Articles: “A” vs. “An”

2011-11-04 by . 5 comments

One of the prevalent questions on the English Language and Usage – Stack Exchange is about whether a or an is the correct indefinite article to use. It’s a straightforward question, but like all questions, there are subtleties that raise further questions.

General Rule
The question of “a” vs “an” is always decided by the pronunciation of the word that follows the article, without exception. Words that begin with a vowel sound, such as apple, egg, or owl, use the indefinite article an.

I ate an apple yesterday.

All other words, i.e. words that begin with a consonant sound, such as cake, pie, or book use the indefinite article a.

I read a book yesterday.

Vowels, Consonants, and their Sounds
Some words are a little trickier though, and if you’re not familiar with common English pronunciation, you may want to take note of things that can trip people up. Note that I said vowel sounds and consonant sounds earlier, not just vowels and consonants. There’s a reason for this—many people think that vowels and consonants are letters, and making it clear that this is misleading is vital. We’ll keep up this distinction to reinforce the concept.

In fact, vowels and consonants are sounds. Letters thought of vowels (i.e. a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y) can have a consonant sound, and vice versa, so it just might be a good idea to check a dictionary with pronunciations when you’re unsure. We’ll be using IPA pronunciations here, but any good dictionary will have some reasonable pronunciation guide.

If you have a word that begins with the letter h, there’s a good chance that the h is silent (i.e. doesn’t make a sound). For example, take the word hour, which has a pronunciation of /aʊ̯ɚ/, and compare it with the word hospital, which has a pronunciation of /hɒspɪtəl/. Note that hour, even though it begins with a consonant, does not begin with a consonant sound as the initial h is silent; rather, it begins with the subsequent vowel sound. However, hospital does not have a silent h, and thus the h is pronounced as a consonant, and hospital is used with the article a.

I was at a hospital for an hour.

There’s another common problem. Elementary school teachers seem to love teaching their students that there are five vowels (i.e. a, e, i, o, u), and sometimes y is a vowel as well. This is true because y can have both a vowel sound and a consonant sound, but it’s extremely misleading because these same teachers also instill the idea that the letters are in and of themselves the vowels.

But that’s going off on a tangent—when does y make a vowel sound? Just like with h, the answer is when it does. There are few guidelines to work with, but in most cases, when a word begins with a y and is not a proper noun (in which case you wouldn’t be using an indefinite article anyway), it’s probably a consonant sound. Still, you might want to check your dictionary if you’re unsure.

I had lunch on a yacht. /jɒt/

More Vowels and Consonants?
Another corner case I want to point out are words beginning with u. In a fair number of these, such as uniform, user, and unicorn, the u is actually making a consonant sound that’s much like the y consonant sound—it’s represented in IPA as /j/.

A unicorn became my very best friend.

Even though I’ve warned you about these pitfalls, there are more cases where vowels and consonants don’t seem to be what they should be, so if you don’t know how to pronounce a word, a dictionary can be your very best friend (unless you have a dog, in which case the dictionary will be your second best friend).

Acronyms and Initialisms
Ok, so we’ve gotten the basics down. But English isn’t that straightforward—what happens when we bump into acronyms and initialisms? Remember, the general rule is 100% right—we’re only calling it general because we want to look at the corner cases. In fact, this is one of the few rules in English that is never violated in Standard English.

How you pronounce the acronym/initialism directs the article you choose. If you say FAQ as three different letters, i.e. /ɛf.eɪ.kjuː/, you begin with a vowel sound and should use an. If you say FAQ in one syllable, i.e. /fæk/, you’re beginning with a consonant sound and should use a.

A NATO exercise will begin in thirty minutes.
An AIDS treatment is due to be tested shortly.

N.B. If you’re wondering why we don’t make the distinction between acronyms and initialisms here, it’s because there’s disagreement about the exact definition of the terms.

