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Go roll an hoop

What with the way the word historic has been flung around since the election Barack Obama to the presidency, it was bound to draw the language mavens.

Mighty Red Pen addressed one of the most common issues, the differentiation between historic, describing an event from the past that is significant, and historical, describing any past event. A useful distinction worth maintaining.

But the blood pressure starts to soar and the voices go up half an octave when someone asks whether it is better to say a historic event or an historic event. Editrix goes into some detail on the subject, and Bill Walsh is emphatic on it. The people who get thoroughly involved tend to suggest that an historic is suspect, pretentious, affected, un-American. If you say an historic, you probably have an illegal immigrant locked in the basement whom you pay a dollar a week to launder and press your spats.

And who am I to disagree with Bill Walsh and Bryan Garner?

Well, I am a person who says an historic, an hotel, an Hispanic, for a reason. Not all h’s are equal. Words in English beginning with h that are accented on the second syllable are more lightly aspirated than words beginning with h that are accented on the first. If I pronounced the word hotel, as HO-tel, like some rube, I would say a hotel. But I say an hotel — not an ’otel; the h is still audible, but faintly.

So bring me up before the House Committee on Un-American Pronunciation. I’ll obey the subpoena, but I’m not naming names.

That’s my personal preference. My opinion as an editor is that this is one more non-issue that wastes valuable time. If a text passes under my hands that reads a historic, stet; if it reads an historic, stet. Don’t we have more important things to do?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:27 AM | | Comments (17)


Rubes, huh?

I suppose you think the 7th month is Ju-LY, too.

I was taught that the distinction in our pronunciation of H's stems from the French aspirated and non aspirated H's.

e.g. : l'hotel (o-tel) and le Havre.

Well said. Some people legitimately say "an historic," so why should we alter their words? It's not actually making the writing better in any way, so why bother?

You know, it's weird. I use both a and an, and there's no rhyme or reason to it, but it's consistent.

"An hotel" doesn't sound right to me. But, I say "An historic event" because it does sound right. And in my regional speech, there's no different between these two particular H's. It might look inconsistent, but I'm consistent in my inconsistency. I always say those two the same way.

When I think about it, I have trouble figuring out what I actually say, but if I just say it, it's obvious.

H is maybe the oddest letter this side of Y. Take the word "herb," for example. All of us Americans know that you don't say the H. You leave it silent, like the Brits do. Only they don't. And least not on that word.

I guess it's just one of those things you pronounce the way you pronounce it.

With respect to historic versus historical, I always thought the best way to differentiate them was this: If something is history-making, it's historic; if it's already made history, it's historical. (That is, "historic" can refer to a present-day event thought to be history-making; I don't agree that it has to refer to a past event.)

I have no comment on "a" versus "an," except to say that we have it much easier than German-speakers do; they've got to contend with a whole plethora of variations and know when to use each one: ein, eine, einer, eines, einen, einem, and maybe one or two others I've forgotten from college.

You say tomato, I say solanum lycopersicum.

Some people legitimately say "an historic," so why should we alter their words?

I think this gets into a different question, not of whether the writer would say "an historic," but whether the publication would. Haven't we made hundreds of other rulings on words, phrases or idioms that our respective publications would or wouldn't use?

Sir, you are a fool. An 'H' is aspirated or it is not! t is not a little bit aspirated!! You have appauling English and instead of listening to your betters you attempt to re-write the language. Forgive my spelling, English is my second language.

What are spats?

(ha! my verification letter is h)

I just was checking updates and noticed that all five are my buds from D@L. Very interesting.

And now I'm here too, RtSO.

Well hi OMG.

What are spats?

Ooooo! Ooooo! I know this one! Spats are show coverings. Scrooge McDuck wears them.


I suspect Monty Burns sports them also. 23 skidoo.

I had a really good site with Uncle Scrooge wearing them. Clearly, I need to practice my linking.

The parlor seems to be our second home, if D@L is a little slow.

Now I know where everybody is!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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