Jun 18, 2012

Grammar Hammer: Is June 18 “A” or “An” Historic Day?

President James Madison, author of the War of 1812. Photo via History.com.

200 years ago today, President James Madison and Congress declared war on Great Britain. The reasons behind this decision can be vaguely summed up by saying that Americans were ticked off that they were still under British thumb in terms of military and trade power, and were sick and tired of leftover political ties that had never been severed after the Revolutionary War.

June 18 was the first day of the War of 1812, sometimes referred to as the “second war of independence.” Significant occurrences in this war included the Battle of the Horseshoe Bend and the Battle of New Orleans, where Andrew Jackson made a name for himself as an army general; the Battle of Baltimore, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the lyrics of our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”; and the Burning of Washington, when many public government buildings were destroyed or damaged, including the Capitol and the White House.

By 1815, the war had reached a stalemate, and both sides agreed to sign a treaty, leaving the U.S. as a truly independent nation. The “Era of Good Feelings” followed, which was a time when Americans were surging with pride, patriotism and bipartisanship over the recent victory.

So was June 18 a historic day, or an historic day?

A common misstep here is to think that a comes before consonants and an comes before vowels. It’s not that simple.

Main Rule: Use a before words that start with a consonant sound, and an before words that start with a vowel sound.

The distinction is between consonant and consonant sound, or vowel and vowel sound.

For example, the word historic has a pronounced h sound, so the correct answer is: June 18 is a historic day.

On the other hand, if we look at the word hour, which also begins with an h, we realize that the h is silent in this case, and therefore the first sound pronounced is a vowel. So the correct answer is: British troops were an hour away from the capital.

Quick test: Say the words out loud to see how you naturally use a or an. Your instinct is probably correct. Would you really say an historic day? Awkward.

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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