Parenthetical Statements
Another common area of confusion is parenthetical statements. Imagine that you’re reading the sentence. If you include the parenthetical statement when you read it aloud, the first word in the parentheses decides the article. If you skip it, then use the word immediately following the close of the parentheses. When in doubt, it’s usually safer to assume the parentheses would be read aloud.

If you’re wondering when a parenthetical statement might come after an article, it most often appears to insert an adjective (e.g. I need a/an (lovely) evening to myself).

But My Pronunciation Is Different
You might disagree with some of my examples because you pronounce the word following the article differently than I do, and that’s perfectly fine. I’ve done my best to choose cross-dialectal examples, but some dialects are so different it’s hard to make all examples work. What you should keep in mind is that you’re writing or speaking to an audience—if they’re all from a specific region, try to use the pronunciations they would when you’re choosing articles. If they’re from a variety of regions, then choose the most common pronunciation.

Filed under Grammar

Grammar Girl Interview

As someone who is interested in the English language and word history, I don’t just participate in English Language & Usage, I also read other blogs. Grammar Girl, from Quick and Dirty Tips, is a good blog to read for English advice. She recently agreed to do an interview for us. I polled the community and we sent her these questions. Here are her responses.

  1. How did you choose the name Grammar Girl?
    It just popped into my head, and I liked the alliteration. In retrospect, I think it works especially well because “girl” is a very nonthreatening word, and a lot of people are anxious about grammar, so Grammar Girl seems approachable and friendly. Grammar Girl is someone who will answer your questions without making you feel stupid or embarrassed.
  2. How do you come up with ideas for podcasts/posts?
    In the early days, I tackled what I knew were the most common questions (e.g., who versus whom) or things I struggled with myself (overusing of). Then I went through a phase during which I answered a lot of listener questions–the show often actually began with a recorded listener question. Then, when I started writing more books, I had a lot of guest writers contributing to the show, and they would suggest topics. Today, it’s still a mix of all those things. I mix reruns of the shows that cover the most common problems with listener questions, ideas from guest writers, and topics that appear in the news.
  3. What grammar-related question(s) do you get most frequently from your listeners?
    The most common question is how to know when to use affect and effect. There are exceptions, but most of the time, affect is a verb and effect is a noun.
  4. What’s the most interesting, thought-provoking, or fun topic you’ve tackled lately? On the other hand, what question are you sick of hearing?
    I’ve been doing small research projects lately. They’ve been popular, and I enjoy doing them. For example, I polled my Facebook followers to find out where people say “The car needs washed” instead of “The car needs to be washed.” It turns out dropping the to be is a regionalism, and that led to a lot of other interesting discussions about other regionalisms such as spendy (which is popular in Minnesota and Oregon) and bow up (which is mostly heard in the South). The studies aren’t scientifically rigorous, because the sample is just people who respond to my Facebook questions, but the results are still interesting. Frankly, I’ve answered all the common questions (affect/effect, who/whom, which/that) hundreds–probably thousands–of times, so I’m a little sick of all of them.
  5. It seems like many common grammar rules have exceptions. Are there any hard and fast grammar rules you believe in firmly, that don’t have exceptions?
    Yes! A lot is always two words.
  6. From EL&U moderator nohat: In your article about the word class of than, you explain the prescriptivist objections to using “than” as a preposition, but also provide some arguments in its favor. In contrast, I answered a related question on our site using two different corpora to show that than-as-a-preposition is in fact more common than than-as-a-conjunction. Have you considered using corpus-based approaches to answering questions of grammar? Corpus-based approaches have the benefit of bringing cold, hard facts to the table using logic and appeals to authority, but the authority of these facts might be hard to sell to your readership. The argument that “just because everyone says it that way doesn’t make it correct”, though specious, is, sadly, quite common.
