A number of people have asked me about President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba. Was this trip “an historic event” or “a historic event”?
Words beginning with the letter “h” require the indefinite article “an” when the “h” is silent. Prince Charles is an heir to the throne (silent “h”). My son is an honest man (again, a silent “h”).
In reviewing many examples of Obama’s visit, I found more correct examples (“a historic event”) than incorrect ones. Even so, well-respected news sources seemed unsure about the use of our indefinite articles.
On March 20, a writer at The Huffington Post wrote that the trip would be “remembered as an historic event.” The Republic, a news source in Columbus, Indiana, agreed: “President Barack Obama will use an historic speech in Havana next week to lay out a vision of greater freedoms and more economic opportunity.”
U.S. News and World Report included this statement: “President Barack Obama will pay an historic visit to Cuba in the coming weeks.” Reporters at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City also described the event as “an historic visit.” NBC News reported the journey as “an historic opportunity to engage with the Cuban people.”
Among the news sources using the correct choice of “a historic” were The Washington Post, ABC News in San Francisco, Bloomberg Politics, The New York Times, and the Post Register in Idaho Falls.
In previous centuries, a few dialects of English (primarily outside of the United States) expressed the pattern “an historic event.” Those dialects have primarily disappeared today. Although “an historic event’ may pass in spoken English where the rules are somewhat flexible, writers may want to be more careful with written statements.