RE. a vs. an?

Subject: RE. a vs. an?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 8 Mar 2000 10:38:26 -0500

Kelly Parr wondered about <<...the grammatical rule for using: "an
historical moment.">>

It's definitely a historical relic in the speech of those who drop their h's
(e.g., Brits, French, et al.). It's certainly an affectation (or
misunderstanding of the rule) in normal North American speech. However (and
this is the techwhirler tie-in), it is apparently accepted and standard
usage in some fields, history in particular. (I'm basing this opinion on a
thread a few years back on the copyediting-l list, in which some academic
editors explained that "an historical" is indeed accepted usage.) Here's the
supposed logic behind this usage: The problem with "a historical" is that
the prefix "a" can also mean negation (e.g., asystoly = the absence of a
heartbeat), so rather than reading "a historical fact" as "an example of a
real historical fact", some readers might mistake it for "an ahistorical
fact" (i.e., a myth or outright error).

This logic is spurious for two compelling reasons: first, the prefix "an"
can also mean negation (e.g., anhydrous = lacking water, anencephaly =
lacking a brain cf. historians <g>); second, the context should always make
it clear what is meant in a well-edited manuscript. Unfortunately, much
though this logic irritates me (speaking as an editor), I have to accept the
fact that a particular discourse community (the historians) has chosen to
use words in a manner that conflicts with common usage. But that's their
choice, and I lack the power to tell them they're wrong and make them change
their usage. So were I to edit a manuscript for an audience of historians,
which is unlikely (way, way outside my field of expertise) I'd have to
swallow my objections and let the usage stand. Rule #1 of techwhirling: know
thy foe (the audience) <g> and speak appropriately to them.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Hofstadter's Law: The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

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