Our Historical Past

The presidential election was both "historical" and "historic"

Last week’s election was “historical.” It was also “historic.”

As my predecessor Evan Jenkins explained here in 2004, “By hoary consensus, ‘historic’ has been reserved for events of great moment, like the Battle of Yorktown or the Emancipation Proclamation. To describe a longtime pattern, like Chilean-Bolivian enmity, or for any variation on the broad notion ‘relating to history,’ the job is best done by ‘historical.’”

Nearly every dictionary and usage authority agree on those preferences, which, of course, does not guarantee adherence. (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary stands virtually alone in having its first definition of “historic” as “historical.”) The two are often used interchangeably, and rarely does anyone misunderstand what is meant.

Still, though everything “historic” is also “historical,” not everything “historical” is “historic,” and there are times when the distinction is useful. The Declaration of Independence, for example, can be called both “historical” and “historic.” But when one wants to emphasize the singular nature of an event, “historic” is less ambiguous and more correct.

More common, though, is the dispute over whether to say or write that something is “a historic event” or “an historic event.” Nearly every American student learned to use “an” in front of a vowel, but there is a sharp disagreement over using “an” in front of a word beginning with the letter “h.” The arguments fall into two general categories: The first says that if the “h” is silent, the first sound acts a vowel, so “an” should be used (an hour), but if the “h” is spoken, it counts as a consonant, so it should be preceded by “a” (a hotel). The second is that if the emphasis is on the first syllable, “a” should be used (a hat), but if the emphasis is on any other syllable, it’s dealer’s choice (a heroic act or an heroic act).

Of course, those “rules” will depend on how you speak. For example, if you’re English, especially Cockney, you will probably say “an hotel” in apparent disagreement with both those guidelines. But most American usage authorities, seeking consensus if not a mandate, prefer “a historic election,” in the same way they might refer to the recent election result as “a heroic victory for Democrats but a horrendous defeat for the Republican Party.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.