The Angry Grammarian

The man with the plan for "a" vs. "an."

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jul. 30, 2008

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A reader recently sent in a letter (what does it say about my readers that I receive at least as much snail mail for this column as I do email?) with a photocopy (at least they know how to use a Xerox machine) of the following Inquirer headline: "A Euphoric End: In Bali, death calls not for tears, but a fiery celebration."

"Has the rules changed [sic] for correct usage of 'a' and 'an'?" the reader queried, ungrammatically. "Is it correct to say 'a' euphoric or 'an' euphoric or 'a' or 'an' euphemism?"

Let's settle this for good. Whether you use "a" or "an" is determined not by the letter that follows it--that's just a cheap shorthand trick your grade school teacher taught you. Like all cheap shorthand, it'll eventually steer you wrong.

Rather, "a" vs. "an" is determined by the sound that follows: in this case, a Y sound (you-for-ic).

Which is why people get so tripped up around "a historic" vs. "an historic."

Writer June Casagrande calls the use of "an historic" "the completely defensible choice of obnoxious poseurs everywhere." I wouldn't even give you "completely defensible."

Nowhere does it say that it's okay to pronounce it "istoric." You never learned "an istory lesson," so why would "historic" get treated any differently? The fact that you can't properly pronounce the H in "historic" isn't an's problem. It's yours.

In speaking, I'll be as generous as Casagrande is: You can have your "an historic." But in writing, stick to the dictionary pronunciation and go with "a historic."

What's unfortunate is that this whole "a" vs. "an" discussion ignores the real problem of the original Inquirer clipping: the subhead.

"In Bali, death calls not for tears, but a fiery celebration" features a grossly unparallel construction. It's a common error, but that doesn't make it any more forgivable.

Whenever you have a "not ... but ... " phrase like this one, you need to have the same kind of structure after each one. In this case, it should read, "In Bali, death calls not for tears, but for a fiery celebration."

Somebody write me a letter about that. And email it, for God's sake.

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1. StephenShandor said... on Jul 30, 2008 at 12:59PM

“I am pretentious enough to use "an historic". I could say that people as pretentious as I am use the "an" because saying "a historic" could possibly be confused (at least in speech) with "ahistoric" (meaning without historic foundation), another word pretentious people would tend to use frequently. I must admit that I am a bit puzzled by the general tendency to go easy on split infinitives, dangling participles, the use of "me" instead of "I" when the nominative case is called for, and many other clearly incorrect usages and then to bring the whole weight of the English-speaking world down on something like saying "an historic".”


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