Column: One for the history books


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Somewhere in a secret laboratory (probably in Minsk), a team of thermodynamic scientists worked for years to perfect the to-go mug that hermetically traps heat, keeping your coffee or tea hot for hours. They traded handshakes and perhaps a few high-fives before scalding their taste buds on some celebratory hot chocolate. It was certainly a historic occasion in the field of drink-container science.

My biggest question isn’t a grammar question. I want to know: Just how long do we need to keep our drinks hot? Is it that important for our coffee to stay at near-boiling temperatures for up to six hours? I think the whole industry needs to cool off a bit.

Now, here’s my grammar question: Should you write/say “a historic” or “an historic”? Let’s dive in.

When you think about world-changing events like the moon landing, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or the cup scientists perfecting a heat-sealing tumbler, you probably imagine someone referring to any of these as “an historic” occasion. Technically, this isn’t correct! So, what’s the rule?

Use the article “an” when it precedes any word that starts with a vowel sound. This certainly applies to words that begin with a silent “h,” including heir, honor and hour. It doesn’t apply to words in which you pronounce the “h” sound, such as heroic, hysterical or historic. So, why do people put “an” in front of those words? Probably because at some point back in England people dropped the “h” sound in these words and supplied “an” before them (to properly imagine this, I hear someone speaking in a thick Cockney accent). The article “an” hung on although people started to uniformly pronounce the “h” sound in these words.

Old habits die hard — like when I take a swig of my morning tea too early even though I know it’s still way too hot. Either people still add “an” before words like historic because they learned to say it that way from previous generations, or they’re just snooty. There’s a fancy term for speech or writing that is only designed to impress: It’s called an “affectation.” For most people, they probably add “an” because that’s how they’ve always heard it pronounced. For people who prefer to be snooty, I heard there’s a great sale at the monocle store: All glasses are half off.