An Historic Occasion or A Historic Occasion?

I’ll tell you before the end, I promise (I bet he just says that both are correct, he always does). But you can see already, can’t you, how the letter H isn’t so simple even for native speakers.

In fact, it can be quite a controversial letter, sparking more arguments than perhaps any other.

One of the most common deviations from standard use of the letter H is simply not pronouncing at all.

This is known as H-dropping and is a feature of many English dialects, though it’s specifically associated with the Cockney accent of East London and surrounding areas:

‘ere, ‘arry, ‘ave you seen me ‘orse round ‘ere?

Something like that. It varies somewhat in use. Some don’t use it in the middle of a word, or on a stressed syllable. It’s generally an aspect of working-class accents, and is thus often stigmatized as a lower-class, undesirable accent. Some people therefore drop their H’s situationally, such as around friends, but perhaps not at work. Though dropping H’s is largely associated with Cockneys, it’s also found in other accents in England, as well as in Australian and Jamaican English.

And it’s not new as you might think. Records indicate that it was happening at least as early as the 13th century, perhaps as a result of the influence of Norman (the language, not someone called Norman) with its largely silent H‘s. Many of Shakespeare’s jokes relied on dropped H‘s. We can even attribute the existence of the pronoun it to H-dropping. In Middle English it was hit, but the H got lost somewhere along the way.

Curiously enough, there are also some of us who add an H where it doesn’t really belong. Take the letter H itself. Most people around the world pronounce it aitch, but in Ireland it’s always pronounced haitch. No-one knows why exactly, but it may be another case of hypercorrection, based on the assumption that as most letters contain the sound the letter makes in some way, the letter H should therefore begin with the H sound. This pronunciation is becoming more common by the way, and is apparently used by 24% of English people under the age of 35.

Yes, yes, yes, you’re no doubt saying, That’s all very fascinating, but it doesn’t help me know if I should say an historic… or an historic, now does it? 

Not really, no, but that’s a funny case. First, let’s just state the obvious: that we usually use a before words beginning with H, apart from the few words beginning with a silent H like hour, honour, honest, and heir. Going by this logic then, we should use a before words like historic, historical, historian, and hotel. And of course if there’s no need to put the indefinite article a/an before the word, the H is pronounced normally.

And you can. That’s fine. But there’s something interesting about these H words. They all have their stress on the second syllable, and this is the reason some people use an. Partly this is because in the past, the H could be silent on such words. Even though now the H is pronounced, some people continue to use an as a tradition.

However, some people (myself included), feel that an simply sounds better with such words regardless of tradition. Let’s look at historian (stress on second syllable), and history (stress on first syllable). Try saying the following phrases out loud:

A history book.

A historical occasion.

You might have found both equally easy to pronounce, and if you did, that’s great. Some of you though might have found the second a little more awkward, with a pause between a and historical. If you’re one of these people, try replacing a with an, and it’ll probably be much smoother.

It’s hard to state precisely what’s happening here, but it’s definitely true with other H words with a stressed second syllable. I think the rhythm of going from a to the aspirated H sound to the weak vowel form of the first syllable and then to the strong vowel form of the second syllable is too much to do smoothly, leading to the glottal stop between the words.

Using an instead though, allows for a smooth liaison between the two words. I’ll stress again though, that this is only if you find using a with these words awkward. If you don’t, that’s fine, and keeping using a. Judging by the number of people online who get furious at the thought that someone might use an, there are a few of you out there, though I wonder if this another case of hypercorrection: if it begins with an H, it simply has to be preceded by a!

In short then, they’re both correct (Told you!).

14 thoughts on “An Historic Occasion or A Historic Occasion?

  1. Occasionally my church choir sings an older version of the psalms, notably 33.17, which says “An horse is a vain thing for safety”. I don’t dare point out that if we sing ‘an’, we should also sing ”orse’.

    In 1970s Australia, saying ‘haitch’ was a sign of a Roman Catholic school education, or spending too long with people who had.

    Liked by 1 person

        • Well, to tell the truth, that was when my Dad was working at HMP Maze in the mid-70’s. He could tell the background of the prison officers by the H-issue. Quite ironic, given the presence of the H-blocks at HMP Maze.

          Aside: HMP Maze was originally called “Long Kesh,” which I think was someone’s idea of a dark joke, given that a “kesh” is an Irish stew, “stew” being slang as well for trouble/time in behind bars.

          Thankfully, those days are over. Maybe, one day, that part of the world will see proper peace, and not just a truce…

          Liked by 1 person

    • I guess the “an” before is a hangover from when the H would’ve been dropped after the “an.” It must feel odd pronouncing the H after “an,” but it being silent would sound equally weird for a modern person.

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  2. I always think of Irish being closely linked to Scottish. Probably because most people’s ancestors around this area were Irish. That said, we say “aitch” here. I never really thought about it the “an h” thing. I would say “an honest man” though just because it sounds better. When I say it my h is silent though. Interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

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