A Bill for BackStory

Published: September 12, 2013


BackStory is enmeshed in a grammatical crisis – and we need your help to resolve it. Divisions are forming, banners are flying, and a war of words might break out at any second over a critical question of BackStory policy: which indefinite article to use with the noun “historian”?

“AN HISTORIAN” OR “A HISTORIAN”? Our hosts took their grammar seriously in school and hoped they might one day be known as “AN HISTORIAN” – where the emphasis on the second syllable makes the “h” softer (more like a silent “h”), and so makes “an” the correct indefinite article to use. But some listeners and modern grammarians suggest “A HISTORIAN” is increasingly the preferred usage today.

What is at stake? For an overview of these grammatical issues, take a look at this discussion of the matter, or this one. (So interested you want to read a paper on this topic? See here).

How To Act: This is no time to be a passive bystander, but to stand up and fight for what you believe in (grammatically)! Submit your opinion through the poll below, and be part of the great BackStory democratic experiment!

We the Listeners to the public radio program “BackStory,” in order to form a more perfect sonic experience, do solemnly resolve and recommend that:

Poll Closed



Thank you to all who voted!


Comments (22)

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  1. Jack

    Like other languages, structure is meant to make it easier to pronounce. French, Spanish, Italian, and others all have hard consonants preceding words starting in soft consonants or vowels. Pronounced, “UH historian” or “EH historian” is simply awkward, and in my mind makes the speaker sound … well .. clumsy. However, “anhistorian” flows off the tongue. :-)

  2. Jessie

    If we pronounced it all cute and Cockney-like, I would vote for “an ‘istorian,” like we say “an herb” in American English. But we typically pronounce the “h.” Where would it end? An hypocrite? An hydrogen bomb? An Humvee?

  3. JIm Mica

    If a hurricane of monumental proportions hits the east coast every other year or so, why shouldn’t we hear from a historian every now and then?

  4. Jon

    Like in a lot of areas of life, the important thing here is consistency. Pick one and always go with it. As your poll (at least at this time) demonstrates, folks are split about 50 – 50 on this matter, and their are many contradictory “authoritative” claims out there arguing both sides. The Brits seem to prefer the “an” more often, but it seems perfectly acceptable in the US as well. A lot of this, I think, has to do with how “hard” you pronounce the “h” in “historian,” isn’t it?

  5. john ledbury

    Why do Americans insist on dropping the H on herb? They always talk about Erbs. And do they say a erb, an erb, a herb or an herb? My American girlfriend always used to tell me American pronunciation was more rational than English! Now you all talk about fillAY of beef and Erbs!!

    • Emily@BackStory

      It’s a question that’s puzzled me too John – I hail from the other side of the pond, so have endured the general mirth that ensues whenever “HERBS” come into the picture!

  6. Chris

    I subscribe to “a” (soft A) historian. One argument is that “H” words with the emphasis on other than the first syllable be preceded by “an”, but we don’t say “an hydrologist”, or “an homosexual”. “An historian” seems to be a linguistic singularity, but English is full of accepted conventions that violate rules (For example: If its “i before e …”, why is “weird” not spelled “wierd”?)

  7. Rob

    à la Rob: Keep it simple. If the word starts with an audible H, use “a,” a historian, or should I say use “an a” but still a historian.

  8. Nick

    As a professional historian, I have to say that I rarely, if ever, hear my colleagues use “an historian.” The phrase “a historian” would seem to be the norm in the discipline, at least on this side of the pond.

  9. Gary

    There’s something to be said for consistency between “history” and “historian”. Where the latter could take either “a” or “an”, the former would certainly sound funny to American ears with an “an”.

  10. Gary

    As for use on the show, 18th century guy should always use “an”, 20th century guy should always use “a”, and 19th century guy should both randomly.

  11. Maggie

    Isn’t “a” or “an” a decision that would be evident given the answer to what should be the prior question: Should the “h” in historian be aspirated or silent? Now, on what does THAT answer depend? Geography, ancestral roots, snootiness?

    If it is a matter of simple preference, I think “an historian” sounds better, but I can’t seem to muster a lot of righteousness about it!

    Thanks, History Guys, for a fantastic show.