In Print Is Forever



Oh, the things we see in print these days …

From Time magazine: “General David Petraeus asked a famous question: ‘Tell me how this ends?’ ” Did you catch it? Here’s a clue: tell me how that’s a question. If Petraeus had asked a question, it would have been something like, “Tell me, how does this end?” But in Time’s sentence, “tell me” is a request, so delete the question mark.

A school district official was quoted as saying, “We have been appraised of all the relevant issues …” The word appraise means “decide the value of.” The gentleman clearly meant “we have been apprised,” i.e., informed. A bungled sentence from a representative of educated America is not the message our embattled schools want to be sending.

But that’s minor compared to this mindlessness from “a leading Latin American scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies” who reportedly said, “My personal view is, it’s us who is more responsible than Mexico.” The more forgivable of this man’s two howlers is “it’s us.” OK, he was trying to sound like a regular guy. But “it’s us who is”? That would even make a regular guy nervous. And this is an esteemed expert speaking on the record. We don’t want to have a beer with him; we want him to speak to us in a manner befitting his authority. He should have said “it’s we who are more responsible.”

A while back, an e-mail to the Associated Press website asked, “Is there a rule about the use of ‘a’ versus ‘an’ when used in front of a word beginning with a vowel?” I still can’t believe it’s come to this, but then I read things like: “There could be a independent or special prosecutor” and “has allowed it to linger as an mitigating factor.” So my sympathies go out to the e-mailer, who probably has read enough of those illiteracies to doubt his own linguistic sanity.

Compare that with “plans to use a $850 million loan commitment” and “LG showed off a 84-inch monitor.” All you have to do is say those aloud to know it should be “an $850 million loan commitment,” “an 84-inch monitor.” I’m guessing these writers outsmarted themselves: The rule is that an goes before a vowel, and there’s technically no vowel in “$850” or “84.” But this wrongly assumes that when we see words on the page we don’t simultaneously hear them in our heads.

The moral of the story: Know the rules, but use your head. (As we note in our Confusing Words and Homonyms section, “Use an when the first letter of the word following has the sound of a vowel.”)

Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2017, at 11:15 am

16 Comments on In Print Is Forever

16 responses to “In Print Is Forever”

  1. Alex Roth says:

    Regarding the usage of “an” before a word beginning with a consonant – I understand the rule about using it before a word beginning with a consonant but sounds like it begins with a vowel (similar to the rule I learned in French about using “une” before words beginning with unaspirated h). I’ve always struggled, though, with the question of which article is appropriate to use before the word “historic.” Technically, I think the h in historic is aspirated and has the sound of a consonant, but when used with “an” the initial h sound is somewhat elided and the word does sound like it begins with a vowel. Is there any guidance about what is appropriate in this situation?

    • Yes, there is guidance regarding this situation. Please see:
      1. Our article Words Can Be Bullies, September 3, 2013.
      2. The Chicago Manual of Style’s Rule 5.220 says, “The word historical and its variations cause missteps, but since the h in these words is pronounced, it takes an a (an hour-long talk at a historical society).”

  2. BridgeJet 23 says:

    What about: “I have a UPS tracking number.” It just doesn’t sound correct to say, “I have an UPS tracking number.”

    • Use the article a before words that begin with a consonant sound and the article an before words that begin with a vowel sound. The U in UPS begins with a y sound; therefore, use a instead of an.

  3. Virginia M. says:

    I love your column this week. Do you think you could follow up your sentence, “Use an when the first letter of the word following has the sound of a vowel,” with a column about how people should not use an an to precede words like historical that have the “h” sound? I hear this misuse so often on news programs these days and it drives me batty.

  4. Christie D. says:

    I really enjoy your newsletters! I am an administrator and middle school language arts teacher, and I find your resources very helpful.

    This time, I had one question. Isn’t the rule actually that an goes before a vowel sound? A word that doesn’t start with a vowel but does start with a vowel sound should be preceded by “an,” not “a.”

    Example – She will attempt to grow an herb garden.

    It’s all about the sound, right?

  5. Kristen E. says:

    I have a follow up question for you regarding this rule: Use an when the first letter of the word following has the sound of a vowel.
    I work in Human Resources so I read a lot of HR publications. I always see people using “an” in front of HR. This flows better when you say it.
    “a HR department is there to help” vs
    “an HR department is there to help”

    However, if you spell it out:
    “a Human Resources department is there to help”
    “an Human Resources department is there to help”

    I would think, based on the rule, that you would start either sentence with “a” vs “an”. But it just does not sound correct. Are abbreviations handled differently?

    • Initialisms (a type of abbreviation) such as HR are handled according to the sound when they are pronounced. If you and others in your organization would pronounce HR as “aitch ar” (which we imagine is most likely the case), then you should write an HR department is there to help. Similarly, if you spell it out, write a Human Resources department is there to help.

  6. chz says:

    Which is correct?

    “I wish it was true”.

    or

    “I wish it were true”.

    • Your sentence is an example of the subjunctive mood, which refers to the expression of a hypothetical, wishful, or imaginary thought. The subjunctive mood often pairs singular subjects with what we usually think of as plural verbs. Therefore, write “I wish it were true.”
      See our post The Subjunctive Mood for more information.

  7. Andy says:

    I could not find a blog subject that was truly appropriate for my question, so I apologize for picking this random blog. However, I am in a debate with someone over the correct plural form of “statute of limitation.” Would it work like “mothers in law” and only pluralize “statute.” Or is it acceptable to say “statutes of limitations” as well? I would think that you would only pluralize “limitation” if there was more than one limitation in a particular statute. Thoughts? Thanks.

  8. Carolyn W. says:

    You wrote:

    That would even make a regular guy nervous.

    But isn’t the following correct?

    “That would make even a regular guy nervous.”

    • Either is correct depending upon intended emphasis, as well as desired sound to the ear.
      That would even make a regular guy nervous stresses the verb “make.”
      That would make even a regular guy nervous stresses the noun “guy.”

      Both have grammatical logic, and either could be correct according to context and desired emphasis. The first sentence simply sounds better than the other to us.

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