    Great question! I’ve started doing more corpus-based research since I discovered the Google Books Corpus (Ngram), which then led me to investigate other corpora. For example, I did a Google Ngram search to track the rise of schadenfreude, which showed some interesting spikes that may correlate with a mention on the TV show The Simpsons and the popularity of the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which includes a song “Schadenfreude.” You’re right that many people don’t like the “it’s correct because everyone writes it that way” argument, but like it or not, that is one way language changes, and I’ve been looking through corpora and making that argument more and more lately. This isn’t a corpora-based argument, but on a related note, I recently decided to give up the fight for the traditional logic meaning of begs the question. I searched extremely hard to try to find a correct use in newspapers, magazines, and websites, but the “improper” use (using begs the question to mean “raises the question”) vastly outnumbered the proper uses. I literally searched through hundreds of articles and not one of them used it in the traditional way. When common usage swings that far in the “wrong” direction, it’s a lost cause.
  7. From user Robusto: Is it ever worth the time and effort to correct someone else’s grating grammatical mistakes? In my experience, even when I phrase my suggestion in the gentlest possible way it never works well and I almost always wind up feeling pedantic, priggish, or even alienated.What’s the general opinion here? Is it best to just let these things slide or to take up the fight?
    I think it has a lot more to do with your personality and relationship with the other person than anything else. It’s always going to be fine to correct your children or your students if you’re a teacher, for example. But you start to get on thin ice when it’s a coworker or your boss or a stranger. I almost never correct people unless they’ve asked for help because in most instances it seems rude to me. On the other hand, I know a lot of people do want to correct others, so I’ve actually invited a guest writer who does regularly correct people to write a Grammar Girl podcast on the topic and give advice on how to do it as politely as possible.
  8. From user TRiG: What do you think of gender-neutral pronouns? I prefer the zie/zir set, but when I used them on our Christianity site, all kinds of unpleasantness broke out! Do you think these pronouns are offensive? If so, which set of gender-neutral pronouns do you prefer?
    I’m not offended by the zie/zir set, but I think it’s hopeless to try to get them widely adopted. I strongly believe that they will be fine to use as a singular gender-neutral pronoun in the near future. People already use it all the time (especially in speech), there’s a long history of it in literature, and English desperately needs such a word.
  9. On a related note, why don’t English nouns have gender, the way they do in French and Spanish?
    I don’t know!
  10. What’s your favorite bit of punctuation and why?
    I’m fond of the interrobang (‽): a combination of the question mark and exclamation point. An advertising man invented it in the 1960s and held a contest to determine the name. It was almost called an exclamaquest. It’s not on your keyboard, but you can insert it as a special character or symbol in some fonts. (The easiest way to use it online is to just cut and paste it from a site that has one.) I like it because it fills a need (much like they as a singular pronoun that we talked about a couple of questions ago). In English, you aren’t supposed to use both a question mark and exclamation point at the end of a sentence; you’re supposed to pick one of the other, but when it’s a surprised question (you did what?!), the desire to use both is strong. The interrobang fills the need, while letting you stick to the rule of only using one terminal punctuation mark.
  11. Of the other Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts, which is your favorite and why?
    That’s like asking me which of my children is my favorite! I love them all equally.
  12. Below are two examples from our top grammar questions. If you click the link you can see the answers our community came up with. What is your take on these questions? Do you agree with any of the answers you see on EL&U?
  13. What do you think of the Stack Exchange English Language & Usage site? Is it something you can see yourself or your listeners using? What is your favorite question on EL&U?
    The reputation score is an essential part of the site; without that, you’d just have mess of people posting their opinions. I might use the site as a starting point for research, but even with the reputation scores, I’d still always verify anything I found there before using it in my own work. I like the question What is the origin of the term “Urban Legend”? because I had never thought about it before.

On behalf of the EL&U Community, I’d like to thank Grammar Girl for taking the time to answer our questions, and I encourage our readers to check out her site for useful tips.

