It's historic!

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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 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":

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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