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Thread: A/An History

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    Local Pedant Contributor lazserus's Avatar
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    A/An History

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    I'm sure some of you writers are curious about the proper use of the indefinite article preceding the word history in written form. Is it a history or an history? More frequently professional writers are adopting an history, so there's some confusion floating around.

    In English speech (and especially writing) the indefinite article a precedes a noun beginning in a consonant and an preceding a noun beginning in a vowel. Consider an apple and a pear. The word history is borrowed into English but its usage begins with the glottal fricative /h/ (like in high), which is treated as a consonant and not a vowel. Although some British dialects omit /h/ from the word, according to English grammar and speech practices, it should be preceded by a and not an. It doesn't matter how it's processed in dialectal form, that is, how you actually say it matters not. In some parts of the U.S. the word barn is pronounce /ban/ (baan/bon), but that doesn't change how the word is spelled or read on the page.

    Enough of the scientific mumbo jumbo. Anyone, professional or amateur, using an history in written form is wrong. The proper use in the English language, no matter which dialect of English you speak, is a history.

    Let's make this real clear for the lazy folk.

    RIGHT: A HISTORY
    WRONG: an history
    Last edited by lazserus; Dec 29th, 2010 at 7:28 PM. Reason: Merely bolded certain items

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    FlatLiner Contributor DontBeAfraid's Avatar
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    Little Bird of Prey phedrereine's Avatar
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    I think some people are tempted to say "an history" because they have heard "an historic" so often and they think it sounds more proper. "An historic" is correct in a classic grammar approach because traditionally some words that begin with "h" and have an emphasis on the second syllable can be used with the article "an". The reasoning here is that when the second syllable is the emphasis, the "h" is often fainter, so it's like you're starting with the vowel after the "h". The thing is today, even with these types of words, like "historian" or "hereditary" or "hospitable", we have started to say the "h" as strongly as we do in, say, "happy." So it's a disappearing usage, although it's still somewhat common in the U.K.
    Last edited by phedrereine; Dec 20th, 2010 at 5:09 PM.
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    nomy-logy astro's law jig Contributor Astroboy's Avatar
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    An is the use of these vowels; AEIOU


    And his story, lazserus seemed to think that we don't know that.


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    Didn't want any Yahwehs now eh?

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    Local Pedant Contributor lazserus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by phedrereine View Post
    "An historic" is correct in a classic grammar approach because traditionally some words that begin with "h" and have an emphasis on the second syllable can be used with the article "an".
    We are talking about English, no? English is Germanic and thus early English also followed the Germanic convention of applying primary stress to the first syllable. Borrowed words of non-Germanic origin are a little easier to identify given the stress pattern. The primary stress, however, can be somewhat difficult to identify in present-day pronunciation, thus making it more difficult to isolate German words in the English lexicon.

    The point I'm making here is that the word history is not Germanic and thus does not follow conventional Germanic stress patterns in speech. Let's reconsider the word history for a moment: Even pronounced as a glottal fricative, the /h/ does not become a syllable on its own. There is no particularly relevant stress of /h/ or /I/ in the word, thus the omission of /h/ in certain English dialects changes nothing. (Consider the phonetic [hɪsri] vs [ɪsri].)

    In Modern English of any dialect an history (or even an historic) is incorrect in written form.

    You mention "classic" grammar, so I'm curious to which period you're referring.

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    Cart-mod 2.0 Global Moderator Cartesiantheater's Avatar
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    This is why I'm annoyed by the English Department... ;)


    But my personal, unprofessional opinion on the matter is that languages are constantly evolving, so the English Department ought to chill a bit. But of course, I am quite ignorant on the subject, so perhaps it's time to put my proverbial foot in my mouth.
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    Local Pedant Contributor lazserus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cartesiantheater View Post
    This is why I'm annoyed by the English Department... ;)


    But my personal, unprofessional opinion on the matter is that languages are constantly evolving, so the English Department ought to chill a bit. But of course, I am quite ignorant on the subject, so perhaps it's time to put my proverbial foot in my mouth.
    It's not a matter of pronunciation, it's a matter of prescriptive grammatical standards.

    I certainly empathize with your frustration. Spoken English and written English are completely different, same as any other spoken language differs from its written form. Written language is not meant to mimic speech, it's meant to recreate speech to a degree. I'm sure you don't write a paper in the same dialect as you speak with your friends, nor do you use the same vernacular. Languages are always evolving - sure - but written language is not changing so much lately. The point is, write right!

    I won't go into a linguistic history comparing spoken and written language, but something should be said regarding your frustration:

    How one speaks is one thing, and we all change the way we speak, the words we use and the way we pronounce them, dependent on our speech environment. Speech isn't the issue here; writing is the issue. It was fine to write in vernacular 900 years-ago, but it's not fine now. The glottal fricative /h/ in English is not a universally silent consonant. Because it is a non-English word (no natural English word begins in a silent consonant) the /h/ is always treated as apparent in writing.

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    Survivalist! Freddy's Avatar
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    Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant is how the cover reads.

    Also Arnold Toynbee's "An Historian's Approach to Religion" does.
    "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" G. Santayana

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    Little Bird of Prey phedrereine's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lazserus View Post
    We are talking about English, no? English is Germanic and thus early English also followed the Germanic convention of applying primary stress to the first syllable. Borrowed words of non-Germanic origin are a little easier to identify given the stress pattern. The primary stress, however, can be somewhat difficult to identify in present-day pronunciation, thus making it more difficult to isolate German words in the English lexicon.

    The point I'm making here is that the word history is not Germanic and thus does not follow conventional Germanic stress patterns in speech. Let's reconsider the word history for a moment: Even pronounced as a glottal fricative, the /h/ does not become a syllable on its own. There is no particularly relevant stress of /h/ or /I/ in the word, thus the omission of /h/ in certain English dialects changes nothing. (Consider the phonetic [hɪshttp://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/...una/thinsp.pnghttp://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/...una/thinsp.pngri] vs [ɪshttp://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/...una/thinsp.pnghttp://sp.dictionary.com/dictstatic/...una/thinsp.pngri].)
    I wasn't talking about distant etymology, or arguing with you about it. I'm just commenting on why some people get confused about this issue in today's world. This is a very well-discussed topic for grammarians. The "h" started to become more pronounced in words beginning with it, but having the accent on the second syllable, within the 20th century, so it's a relatively new shift.

    Quote Originally Posted by lazserus View Post
    (or even an historic) is incorrect in written form.
    That is debatable. I don't think you could solidly say one way or the other.
    "But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean."

  10. #10
    Local Pedant Contributor lazserus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by phedrereine View Post
    That is debatable. I don't think you could solidly say one way or the other.
    The only reason I say this with any solidarity is because it's well-published in both American- and British-English grammar books.

    No spoken form is incorrect. Written form has rules that the "establishment" follows. Fortunately, this rule is not one that's frequently observed or enforced. But technically, the rule I mention is intact in all forms of English in the written form. If you have doubts look it up.

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