Friday, 19 February 2010

Calm Down, Don't Get Historical!

Today's update is more a point of pedantry than anything to do with language. When it comes to grammar, I'm usually fairly relaxed about what other people choose to do, so long as I can read it. Still, there are some things which get my goat, and it's quite tricky to ignore them. If I rant now, then they'll fly away into the ether, and I'll never yell at the telly again.

If you watch the news at all, you're bound to come across someone saying that this is "an historic moment". Is it? The issue of whether what the poor reporter's experiencing is of any value aside, is in "an historical" or "a historical"? As far as I know, there's no definitive answer (there never is), so I'll force my opinion in your face instead.

There are basic rules we all use when we speak, whether we're aware of them or not. If we look on the surface, a good rule of thumb is to say that we use "a" when a word starts with a consonant, and "an" when it starts with a vowel. Most of the time, that's simple enough to get you through life, but, like most things regarding language, it's a little more complicated than that.

Let's take a moment to pick some holes in this rule. You don't have "an one off experience", or "a hour to kill", yet both of these things are within the limits we previously set. If they're wrong, we need to take a closer look at what's going on. What we find, if we stare at the screen and mouth things for long enough, is that it's actually about how words sound. "One" is actually pronounces "wun", which opens with a consonant, whereas "hour" is "awa", starting with a vowel. Easy to see how we came up with the first rule, as most consonants sound like consonants, and vowels like vowels. Still, we know better now, don't we?

But where does this leave us with "historical"? It strikes me that a lot of people might not be aware of our little discovery above, but ignorance is no excuse. Once again, I think we have a case of a teacher liking one spelling over the other, and teaching it to a class who teach it to others, and so on. Alternatively, there's the explanation that lots of people drop the "h" when pronouncing "historical", making it "istorical", and thus beginning with a vowel, and it's just stuck.

It seems, then, that the whole problem boils down to pronunciation. If you're starting with a very obvious "h", then use the "a". That's the thing with news reporters, they use the "h" with "an". In that respect, it sounds a little grated and awkward; all for the sake of being precise.

As a final note, I was reading something earlier which suggested that the way we use "the" is a direct parallel with "a"/"an". Apparently, if you say "the" like "thee", you're about to follow it with a word you'd give an "an", whereas "the" pronounced "ther" goes as the article instead of "a". Try it out with some random words, then try "historical", and maybe you can settle the debate once and for all...

(P.S. I noticed this week that the British branch of Reader's Digest has gone into administration. Reports are coming in all over the country of people who care about books jumping for joy!)


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