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What indefinite article (a or an) should be used before "historical"?

For example:

an historical standpoint.

an historical misunderstanding.

1

The answer is "a historical ..." because the "h" in front of "historical" is pronounced, and therefore "historical" doesn't begin with a spoken vowel, and "an" is to be used when the word begins with a spoken vowel, like "hour" (pronounced "our").

You can learn more about it here and here among a lot of other sources.

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    It is only pronounced in North America. In British accents, and others, it is not pronounced. You will see "an historical" both in writing and in speech from British sources. – Gabriel Luci Apr 29 '16 at 13:09
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    The google search for examples in bbc.com alone gives only 178 results for "an historical" and 1020 for "a historical", so your particular argument about British sources is invalid. – MorganFR Apr 29 '16 at 13:32
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    I think you've done a good job in showing that the "answer" is not, in fact, "a historical". Both are in wide usage. – Gabriel Luci Apr 29 '16 at 13:37
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    @GabrielLuci Although it's fairly common for British writers to write "an historical" I can say that, as a British person, I don't think I've ever heard anybody say "an 'istorical". Although we often write "an", we always pronounce the aitch. – David Richerby Apr 29 '16 at 16:12
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    In Google's written English corpus, "an historical" was more common than "a historical" until around 1940. "an" still sees significant modern use but has been outpaced by "a" in modern writing. (cc @GabrielLuci) – apsillers Apr 29 '16 at 17:02
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The simple rule is, "Use 'a' before a word that begins with a consonant sound. Use 'an' before a word that begins with a vowel sound."

As Stangdon notes in his comment on another answer, the key is the SOUND and not necessarily the spelling.

"Historic" is a classic ambiguous case because some dialects pronounce the "h" ("h" as in "here") and others don't. Those who do pronounce the "h" often pronounce it only slightly. So there's either no consonant sound or only a weak consonant sound. Thus "an" would be appropriate. But if you pronounce the "h" clearly, then "a" is appropriate.

5

If you are simply following the rules of English, you use "a" in front of consonant sounds and "an" in front of vowel sounds. Virtually all modern English dialects begin "historical" with a consonant sound, so "a historical" is correct for the modern pronunciation in most dialects. If you speak a (somewhat uncommon) dialect of English that features phonetic H-dropping for the word "historical," then you might use "an historical".

However, there is a tradition (mainly in British English) of using "an historical" in modern text, despite the fact that "an 'istorical" is not generally spoken aloud. This is possibly due to adherence to the traditional form of "an historical": at some point in the past, the pronunciation "an 'istorical" was more common, and certain British authors chose to persist this formulation in text long after the silent-H pronunciation had dropped out of common use. Alternatively, John Lawler suggests this is simply a matter of syllable stress so that some dialects still soften the H in "historical" to merit use of "an". I speculate that uncovering the reason and history of this persistence is potentially a collegiate-level research topic.

If in doubt, "a historical" is safest. If you wish to persist the British affectation of "an historical," you may do so at the risk of being corrected by people following the standard rules of English based on modern pronunciation. In any case, "a historical" is more popular than "an historical" and has been since around 1940.

0

The rules for using "an" instead of "a" is really only about what sounds better. You see both used because of accents. Some British accents don't pronounce the H at the beginning of "historical". So saying "a istorical" is difficult, so "an" is used.

In most North American accents, the H is pronounced. So it's easier to say "a historical".

Which you use when writing will depend solely on who your intended audience is.

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    No, there isn't. "An" only exists to make phrases easier to say. – Gabriel Luci Apr 29 '16 at 12:34
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    The rule is: a before consonant sounds, and an before vowel sounds. A banana, a car, a yell; an apple, an elephant, an onion. The part where it gets tricky is that it's about the sound, not about the spelling, which is why you see an uncle but a ukulele. – stangdon Apr 29 '16 at 13:13
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    @stangdon, Gabriel: It's a bit more complicated than that. UK newsreader Jeremy Paxman, for example, is incredibly fastidious about such matters, and he always says an historic, even though he aspirates the /h/. But the "rules" there are so obscure I've no doubt in the fullness of time everyone will settle on the straightforward a before consonant sounds, and an before vowel sounds. – FumbleFingers Apr 29 '16 at 13:18
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    @FumbleFingers - true, "historic" seems to be one of the major exceptions! I can't really think of any other obvious rule-breakers, but there probably are some. Still, the vowel/consonant sound rule should get you through about 99.5% of all situations! – stangdon Apr 29 '16 at 13:28
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    -1 "Most (if not all) British accents don't pronounce the H at the beginning of 'historical' " That is simply not true. Athough we often write "an historical", I've never heard a British person not pronounce the aitch, except for people who routinely drop the initial aitch from every word (even to the extent that they might even talk about Adolf 'Itler). This is usually considered to be incorrect pronunciation. – David Richerby Apr 29 '16 at 16:15
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"An historic" sounds more natural to me than "a historic," even though I do pronounce the H. The same goes for "hilarious," "heroic," and "habitual." I think it's because the first syllable is unaccented.

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In the US the use of "an historical" is becoming more and more common among American elites and aspiring elites. It was almost unheard of twenty years ago. It is being used as a sign of class distinction In our increasingly stratified society. Those who use it are making deliberate statement that they are not of "The Great Unwashed Masses." I lived among elites throughout the 1980's. They never used "an." I worked at an elite Northeastern college from 2004 to 2014. In 2004 professors and high ranking administrators almost universally used "a." By 2012 at the latest those very same administrators were using "an." The professors' usage was mixed at the time I left. I took note of the affectation several years ago and continued paying attention to it over the years because, at first, I thought it was odd. Over time it became clear to me what was going on. Another good example of this phenomenon is National Public Radio. Their commentators never said "an" before "historical" until about 8 years ago. All of their commentators have been using it for the last couple of years. Some of their reporters still use "a." But, I am sure they have to change their ways to get a promotion.

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    Do you have any references that support your assertions? I find it odd that you have such a distinct memory of the exact time that the usage changed and that so many college administrators said the phrase "a historical" and "an historical" in your presence so often that you noticed it. – ColleenV Apr 29 '16 at 20:50
  • If this isn't an example of the recency illusion, it's probably not reflected in spelling yet, as Google's n-gram viewer (for American English) shows a consistent decline in use of "an historical" ever since a sudden peak around 1810. – Hans Adler Apr 29 '16 at 21:39

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