Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wordsmith Wednesday

It's been a while since I've blogged a Wordsmith post.   Five months, to be a little more precise.   I think it's about time. 

I was asked recently - in the middle of a party - if there is a difference between historic and historical.   Without giving the question any thought, I popped off, "Not really.  They're both adjectives and therefore can be used interchangeably."   Another voice in the crowd contradicted mine, but I paid little attention and we all moved on.

However, on our drive home, I began thinking about the two words and decided that I had answered carelessly and probably wrongly because, even though they share a common etymology and are often used interchangeably, each has a unique denotation which calls for a more precise use.

Historical is an adjective which primarily means "related to history".  It is used to communicate that this particular person, place, event, or idea, has ties to the past.  Simple as that.  

Mark Twain is an important historical figure in Missouri.

The Eugene Field house is a historical site with which all Missourians should be familiar.

Whereas, historic is an adjective which primarily means "having significance".   It is used to communicate that this particular person, place, event, or idea, is of great importance.

On July 20, 1969, we sat glued to our televisions as a historic event unfolded before our eyes.

Students should memorize their native country's most historic speeches.

Another issue often arises when these two words are used...whether to use "a" or "an" before them.  The common rule is that "a" is used before nouns whose initial phoneme is a consonant: a book, a ukelele, a coat, a photo, a ship; while "an" is used before words whose initial phoneme is a vowel: an island, an elephant, an orange, an umbrella, an hour, etc. 

Under these rules, we should always use "a" before both adjectives, since both begin with a consonant sound.  Because I've heard highly-educated folks say, "an historic occasion," I wondered if these words called for an exception.  As it turns out, they don't.  Confusion has arisen because the British tend to silence the "h" when pronouncing these words, which changes them from an initial consonant phoneme to an initial vowel phoneme.  So, if you're British, or if you drop the "h" sound for some other random reason, then you must use "an" instead of "a".    Otherwise, THE ORIGINAL RULE APPLIES!

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