Friday, December 12, 2008

A Conundrum of Historical Proportions

From today’s Vancouver Sun review of Frost/Nixon:

“…a film that is more a study in the psychology of guilt than it is an historical turning point.”

At first blush it seems quite straightforward: use “a” with consonant sounds and use “an” with vowel sounds. Some vowels can make consonant sounds (so we get “what a unique way to wear a uniform”) and some consonants can make vowel sounds (“it would be an honor to meet you in an hour”). But what about an historic?

Bill Walsh, veteran copyeditor and author of Lapsing Into a Comma, is adamant. “Some British people pronounce ‘historic’ as ‘istoric,’ he writes, “and that has led many Americans to believe an historic is correct. It is not.”

Harrumph. Ok, Bill, but I know that in speaking I say “That was an historic occasion, seeing you in your unique French Maid’s uniform for an hour.” And it’s not like I go around talking about al-yoo-mini-um foil and tyres on lorries.

Bill is unswayed. “Many Americans will argue that they say “an historic”—that may be true, but it’s because they’re letting “an” do the driving. Ask them to pronounce historic all by itself and you’ll no doubt hear the h.”

But that’s just it. We’re not talking about pronouncing historic by itself; we’re talking about riding along with “a” or “an.” And if “an” is doing the driving, as he says, maybe it’s because it’s the better driver. Just try enunciating “a historic.” It feels as natural as saying “an banana.” Nevertheless, as Bill Bryson writes, “Some British authorities allow an before hotel, historian, heroic and hypothesis, but most prefer a.” So there you have it. Only with those aspirated h-words, only according to some people, and only if you have tea and biscuits and pronounce extraordinary as if it had two syllables.

I would go online and see how other language nerds are dealing with this pressing issue, but as Marge said in an episode of The Simpsons I watched last night, “I don’t want to bother the Internet with my problems.”