What are you on about now? (Prepositions: on vs about)

When something has a topic, is it ON that topic, or ABOUT that topic? This question on, or about, which preposition to use comes up fairly oftenMartha’s answer tries to explain some of the connotations that may be present when using certain words.

  • A discussion about a topic — this implies that the discussion was just a conversation, really, and it might not have stayed strictly on-topic.
  • A discussion of a topic — this brings to mind a true discussion, going into all sorts of details of the topic (and only the topic).
  • A discussion on a topic — here I picture the discussion to be somewhat one-sided, almost a lecture.

I’m afraid to say that I don’t agree with these explanations.  My instinct is that “about” and “on” are pretty much equivalent in meaning, as FumbleFingers wrote.

But if there are two words, and they both serve a similar purpose, which should we choose? People must care about this, because they keep asking.  It turns out that EL&U is not the only place people have asked. A blog post on asked the Chicago Manual of Style editors which was better:

She gave a lecture on recycled plastics or about recycled plastics.

A lengthy discussion ensued until one editor pointed out that it didn’t matter at all, since the meaning was perfectly clear and concise.

Until, of course, you have a sentence like

I once attended a lecture on the surface of Mars. (How did you get there?)

Now we have a pickle. The word “on” has many definitions, so once your sentence invokes one of those other definitions you risk confusing your reader. If you’re careful, you can spot the double meanings and edit your sentence accordingly. Or, you can be cautious and just choose “about” which has less potential for error.

Finally, if you want to just go with the flow, you can simply do whatever everyone else is doing. If you can figure out what that is, of course.

Ratio of On to About

(Ratio of less than one means About is used more)

Word Ratio
News 0.73
Discussion   0.6
Lecture 4.82
Article 2.73
Book 1.35*

*Note: Many false positives here, such as: “found the book on”, “book on tape”, etc.

From my crude Corpus search, it seems that there is no clear winner in usage. The numbers for “on” are inflated by the fact that many examples are false positives, yet there still is an overwhelming usage of “on” for certain phrases. So don’t get too hung up about about, or go on and on about on. It’s all okay.

Filed under Grammar

Proofreading Questions

2011-10-05 by . 2 comments

If we were to categorize all closed questions on the English Language and Usage – Stack Exchange, proofreading questions would be by far the largest category. The fact that we get proofreading questions in quantity is no surprise—after all, a vast number of people are eager to learn English, which is the lingua franca of international business, science, technology and aviation”, and they want to know if their English is respectable.

At the same time, EL&U-SE has a policy that prohibits proofreading questions. Does this mean that we don’t want to help people get better at English and that we’re only here for discussing obscure questions about grammar? Of course not! The entire point of EL&U-SE, and every other SE site, is to help people learn about the subject matter. The reason we don’t allow proofreading questions is because there is nothing to be gained by a simple proofreading question—true, a sentence will be improved, but the author does not benefit from experience, nor does the community benefit, as it is statistically unlikely that some other person will come up with the same sentence. 

Certainly, we could identify all the errors in a piece of writing, but that doesn’t teach the author about pronoun-antecdent agreement, about idiomatic uses, or about the differences between to, too, and two. We’d love to teach our friends about these things so that they can benefit in the long-term. So while we don’t allow general proofreading requests, proofreading requests that identify a specific area of concern are welcome.

For example, presume the following post was posted on EL&U-SE.

The cats eating food of cat.
What are the errors in the above sentence?

The example sentence has at least two mistakes, depending on how you count them, but that isn’t our concern right now. Let’s say we were to identify the errors for the author. Hopefully, he/she would be grateful, but in the long run, the author’s only resource is to continue asking us. This doesn’t help anyone learn, and eventually, we’d all get bored of these questions.

On the other hand, here’s a good example of a proofreading question:

The cats eating food of cat.
Can you use *eating* in the above sentence? I don’t see verbs that end in *ing* by themselves in sentences, but I don’t know why that is.

