Which is correct?
A) The candidates were part of a historic election.
B) The candidates were part of an historic election.
The answer is A, but given coverage of the last U.S. presidential election, I wouldn’t blame you if you picked B. The mistake was widespread—from bloggers to the media to the candidates. Maybe it’s because “an election” sounds right to our ears, but we can’t forget about the word “historic” inserted in between. Subsequently, I noticed lots of a/an confusion in what I was editing—either I became more aware of it, or it became more of a problem!
Although I’m surprised journalists and speechwriters would make such an error, I’m more surprised at how often it occurs. It’s actually really easy to figure out which article to use: “a” comes before consonant sounds (the “h” in historic), and “an” comes before vowel sounds (the “e” in election). Sounds, not letters—that’s the tricky part. After all, “h” has a consonant sound in “historic,” but when it’s part of “honest” (to keep with the political theme), it sounds like the vowel “a” (pronounced “ah”).
So how can you remember the difference? The letter “a” at the beginning of both words reminds me to alternate consonant and vowel sounds: “a(vowel) h(consonant)istoric” and “a(vowel)n(consonant) e(vowel)lection.”
I hope the misuse of “a” and “an” is history now too.