Words Can Be Bullies



Words that start with the letter h don’t always act like it.

Consider “herb,” when it means “an aromatic plant used for seasoning in cooking.” Americans dump the h, whereas many Brits pronounce it. So we say “an ’erb,” but an Englishman says “a herb.”

A different sort of h-confusion happens when self-important speakers and writers say “an historic occasion” or “an heroic soldier.” Ever notice that “an” only precedes a few highfalutin h-words like “historic(al),” “hypothetical,” “hallucinogenic”? And they tend to have three or more syllables: “An heroic soldier” is also “a hero.”

About 20 years ago, Time magazine ran a front-cover headline beginning, “A Historic…” and misguided word nerds raised a furor, insisting Time should have said “An Historic”—but the magazine never budged, stating flatly that “an historic” is wrong.

In everyday conversation, would you describe a wailing brat as “an hysterical child”? I sincerely doubt it. But what makes “hysterical” so different from “historical”?

A Google check yields tips from various websites, which only reinforce common sense: “You should use ‘an’ before a word beginning with an ‘H’ only if the ‘H’ is not pronounced” (from the website wsu.edu/~brians/errors/anhistoric.html).

Or this: “you use an before vowel sounds…Following this rule, we would say ‘a historic,’ not ‘an historic’ ” (betterwritingskills.com).

Or this one, which ought to seal the deal: “I’d love to hear a reasonable argument, based on logic and not convention, in support of ‘an historic’…given the prevalence of such similar constructions as ‘a hotel downtown’ and ‘a high bar’ and ‘a hitman killed my dog’ ” (ask.metafilter.com).

Pomposity often leads to tortured language. I remember lawyer-turned-sportscaster Howard Cosell, rest his troubled soul, and the way he regularly subjected professional athletes to his cruel and unusual polysyllabic punishment. In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.

At its most sublime, it involved boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He and Howard made a great team, and there was genuine love and trust there. Whatever his faults, Cosell, perhaps at the risk of his own career, had taken up for the draft-evading Ali when the champ was something of a national pariah. (YouTube.com has many wonderful sequences of these two through the years.)

Although there was a good Cosell, all too often we got Bad Howard, neurotically insecure, the one who knew he was kept at arm’s length by these great physical geniuses—and resented it. He knew they mocked him, not caring that Cosell had more knowledge of more subjects than all of them put together. So he would sometimes do perverse things, like the time he bullied a poor rookie football player from some Deep South ghetto. Bad Howard said something like: “So, my young friend, in your estimation, did the immensity of the task assigned you, juxtaposed with the metaphysical certainty of your callow demeanor, effectuate a lessened or heightened capacity on your part?”

I’m not kidding. That’s pretty close to what Howard said. As the kid listened, his eyes widened with terror and confusion, as if he were being swarmed by a raging horde of ruthless linebackers. I don’t recall his answer.

Tom Stern

Posted on Tuesday, February 14, 2017, at 2:03 pm

20 Comments on Words Can Be Bullies

20 responses to “Words Can Be Bullies”

  1. Jim Lynch says:

    Perhaps the “h” in “historic”, “hysterical” and “hotel” are pronounced in your world and maybe in Howard Cosell’s world as well, but in my world no one pronounces these words with a resonant “h.” I would really feel uncomfortable saying, “a hotel.” For example, “I’m gonna stay in anotel tonite” is the way I hear it and the way I say it.

  2. Steve AuBuchon says:

    I agree with you concerning the use of “a” and “an” before words beginning with “h.” However, I wonder what makes spoken English seem to lean toward using “an” before longer words beginning with “h.” I don’t think it is an effort to be self-important, as you suggest. I think it might be where the accent lies. “An” is slightly more accented than “a.” It is a little awkward to speak two accented or two unaccented syllables in a row, thus “AN heROic,” but “a HEro. Many words of three or more syllables are accented beyond the first syllable, making “an” flow off the tongue more easily than “a.” For example:
    AN hisTORic, but a HIStory
    AN hedonic, but a HEdon
    AN herBAceous, but a HERB (in England)
    AN herMITical, but a HERmit
    Once again, I am not saying these are correct. I am just saying this may be why the mistakes are made in spoken English. And by the way, I confess I probably would say “an hysterical child,” but I would never write it that way. I’m such a hypocrite! (Notice the accent in “hypocrite” is on the first syllable even though it is a three-syllable word, and “a” sounds just fine.)

  3. Mary Hentschel says:

    What is correct please? In noting the head of a convention committee I state Chairman. However, when stating more than one person (such as John Doe and Marie Coe, is it correct still to use Chairman, or Chairmen?

