Thursday, November 06, 2008

Historical Vs. Historic, A Vs. An

I don't know why I let this stuff get to me, but my skin crawls every time I hear someone utter the word "historical" to describe Obama's election. Even trained journalists make the mistake. I just googled it and found two examples (1, 2) of misuse of the word. (OK, yes, one is from India. I cut them some slack, but I have less patience for native English speakers)

Obama's election was a major HISTORICAL event and thereby HISTORIC. To further clarify, HISTORIC is in reference to the importance of the event, and HISTORICAL event is something that happened. My birth was a historical event, but my life has not achieved a level of importance sufficient enough to describe the event as historic. HISTORICAL may also refer to how HISTORIC an event is. My birth has relatively no historical significance. It was not an historic event.

On the EFL/TEFL site there is a discussion. Hbae787 writes (correctly):
Historical : About or related to history. Doesn't need to carry any important or memorable connotation.
ex: I don't want to go to a movie that is full of historical events.
- She loves historical novels.
- There are many historical documents in Washington DC's libraries.

Historic : having a historical significance; marking a memorable event.
ex: I want to see a movie about the historic battles in WWII.
- She loves the novels that deal with historic romances such as the one involving Napoleon and Josephine.
- A historic document, the "Hongkong Colonization Treaty" signed in late 19th century, was unveiled by the Smithsonian in Washington DC last week.
On a related tanget - One rule I never got was the "an" before "historic." But a poster in the same discussion on had the answer and it makes sense. Apparently, In olden days the h that started many words was silent. An 'istoric event. But shouldn't that be changed today? Well, actually it has been.

A quick bit of Googling reveals that — as of March 2008 — the phrase "a historic" is used on 5.1 million pages (68%), and "an historic" on 2.34 million pages (32%).

There is a clear preference here in favour of "a historic". Even so, roughly one-third of the usage is for the other form. This supports the view that which form you use is little more than a personal preference.

Both usages are sufficiently common to be considered correct in modern English.
OK, I feel a little better now. This must be what fashion experts feel when they see me walking around.


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