Why “An Historian”?

I occasionally get questions and comments about the title of this blog, so I thought I should offer a brief explanation. Why is this blog titled “An Historian Goes to the Movies” and not “A Historian Goes to the Movies”?

Short answer: Because it feels right to me.

Long answer: Obviously in English, we use the indefinite article ‘a’ before words that begin with consonants and ‘an’ before words that begin with vowel sounds. ‘However, h’,’ is a very weak consonant. When it’s the first letter of a word, sometimes we pronounce it (as in ‘happy’) and sometimes we don’t (as in ‘honor’ or ‘hour’), so sometimes it takes ‘a’ and sometimes it takes ‘an’.

In the case of ‘historian’ and related words (‘history’, ‘historical’), we technically pronounce the ‘h’. If you say the word aloud all on its own, the ‘h’ is clearly there. However, the accent in ‘historian’ is on the second syllable, not the first, so there’s a tendency to de-emphasize the ‘h’ and say something a little closer to ‘istorian’. So when the ‘h’ starts to disappear, ‘an’ starts to be more acceptable.

In the 18th and 19th century, the standard rule was to say ‘an historian’, but over the course of the 20th century, American English has tended to shift away from that and say ‘a historian’. But British English still tends to say ‘an historian’. Although I’m American, I grew up watching a lot of British television shows and apparently this somehow crept into my English, because ‘an historian’ simply feels natural to me and ‘a historian’ feels clumsy. Every time I try to say it the American way, it just feels ugly and wrong. So the title of this blog is “An Historian Goes to the Movies”.

If you want a fuller discussion of the issue, here’s one.

20 thoughts on “Why “An Historian”?”

  1. I am Canadian (and thus share in most North Americanisms), but I likewise picked up the habit of saying “an historian” from the British. And spelling mediaeval with an a.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you ever stayed in an hotel?

    Brian.

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  3. Sometimes. But the accent falls on the first syllabus, so it’s less common.

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  4. I live in the UK and have never heard nor read any usage of “an historian” that didn’t come from an American.

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  5. Oh come now, it’s totally pretentious. I still like you, but, seriously…

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  6. Bob Pye said:

    If the word begins with “H” in french, then it is considered silent and the word an should be used. This is why one should say a horse and not an horse as the french equivalent is cheval.

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    • I’m sorry, but the idea that English pronunciation should follow French pronunciation makes no sense to me. That may be where a word began its evolution into English, but that tells us nothing about how modern English pronunciation functions in practice.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Just to throw this out there – “an historian” and “a historian” are both 100% grammatically acceptable. English grammar is more flexible than most people realize, and the “rule of thumb” is to use “an” before an “h” word that has a vowel sound. Also, we don’t always use “an” before words that start with vowels. For example, you would use “a” before “unique” in the phrase “a unique story.” It’s the hard vs. soft sound that follows the “a” or “an” that determines which one of the two should be used. If you don’t pronounce the “h” is historian when you say “a historian” and instead say “an (h)istorian” and drop the h sound entirely, the words glide together. Most people aren’t aware that grammar IS a flexible thing, so I wanted to comment and show my support for “an historian” – it is, after all, correct grammar. ;p

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  8. I’ve noticed that the radio show “Backstory with the American History Guys” blurbs its guests with either “a historian” or “an historian.” I’ve never asked, but I assume they ask each guest for their preference. http://backstoryradio.org

    I made a case against “an historian” a while back. https://alarob.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/not-an-historian/

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  9. An historian
    A history buff

    And yeah so count me old-fashioned (and English) but it is also “an hotel” still for me at least in written things.

    And re the following french thing is because many of our words are taken directly from the french (remember those Normans? — wasn’t it that “English” gained about 10K of our words from them?) so adopting some of the grammar along with the words makes sense to me.

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    • It’s much easier to borrow words than grammar. For example, in English we always put the adjectives before the noun they modify. In French, most adjectives go after the noun. So where we say ‘a black dress’, they literally say ‘a dress black’ (‘une robe noire’). It would be very odd for an English speaker to borrow that grammar, even though we did borrow ‘robe’, although the meaning shifted to a long gown that splits down the front.

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  10. I was just discussing this with an American author friend. I am a Brit writer but my editor is American and she’d changed ‘a herbalist’ to ‘an herbalist’ – I changed it back. But I wasn’t sure. I write in British English. I thought it was to do with the soft/hard consonant sounds but wasn’t sure.

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  11. “… any man who deserves the name of an historian …” (Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwick, in “Athenian Letters” [1800])

    “For although it be necessary for an historian to write the truth …” (“The Works of Flavius Josephus” [1806])

    “But though we have rejected Mr. Mac Pherson as an historian …” (Sylvester O’Halloran, in “An Introduction to and an History of Ireland” [1803])

    “An Historian, must not, however, confound these three with each other …” (Sir Levett Hanson in “An Accurate Historical Account of All the Orders of Knighthood at Present” [1802])

    “Use of Language to an Historian” (Joseph Priestley, in “Lectures on History and General Policy” [1803])

    This is only the first five in ten pages of the first section of examples of “an historian” from English writers, via the Google Ngram below — which gives a slow-but-steady rise for “a historian” from 1800 to 2000, but a dramatic decrease for “an historian” from 1800 to 1860 followed by a fairly steady decrease thereafter.

    https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=an+historian%2Ca+historian&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=18&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Can%20historian%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Ca%20historian%3B%2Cc0

    So, yes, it may sound *slightly* pretentious now — in some circles, mind — but is completely justified for … an historian.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Peter McNally said:

    I would typically write “an historian” and usually speak the same. However sometimes I speak “ā historian”, but when using the “ā” instead of “an”, I pause for some reason as in “You’d know her, she’s ā (pause) historian.” Why do I do these things? Because it just sounds, or feels . . . right.

    I was taught by nuns.

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  13. David Baltzer said:

    A historic occasion
    An historic occasion

    In grade school back in the 70s in upstate New York we were always taught that ‘a’ was correct. ‘An’ has seemed profoundly awkward since the first time I saw it used. I took to asking ‘Who is Ann and why is she mucking up the language?!?’ LOL

    I will say, however, that when folks from various parts of the UK basically drop the h entirely and give it that an ‘istoric sound it is not displeasing to the ears. 🙂

    What’s up with American ‘judgment’ and UK ‘judgement’? I must say that I favor the latter. Or is it favour….

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