Don’t call me “an” historian

I object to using the determiner an instead of a in front of the word historian. It seems pretentious and unnatural. I believe almost nobody says “an historian,” yet I read it all the time.

I’ll grant that some English dialects do talk of ’istory and ’istorians. But in most dialects, as well as in what I consider standard usage, people always pronounce the initial h. Because that’s so, I insist that “an historian” (used in writing) is unambiguously pretentious or archaic.

The tradition

The Oxford American Dictionary tries to explain when it’s OK to use an in front of a word beginning with H.

The traditional rule . . . is that if the h is sounded, a is the correct form (a hospital; a hotel). But if the accent is on the second syllable (historic; habitual), there is greater likelihood that, at least in speaking, ‘an habitual’ will sound more natural. One form is not more correct than the other, although some constructions may strike readers as pretentious or old-fashioned (an heroic act; an humanitarian).

I differ with the OAD as to how “natural” it sounds to refer to “an habitual offender,” for example. In the American English I’m familiar with, the initial H in habitual is always audibly pronounced, even in rapid speech.*

It follows that other H-words with stressed second syllables ought to take an as well, if “historian” and “habitual” do. Historians should not be the only professionals distinguished in this way. I should be able to find “an” histologist and “an” hydraulic engineer or two out there, right?

So why can’t I? Anybody have an hypothesis?

Don’t stress out

English has ambiguous rules for stress placement, so the second-stressed-syllable rule that permits “an historian” is, shall we say, a/an haphazard guideline.

Let me offer an hexample or three. Can you distinguish the acceptable usage from the unacceptable?

  1. There’s no need for an hysterical outburst just because an hippopotamus escaped.
  2. Ursula considered herself an heroic sufferer; her nurse thought she was an hypochondriac.
  3. Max is an habitual drunk. But to hear him tell it, he’s an hydroxylation researcher boldly experimenting on his own bloodstream.
  4. Just before taking an hiatus, Professor Test-Case railed against “an hierarchocentric academic regime that fears to establish an hypothesized theoretical foundation for an historically rigorous contribution to critical theory.”
  5. Samuel called his lecture “an hypnotic discourse”; I called it an histrionic fit delivered in monotone.

It’s not immediately obvious, is it?

My advice: Keep it simple. If the word starts with an audible H, use a as the indefinite determiner.

And don’t call me “an” historian.


* I was going to say that the N of an collides with the H in a way that seems anything but natural in English. But I have to allow that there are common words like unhappy in which N and H cooperate in a peaceable manner. What matters more, I think, is the sound of the respective vowels in a and an.
In front of H words, a is usually pronounced like the letter A [IPA: /eɪ/]. Sometimes a is umlauted to a schwa [IPA: /ə/], and in that case the vowel, being more frontal, seems more compatible with a following N, i.e., an. So if you habitually say “an historian,” you probably pronounce it much like “un-historian.”

OK, I can find examples of “an histologist” and “an hydraulic.” I’m exaggerating for rhetorical effect, and in order to set the stage for “an hypothesis.” So sue me.

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6 thoughts on “Don’t call me “an” historian

  1. I think, specifically, it’s an archaic, pretentious demonstration that you know the Greek root (istoria), which is why you may see it applied to a few other words and why – if it’s not something genuinely and generally applied due to it being delivered in a non-standard British(?) English dialect – it sounds *so* archaic and pretentious.

    For example, I’ve heard people argue that you can’t split an infinitive in English because you can’t split one in Greek (which is both pretentious and nonsensical).

  2. I believe almost nobody says “an historian”…

    Since writing that, I have noticed that the radio show and podcast Backstory with the American History Guys often blurbs guests as “an ’istorian” from Such-and-Such University. But on several occasions they’ve described a guest as “a historian” instead. I’m sure most listeners don’t notice, but I’ve wondered whether the producers ask guests which indeifinite determiner they each prefer to be associated with.

  3. Having been an historian for some time (doctorate in ’98), I beg to differ that ‘almost nobody’ describes themselves that way. Nor am I trying to be pretentious (I have other ways to do that). It’s absolutely genuinely the way I speak. ‘A historian’ feels incredibly clumsy to me. Perhaps it has something to do with where the tongue ends up after ‘a’ instead of ‘an’.

    And my blog gets lots of hits from people searching for ‘a or an historian’. So it’s that a lot of other people are uncertain about this issue.

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