A memory trick will help you remember the difference.
'A Historic' Versus 'An Historic'
Throughout this podcast so far, I’ve said “a historic” and “a historical.” There are conflicting theories on whether to use “an” or “a” before these words. It’s all a matter of whether you pronounce the “h” sound. One authority, Bill Walsh, feels that Americans incorrectly use “an.” He acknowledges that “some British people pronounce ‘historic’ as ‘istoric,’ and that has led many Americans to believe ‘an historic’ is correct. It is not.” He points out that if you said the words “historic” and “historical” alone, you would hear an “h” sound, so you should say, “a historic” and “a historical” (4). Further, nobody would ever say a song was “an hit.” You'd say the song was “a hit,” and the “hi” sound at the beginning of “hit” is exactly the same as the sound at the beginning of “historic” and “historical.”
On the other hand, The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, a traditionally British-leaning style guide, holds an opposing view (3). It recommends that you say, “an historic” and “an historical,” but “a history.” I personally prefer “a historic” and “a historical,” but no matter which way you choose to say these words, you’re going to offend someone.
So, to sum up, something historic is important, something historical is all in the past, and in my opinion it's better to say “a historic” instead of “an historic.”
This article originally ran September, 9, 2008.
1. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 833.
2. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, pp. 407-8.
3. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 361-2.
4. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000, p. 96.