The Grammar Factor, January 2012 – a and an with historic

A or an with historic

The traditional rule with a and an is that we use an when the following word has a vowel sound. Many traditional ‘sound’ rules in writing are increasingly ignored. For example, we spell dates without superscripts (20 January, not 20th January) and we no longer always use a comma to indicate a pause.

So I am wondering whether the same is happening with a and an with some words starting with h, such as historic and hypothesis, which are used with either a or an.

I started pondering this topic thanks to a reader’s question and turned to two websites that both recommended a historic.

Since both were American sites, I wondered if there are cultural differences at play. In Australia and New Zealand, are we starting to write a historic occasion rather than an historic occasion?

Singular or plural with expressions of quantity

Last month I asked whether you would use a singular or plural verb with an expression of quantity (X litres of rubber was/were used to lay the track).

A reader suggested that if the quantity is imprecise, or so large that it is incomprehensible, then we treat it as a collective quantity and use a singular verb.

Two dollops of butter was used to make the cake.
Fifty million dollars was owing.

On the other hand, the reader suggested that when the quantity is precise we use the singular.

Three buttons were sewn on each sleeve.

I can see the logic in this advice, but I still prefer the plural in most instances.

This topic is debated at

Arts and Letters Daily (

Arts and Letters Daily is a wonderful site to delve into. Here are a few articles on language that appeared on the site last year.

Alex Clarke, ‘The lost art of editing’, The Guardian, 11 February 2011

Erin McKean, ‘Don’t hate me because I’m Comic Sans’, The Boston Globe, 4 September 2011

Michael C. Munger, ’10 tips on how to write less badly’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 March 2011

James W. Pennebaker, ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns’, The New Scientist, 7 September 2011

Best 2011 blog and website about language

Today is the last day to vote in the Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards 2011 for your favourite 2011 blog and website about language:

Word of the year

The American Dialect Society has named occupy the 2011 Word of the Year.

To view other categories, such as most useful (humblebrag) and most unnecessary (planking), go to:


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