Sunday, January 30, 2011

How I ngrammed an historic occasion

Or how one usage slowly dies out while another is born.

While watching a rather good documentary on Al Jazeera's YouTube channel about the historical background to the current events in Egypt, I twice heard the reporter use the expression 'an historic moment'. Or it might have been 'an historic day' or 'an historic occasion', or some such. But the reporter, who I think had an Australian accent, definitely said 'an' and I'm pretty sure he fully pronounced the 'h' both times.
  • When to use a and when to use an - quiz
  • Is it an historic occasion or a historic occasion - discussion
  • In at the birth - to ngram as a verb

Let's just remind ourselves of the rule for using 'a' or 'an'. If the noun starts with a vowel sound we use 'an', otherwise we use 'a'. The important thing is that it is the sound that matters, not the spelling.

Fill the gaps - click on 'a' or 'an', then on the appropriate gap.

an   a  
1. apple 2. book
3. orange 4. one-pound coin
5. onion 6. union
7. umpire 8. university
9. UN official 10. history book
11. Member of Parliament 12. MP
13. European country 14. EU commissioner
15. FBI agent 16. hour
17. hair 18. honest man
19. herb 20. horse
21. hotel 22. horrific accident
23. honour 24. Ngram graph


  • herb - Americans don't usually pronounce the 'h', so will say "an 'erb"
  • horrific - this one of the examples, like historic, where some speakers will use 'an'
  • hotel - this used to be pronounced without the 'h', as in its native French, so was often used with 'an'. The most usual pronounciation nowadays is with the 'h', so most people will say 'a hotel'. Saying 'an hotel' sounds rather pretentious or pedantic to many of us.

Back to historic

The consensus of expert opinion seems to be that while 'a historic ...' is more logical, as most of us pronounce the initial 'h', there are enough 'sophisticated' speakers who say 'an historic ...' for both to be allowable.
In 'Practical English Usage', Michael Swan explains that:
Some people say an, not a, before words beginning with h if the first syllable is unstressed:

an hotel (a hotel is more common)

an historic occasion (a historic ... is more common)
Others, like Alpha Dictionary, get rather more technical, but I think we'll leave that to the linguists.
One website (Homestead - see below), interestingly, saw a difference between American and British usage, with 'an historic ...' being used more by the Brits than by Americans, although the writer thought we were heading towards 'a'. In her explanation she used this wonderful expression:
The problem is that the h is a bit of a wuss as a consonant. When it occurs in an unaccented syllable and is followed by a vowel, it tends to soften to a vowel-like mushiness.
A wuss is someone who is not strong or brave - 'Don't be such a wuss!', an expression which for some strange reason has largely been replaced in BrE by: 'Don't be such a big girl's blouse', apparently of Northern English origin. (see link below)
mushiness refers to something that is soft, without any strong form.
So I ngrammed 'a historic' (the blue line) and 'an historic' (the red line) in both AmE and BrE, and her theories both about the difference and the convergence seem to be correct. You can click on the graphs to enlarge them.

The graph above is for American English, and that below for British English.

The last word goes to Fowler - A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1965 version)
. . . an was formerly used before an unaccented syllable beginning with
h and is still often seen and heard (an historian, an hotel, an hysterical scene, an hereditary title, an habitual offender). But now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become anomalous and will no doubt disappear in time. Meantime, speakers who like to say an should not try to have it both ways by aspirating the h.
I've ngrammed all the words he uses here as examples, and in every instance a now seems to be more popular than an in books written in British English. There seems to have been a change in usage during the twentieth century. The greatest margin of difference between a and an seems to be with hypothesis and hypothetical, and the smallest margin with habitual, where a has only recently overtaken an. You can link to the relevant graphs below.

Today I'm doing some ngramming, in fact I've already ngrammed six times.

Earlier on I said that I'd ngrammed 'an historic ...'. By which I meant that I'd checked how often it occurs in Google's corpus of books, using Google Ngram Viewer, a tool that allows us all to play at being amateur linguists. I think you'll agree that using the verb ngram is somewhat more economical than that rather long sentence I just used to explain it.
Turning the noun Ngram into a verb was a totally natural process which I hardly even thought about. This is sometimes called verbing or verbification. It seems like you say the first if you think it's OK, but the latter when it offends you. But later I wondered if I might have coined a new verb, as Ngram is only just over a month old. No such luck! A few others had also had the same idea, but few enough for Google to ask me: 'Did you mean: anagrammed' when I googled ngrammed.

In fact today googling "ngrammed" brings up a mere 211 results, with various different spellings - ngrammed, nGrammed, Ngrammed and NGrammed. Googling "ngramming" brings up 219 results. But I expect that will begin to rise quite rapidly. If you want to try this yourself it's important to surround the words with inverted commas or you get everything that includes gram.
A librarian at the University of Mexico has already tweeted: 'Ngramming joins googling as a verb.' But I was surprised that Google didn't point to anything on linguistics websites on the matter. After all it is linguists who are using this tool most, and this is the sort of coinage they are usually interested in. Strange.
I don't know how others are pronouncing it, but I'm saying to myself 'engram', with the stress on the first syllable, like program(me).
And it would probably need a serious linguist (or perhaps a psychiatrist) to tell me why I have absoutely no problem with googling, ngramming and accessing, while finding favouriting / favoriting, incentivising and prioritising particularly ugly. (see previous post on business jargon)

Links - a/an historic ...

Links - a or an

Links - big girl's blouse

Links - Ngram graphs comparing the use of a and an in books written in British English.

1 comment:

Incornsyucopia said...

I just discovered your blog and have been greatly enjoying it, including this post. The use of "an" in front of "historic" (or other "h"-beginning words) has always been, I think, a marker of class, which explains its greater usage in BrE versus AmE. It was a way for the English upper classes to show their knowledge of French, in which "h" is of course silent, and consequently their wealth and status, in contrast to the lower classes more Germanic "h" pronunciations. What I think your ngrammed results show (a great use of it by the way!) is that such class affectations are less important in BrE than they used to be. As for AmE (as well as Canadian English, which is not always the same as AmE, but would, I think, agree), I wonder if the much greater popularity of "a historic" beginning around 1940 might reflect a decreased knowledge of or use of French in the USA as communities who had used it as their native language (Cajuns in Louisiana, French Canadians in New England) became increasingly assimilated.

Thanks again!