Have you ever been reading a newspaper article or something and come across a phrase like "the ceremony was an historic occasion?" God knows I have, and it has always confused me.
I don’t know about you, but I was taught to use “an” before words that begin with a vowel. The word “historic” clearly starts with the letter “H,” which is a consonant. Soooooo, what’s the deal??
I looked into it, and here’s what I found out: “an” is the form of the indefinite article that is used before a spoken vowel sound: it doesn’t matter how the written word in question is actually spelled. So, we say ‘an honour’, ‘an hour’, or ‘an heir’, for example, because the initial letter ‘h’ in all three words is not actually pronounced. By contrast we say ‘a hair’ or ‘a horse’ because, in these cases, the ‘h’ is pronounced.
There are three words in particular that tend to cause problems: historic, horrific, and hotel. If hotel was pronounced without its initial letter ‘h’ (i.e. as if it were spelled ‘otel’), then it would be correct to use an in front of it. The same is true of historic and horrific. If horrific was pronounced ‘orrific’ and historic was pronounced ‘istoric’ then it would be appropriate to refer to ‘an istoric occasion’ or ‘an orrific accident’. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people often did pronounce these words in this way.
Today, though, these three words are generally pronounced with a spoken ‘h’ at the beginning and so it’s now more logical to refer to ‘a hotel’, ‘a historic event’, or ‘a horrific accident’.
So there you have it, folks, I was right all along. Don’t write “an historic.” You’ll look like an idiot.