Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

Historically problematic

Posted by Noel Sanchez on November 14, 2008

The election brought up a couple of style rules that I hadn’t previously had the privilege of using.

Among them are “historic” vs. “historical.”

A historic event is one of significance. This was a historic presidential election.

A historical event is any event that happened in the past, but I rarely see “historical” used to describe an event. More often, it’s used to signify that something is of or related to history. We looked at historical documents, for example.

The rules is simple; it’s just a matter of learning it.

Now, a trickier rule is whether to use “an” or “a” before the word historic. I have heard this argument go back and forth between people. I’ve even had my little “a” struck through by a red pen in high school.

I’m a proponent of “a historic” I pronounce the h when I say it, and I would, therefore, use “a.” I’m not British. I don’t lop off the h and pronounce it “istoric.”

The AP Stylebook agrees with me. John McIntyre does not. He argues that words beginning with h that are accented on the second syllable are less aspirated and, therefore, take an “an.” He suggests that copy editors leave both “an historic” and “a historic” alone when they come across it.

I’m going to have to go with AP on this one. While I feel for people who naturally say “an historic,” it seems to me like an idiosyncrasy among American English speakers. I have rarely encountered people who naturally (and naturalness is key) say “istoric.” Again, the only time I’ve heard the word used that way has been among British English speakers.

Consistency is key, and “a historic” wins out.

More election-related style tips to come!


One Response to “Historically problematic”

  1. Deborah said

    I know what you mean–no one gets this!

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