On the one hand, it may seem petty to focus on the niceties of language at this great moment in America's history. On the other hand, one reason Barack Obama is now the President-elect of the United States is his extraordinary command of the language. As I discussed in my column in the November Atlantic
, his word choices aren't especially fancy. It's just that Obama uses the right words, so that he's easy for all of us to understand and hard to find fault with, unless you're trying to.
On that note ... A reader writes:
In all of this election coverage, I can't help but cringe ever time I hear people misuse historic/historical.
Many reporters are saying a historic event instead of an historic event which is forgivable enough. But I'm surprised about the categorical use of historical. Am I wrong in thinking that Obama's election will be historical in 40 years, but in fact is simply historic for the moment? And if I am correct in this line of thinking, I'm guessing you have noticed this misuse of historical it as well.
OK, "a" is the right article with "historic" if you pronounce the "h," as dictionaries indicate most of us do. "An" goes with the "istoric" pronunciation, which is getting to be, well, historical.
But my correspondent is quite right that this is a "historic" moment (a history-making one), not a "historical" one (one in history) and that not everyone is aware of the distinction. http://www.usnews.com/blogs/robert-schlesinger/2008/11/04/barack-obamas-election-gives-us-a-rarity-a-positive-instantly-historical-moment.html
Sort of a good sign: If you use Google News to find recent uses of "historical," one piece it returns from a major professional site has already been corrected to read "historic":