I’ll admit that I like watching Erin Burnett on CNN, and I’ll also admit that her appearance might have something to do with it. However, yesterday she proved that sometimes brains take a back seat to pretty.
She was reviewing a clip of Newt Gingrich complaining about “Obamacare” and voicing his opinion that the Supreme Court should throw it out, and he used the phrase “…a historic…” When they cut back to Burnett, she commented with something like, “A historic? Really, Newt? Are you sure you didn’t mean an historic?”
Aww, poor Erin. Actually, poor most people. Too many times has former President Bush Jr. used that phrase, and I’d cringe each time. Too many times have most people said it that way, and more cringing for me. People likely use “an historic” and think something like “ha ha, I know how to speek reeel goodly!” Yeah, but no. The correct form of that phrase is exactly as Gingrich said it – “a historic” – and I would love to know how the wrong trend started.
First, let me add something that a few commenters have caused me to realize. I’ve been working with language over 25 years both in and out of the classroom, and I’ve had far more extensive training than probably 99% of the population. Oh crap. Now I’m a 1%-er. Anyway, this isn’t an issue I expect most people to know, but I do expect better from people whose job it is to speak on television to a national and international audience. Further, if you (Erin) are going to correct a presidential candidate (Newt), a man (still Newt) with more years in education than you (over to Erin) have been alive, then you (one more Erin) better be certain you (oops) are absolutely correct.
When deciding between “a” and “an,” the choice is based on the very next sound, not letter. Sound. If the next sound is a vowel, then you use “an.” If the next sound is a consonant, then you go with “a.” Something like this:
A road not taken. (r) = consonant
An avenue not taken. (a) = vowel
Those are simple examples, but what about letters or sounds that aren’t clearly a vowel or consonant? And what the hell decides which it is? A, E, I, O, U? Sometimes Y? Why Y?
The key to a consonant is “contact.” A consonant is a sound that involves contact with teeth, tongue, lips, palate, in any combination possible. Good luck getting your teeth to touch your palate. Conversely, a vowel is made without contact, just pushing out air and reshaping your mouth but without anything touching anything else. Like the rest of language, there are exceptions. For example, the reason it is sometimes Y is because sometimes there is contact, and sometimes there is not.
“Yesterday” The Y involves curling the tongue to the sides to touch your teeth. Consonant.
“bicYcle” The Y is really just a short “i” sound, as in “hit” or “bit.” Vowel, no contact.
By rights, we should also say “sometimes E” is a consonant. When we pronounce “teeth,” we have to curl the tongue the same way and make the same contact as in “Yesterday,” but that’s a slightly different topic. The same is for “H,” sometimes a consonant. So let’s get back to “historic.”
To correctly make the H sound at the beginning of “historic,” we have to bring the far rear sides of the tongue up to the back teeth.
Do we say, “He is aN hungry boy”?
Or do we say, “He is A hungry boy”?
Do we say, “First period I have A history class”?
Or do we say, “First period I have aN history class”?
There will be a day when I’m old – well, older - and I’ll not longer care about such things. Then someone who is tired of me, will say, “What? No more language complaints? This is truly aN historic day.”