Huffing H’s

More and more, I hear American public speakers using “an” before the word “historical,” as in “it was an historical moment.” People who do that drop the H sound on “historical,” so they’re actually saying, “an ‘istorical moment” as if they were Cockney. They probably wouldn’t say “an ‘eavenly host,” or “an ‘ot day,” but “an ‘istorical” slides out easily.

That H-sound is sticky. While we used to say “an herb,” and drop the aspirated H, now it’s considered more correct to huff the H and say “a herb.” I still say “an ‘erb,” but my inner Eliza Doolittle cringes when I hear “an ‘istorical.” On the other hand, I would never write “Mary killed her husband with an herb in his tea” because it looks wrong in print, and it makes me itchy when I read articles about “an historic election.”

Sorry to go on so about a dumb H. This kind of obsession is probably what prompted Lynne Truss to write the wonderful book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I wish she’d write one about dropped H’s.


2 thoughts on “Huffing H’s

  1. I’ve been noticing that usage in the past few months due to the elections. But when I tried to use it in my own conversations I felt odd because I couldn’t pronounce “historical” correctly. It’s good to know it wasn’t my English that was failing.

  2. The idiosyncratic ‘an’. It was so bothersome. Reading, editing and scoring papers . . . split infinitives, dangling participles, run on sentences, mispelled words, capitialization and capitalization mishaps . . . enough to drive an academic to his early grave.

    Then one day, I stepped off my high 20th C. steepled perch and realized: What really matters? Form or Function? Rarely did I say “both”. Form ruled the day (at least for boomers born on or before 1958).

    I’ve made the full circle. So for the infamouse “an historic” or “an ocean” or “an igloo”, frankly Ms. Scarlett, I don’t give a damn. 🙂


    Dr. Jon

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