    Thank you!
    Fran

  4. Abdullah Mahrouse says:

    Which of the following is grammatically correct? with reference, if you please.
    1. It’s she who broke the window.
    2. It’s her that broke the window.
    3. Who broke the window? It’s she.
    4. Who broke the window? It’s her.

    Thank you very much

  5. Joseph Londino says:

    The comment is about the use of periods with abbreviations. In todays email the unit for pound, lb, was used with a period-lb. This example is the only correct use of a period with an abbreviation for a unit of measure, the abbreviation is at the end of a sentence.

    There are standard rules for abbreviations in science:
    1) a period is NEVER used except as in the example above.
    2)A unit abbreviation is capitalized only if it refers to a proper noun: N, Btu, J for newtons, british thermal unit, and joule. Notice also that when the noun refers to the unit it is not capitalized.
    3) There is never an ‘s’ used after a unit. For example ‘ft’ is used for feet or foot.

  6. Peggy E. says:

    I believe the confusion over the bully “h” can be cleared up by the era in which one learned grammar. I went to school in the 1950s and early 60s. I was taught to always use “an” before words like “hotel” and “historic,” as well as before “erb.” Perhaps that was snobbery, but nevertheless, it was what I was taught. It’s very hard for me to correct.

    Thanks for the lesson.

    • Education systems and school districts do pick up odd notions from time to time. For instance, we have long talked about the undying myth that it’s never correct to end a sentence with a preposition (see Rule 1 of Prepositions). Some of us at GrammarBook.com also went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. We were not taught the same rules that you were taught regarding the use of a and an, so it may be that these trends were geographical.

  7. Fred B. says:

    “In general, jocks are spoiled, semi-educated boors, and they know it, so the tug-of-war between them and Cosell was great theater.”

    Hmmm. I’m not sure that is fair – boxers, maybe, but athletes in general?

  8. David C. says:

    I am puzzled and somewhat miffed that you assert that people who use an before a word beginning with h are pompous.
    Neither did you make any reference to Fowler’s English Usage which makes clear the proper use of an before h. If the emphasis is on the first syllable of the h word, as in history, you say, or write, “a history”. If the emphasis is on the second syllable as in historical, you say “an historical”.
    When Time announced it was no longer going to honour that rule, I thought they were arrogant. For you to suggest anyone who follows the Fowler’s rule is pompous, is, I think, similarly arrogant.
    I’m not a grammar nazi. For one thing, I am not enough of an expert to warrant pretending to be one. I also understand that the language evolves. I do want to speak Shakespearean or Chaucerian English.
    However, I do enjoy the grammar I’ve learned over my lifetime and resent being labeled pompous for knowing and using such easy and logical rule as the proper use of a and an before words beginning with h.
    On we go!

    • We are sorry that our Tom Stern is no longer with us to respond to your message (Tom Stern, In Memoriam). Mr. Stern was an admirer of H.W. Fowler and often referenced his Dictionary of Modern English Usage. But it is apparent that Mr. Stern did not agree with Mr. Fowler regarding a vs. an before words beginning with h. We can only wonder how he would have answered your comment.

  9. David B. says:

    Speaking of pomposity, this week’s column reminds me of the self-important using the term processes-e-e-es when speaking for the plural for process; it’s especially common in academia.

    I brought it to a stop in our household when my daughter dragged it home from her first semester in college. I informed her that processese-e-e-es are very sophisticated processes, and the more e’s the more sophisticated the process. I never heard the term again.

    Thank you for the great columns.

  10. Robert M. says:

    A related matter of some interest is the use of “the” instead of “a.” If I say “a dog walked down the street,” that is clear. But if I say “the dog walked down the street,” there is an implication that a dog has been identified and is understood to be the subject, so saying “the” dog means that dog.

  11. Becky U. says:

    An article from USA Today this morning by Paul Singer reminded me of this newsletter, along with a few others. Check out the combination below of an article + word starting with h. In it the author uses the trendy pronunciation of “homage.”

    “A couple of House Democrats held thumbs-down for ideas like repealing Obamacare, and many Democratic women wore white in an homage to both the women’s suffrage movement and to Hillary Clinton’s homage to the women’s suffrage movement.”

    • Good observation. Of course our late writer Tom Stern detested the pseudo-sophisticated pronunciation of the word, which we pointed out in our Homage entry in our Confusing Words and Homonyms section online as well as several weekly e-newsletter articles.

      An extra oddity that the author introduced into his article is the concept of a homage to a homage. He really must like that word!

      Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

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