphabetical vowels, in English a, e, i, o, u but to the phonetic vowels, which is dependent on pronunciation. The only good guide is to read the sentence allowed and see if it sounds right, even then there is a problem as what may sound right in one accent is wrong in another. Also remember that fashions change, I have an editorial guide from 1962 which says an should be used before words beginning with vowels or an h. Just remember that English grammar was mostly invented by German tutors during the Victorian period. They became popular because of Prince Albert, when they arrived in England they were horrified to find that English did not have the codified set of rules they were used to in German and so set about to impose them. The only problem is that most of the really great writing in English breaks most of them.

So I think it comes down to what my English teacher told me 50 years ago, "first make yourself understood, then worry about if it is grammatically correct." It does not matter how grammatically correct a piece of writing may be if it does not get its message across it is a waste of time and effort.

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My Dad, who was born in Victorian times and was both a stickler and a historian, described himself as just that - a historian. True, he also spoke of an hotel; he explained that was because hotel comes from French, where the h is silent and (in his day) still was in English too: he said the 'otel.

So either he was a pedant or a Cockney. They'd say the 'otel too, wouldn't they?

C

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Cole comments that my dad was either a pedant or a Cockney. Cockney, no. Pedant maybe, and certainly old-fashioned in clinging to the pronunciation he had learnt when young. This debate isn't about grammar as Nigel claims, but about spelling which in this case (unusually for English) depends on how things are spoken. To me, a style guide which insists on an before every h is simply wrong. I've never heard anyone say an history or an hanging matter. Not only do they sound wrong, they look wrong. Whereas an historian is OK, for the reasons I gave.

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This illustrates two things about the English language:

1. It's always changing.

2. Things that are reviled as new aberrations are revealed as long-ago standards.

Ya gotta love a language like that!

Colin :icon_geek:

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