This is an example of a good proofreading question; an answer could discuss verb forms that end in -ing (i.e. participles and gerunds) and why they can’t be used as a verb by themselves (but they can with a form of the verb to be, e.g. was eating). This way, the author can understand better how verb forms work. Note that the author has to take the initiative to identify the area of concern; it would be too much expenditure of effort if we explained every error when the author was only trying to get an editor for free and didn’t care how or why the sentence was wrong

In addition, most people are kind enough to mention as a side note that food of cat is wrong, and why food for cats and cat food are the acceptable phrasings. We’re generally able to help with minor issues, so long as the original author has demonstrated concern and a willingness to learn.

In summary, proofreading questions, when they identify the area of concern, are welcome on EL&U-SE.

Filed under English Stack Exchange

How to Ask out an Apple

2011-09-20 by . 3 comments

Hello there Paul!

paul saying hi!

I understand you’re staying in England to learn the language.

Paul saying "Yes I am here for learning English"

That should be “I am here to learn English.”

paul saying "Oh. Please to explain me"

I think you mean “Please explain to me.”

Paul saying "OK, thank you. Please explain to me."

Well, you were explaining your reason for coming to the UK. In English, we explain our reasoning by saying I am [present continuous verb] to [verb]. For example:

  • “I am reading to learn.”
  • “I am running to catch up.”

We would not say “I am running for catching up”.

Paul saying "Thank you!"

So, Paul, how has your week been?

Paul saying "It has been good. I have a problem though."

Oh yes? And what is that?

Paul saying "Do you mean what is my problem?"

Yes, “that” can be used in a similar way to “it” to refer back to a previous subject, such as your problem.

Paul saying "OK. I meet this other fruit, and I want to ask to take him to dinner, but I am afraid my English is too bad."

Well, I’m not the best person to ask for romantic advice, but I can certainly help you ask him out with good English. Tell me what you are going to say to this fruit.

Paul saying "Hello, Angus."

Good so far.

Paul saying “We are hanging out and talking for many times. I would like to eat dinner with you in a restaurant.”


Hmmm, well, what you want to say is understandable, but there are a couple of grammatical errors and the second sentence would be phrased differently by a native speaker.

I’ll deal with the second sentence first. A native speaker would be more likely to say “Would you like to come to dinner with me?” This allows Angus to answer a question, rather than be faced with a statement of fact that needs no answer.

The first of the two errors I’ll deal with is where you said “for many times”. First, the word “for” doesn’t go with the phrase “many times”; “many times” just goes by itself.

  • “I threw the ball many times.”

However, you are talking about two types of event (hanging out and talking) that occurred on more than one occasion. English has various words to cover this, for example: a lot, often, frequently.

So the difference can be characterised like so: When you play squash, you hit a ball against a wall many times. If you play squash each week, then you play it frequently.

The final thing I would change is the tense of your opening sentence. “We are hanging out and talking” means that that is what is currently going on, but “many times” means that this is something that has happened before. What you want to indicate is that hanging out and talking have happened in the past, and each time is complete, i.e. not still ongoing. For this, English has a tense called the present perfect.

Examples include:

  • “I have been to the doctor.”
  • “We have gone on holiday.”
  • “They have eaten us out of house and home.”

To form the present perfect you take have and add the past tense of the verb. So in your sentence you want to say, “We have hung out and talked“.

So Paul, what are you going to say to Angus?

Paul saying "Hmmm. I think I will say: We have hung out and talked a lot. Would you like to come to dinner with me?"Would you like to come to dinner with me?"

Excellent. To make it clear that you enjoy Angus’s company, you could add “, which I enjoyed very much.” to the end of the first sentence. So it would become “We have hung out and talked a lot, which I enjoyed very much.” This would emphasise how you feel about Angus, and hopefully persuade him to say yes!

Paul saying "Thank you very much!"

No problem. Go get him!

Filed under Grammar