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Dear People raised in the UK or Canada, and other people who like filling out polls:

Which of the following would you normally use?

an historian
a historian

Which of the following would you normally use?

an historical figure
a historical figure

Languages are challenging, not least because they keep changing. "an historian" and "an historical figure" were some of the British grammatical quirks I got down early.

Only now, the internet tells me, times, they are a changin'. It's okay to use "a" instead of "an" for histor* words in British Englishes. I would like some more evidence on the subject one way or the other.


( 61 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 10th, 2011 04:22 am (UTC)
I've come across this question before and as a result I'm not sure. Both are correct depending on how you pronounce your haches in in those cases (I seem to recall some people would go a history but an historical figure). I think my natural tendency is to say a historian and a historical figure and would naturally tend to pronounce the haches with some prominence, but I can pretty easily say an historian and an historical figure. Interestingly I think adding the "an" leads me to the partial elision of the h, so I will say something closer to an 'istorian and an 'istorical figure when I switch to the use of "an."
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 10th, 2011 10:23 am (UTC)
So you don't fall into the third category of people, those who like filling out polls?
Feb. 10th, 2011 07:21 am (UTC)
I think in a standard British accent the 'h' in those words is only faintly aspirated. It's not exactly 'istorian, but it's a very soft h. Hence 'a -H-istorian' makes you sound the H too strongly, it sounds strange to my ears.

I find things like this very interesting.
Feb. 10th, 2011 11:16 am (UTC)
This is spot on. Well - actually - the an rule applies to words with a French origin. I think the US difference is probably one of those bits of Mayflower English that went over before we went all Frenchified in the 1680s and then had that mode standardised by Johnson.

Think about how dreadful 'an horse' sounds. It's most definitely a horse. But anyone saying 'an 'otel' sounds like they can afford to stay in a good one, in my book.
(no subject) - communicator - Feb. 10th, 2011 12:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 10th, 2011 07:41 am (UTC)
I detest the "an histor*" construction. It makes no sense logically and I've never really seen a truly cogent argument in its favour. As a matter of plain English, I change it to "a histor*" in texts I'm editing.

(Before any readers get too outraged, I generally edit newspaper articles. Were I going through someone's book, I'd leave it as-is because it's part of their authorial voice -- much as I'd hate doing so.)
Feb. 10th, 2011 08:10 am (UTC)
Blast - I keep forgetting we can't 'like' things in LJ. Consider this comment 'liked', both semantically and thematically (and possibly ecumenically).
Feb. 10th, 2011 07:57 am (UTC)
I was taught 'an' only if it's silent, and not to drop my h's. So a hotel, but an honour. In writing, I'd probably redraft to avoid the construction.
Feb. 10th, 2011 09:40 am (UTC)
You know - that is probably the rule I use as well, but not consciously.
Feb. 10th, 2011 08:05 am (UTC)
Just to muck things up (and coming from the bottom of the world, where we don't really speak English anyway...) I would say 'a historian', but might say 'an historical occasion'. Or I might reverse them. But down here we pronounce the 'h', so really it should be 'a'.
Feb. 10th, 2011 10:25 am (UTC)
I often want to address poll questions to southern hemisphere speakers of English variants, but you are so relatively few on my f'list cumulatively that it always feels presumptuous to hope that many or any of you will happen to fill out a given language poll. And then all of you always do, for which I am grateful.
(no subject) - zcat_abroad - Feb. 10th, 2011 07:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 10th, 2011 09:23 am (UTC)
Well, back in the 1960s at my Grammar School in Sheffield I was told, firmly, that 'an' was incorrect because the lack of a vowel at the beginning of the following world.
Feb. 10th, 2011 09:39 am (UTC)
My gut feeling is that in both cases "an" is the correct usage, but I deliberately use "a" because it feels better to me - and there is no possibility for misunderstanding.

Feb. 10th, 2011 12:21 pm (UTC)
I would say both are correct, but 'an' much more mellifluous.
Feb. 10th, 2011 12:52 pm (UTC)
I was taught (by my Ma rather than a teacher in my school) that it's an. It's nothing to do with whether the h is pronounced and something to do with whether the stress is on the first or second syllable and is something to do with the French. I'm a bit vague on the details...
Feb. 10th, 2011 02:39 pm (UTC)
I think I'd say AN before a word beginning with an unaccented but pronounced H. Thus an hotel, an historian, an hypothesis; but A sounds ok too and I doubt I'm consistent. At some point I was told that only the A is correct.

What did you learn to say at home?
Feb. 10th, 2011 02:42 pm (UTC)
I learned "a historian" and "a historical". I think of "an", at least in terms of written work, as being a Britishism I had to learn. (Only now I'm working on the degree to which I should unlearn it, on the basis of this poll and discussion.)
Feb. 10th, 2011 03:39 pm (UTC)
I would certainly write "a historian", but if I were speaking quickly I might go with "an" just because that would allow me to elide the h: I find "a histor-" slightly difficult to say. Which I've always assumed to be the original motive behind that curious English habit of silencing the h, but really truly we hardly do it any more. The last person I heard speak of "an 'otel" (in an upper-class accent) was John Betjeman, and that was long ago. [Oh - unless it was Robert Robinson. He might still do it.]

And I get to laugh at Karen on an almost-weekly basis, because she says "'erb" in that weird American way, when it quite clearly has a valid h on the front.
Feb. 10th, 2011 04:58 pm (UTC)
Just was thinking, is this a question for that fancy new Google lexeme too?
Feb. 10th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - tsutanai - Feb. 10th, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tsutanai - Feb. 10th, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 10th, 2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
Oops. I misread that as "US" rather than "UK". I have now destroyed your poll results. *sobs*
Feb. 10th, 2011 05:13 pm (UTC)
No, no, read *even more carefully* the three categories of people who should fill out the poll.
(no subject) - sioneva - Feb. 10th, 2011 05:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Feb. 10th, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sioneva - Feb. 10th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 10th, 2011 09:24 pm (UTC)
I was alwasy taught that "an" should be used as the "h" isn't strong enough by itself.
But on reading your poll, my first thought was that I'd never use a/an historian. Electrians, Plumbers, even piano tuners, but never historians.
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( 61 comments — Leave a comment )