Good grammar sounds right
May 1, 2015
By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision
My family has a holiday ritual that is in danger of extinction, so I’m going to employ extraordinary life-saving measures. We play Scrabble. Certain members of my family have become Scrabble “experts,” and we owe it all to our family friend, Marie, who came into our lives when my brother married her daughter. She became a dear friend to my mom and a spare grandma to my son, and the three of them played Scrabble every chance they could. Marie died in 2013, so she will no longer be present at our family celebrations. We miss her terribly.
I play Scrabble, but I can’t play against the likes of Marie and Logan. She taught him that there is a whole world of two-letter “words” (like “ki” and “za”) that I can’t find in any dictionary—and those two can wring 45 points out of one play with those two-letter words. I can’t compete with that. So I stand by, giving them a hard time about those “words” and rooting for the underdog, my mom.
A friend told me she never learned grammar in detail when she was in school. She goes by whether it “sounds right,” which should work just fine, except that so few people use correct grammar it’s hard to know what sounds right.
A co-worker asked me to do a column on “a” and “an,” and since that’s a perfect example of the whole “sounds right” dilemma, I told her I’d take that on. By the way, “an” is a two-letter word, but for some reason, it’s not a high-scoring Scrabble word. I have no idea why. Probably because it can be found in the dictionary.
Did you know that the only basis for choosing “a” or “an” is sound? Many people misinterpret the rule as “use ‘an’ before vowels and ‘a’ before consonants.” The rule is actually “use ‘an’ before vowel sounds and ‘a’ before consonant sounds.”
That seems simple enough, until you run across a word that starts with H, apparently. But this is one time you can trust your ear. Pronounce the word aloud. If it begins with a stressed (aspirated is the technical term) H, as in “horse,” that is a consonant sound, so use “a.” If the word begins with a silent (non-aspirated) H, as in “honor,” that is a vowel sound, so use “an.”
Historically, the British haven’t aspirated the H at the beginning of many words that Americans aspirate, so they’ve tended to use “an” more than we do in the U.S. Many of us believe that the King’s English is somehow more correct than our Yankee English, so we should do as they do. As a result, lots of people think “an historic moment” is correct. The fact is, on this side of the Pond, we aspirate the H in “historic.” If you don’t, you’re in the minority, but you can use “an” when you speak — just don’t do it in writing because most likely your reader aspirates the H.
You might assume every word that starts with a vowel should be preceded by “an.” But vowels can’t be trusted. O is a vowel, but some O’s insist on being pronounced like a consonant. Use “a” before O’s that are pronounced like the O in “one” because it begins with the consonant W sound. Use “an” before O words that begin with a vowel sound, like “only.”
The rule works before numbers and letters, too. You might have earned an MBA because M is pronounced “em,” but a BA because B is pronounced “bee.” I might make an 11th-hour change to this column before I send it to my editor because “11” is pronounced with an initial vowel sound.
I know all this talk of vowels that sound like consonants and consonants that sound like vowels messes with some people’s minds, just like “ka” being a word messes with mine. If that’s the case, you’ll have to trust me on this, just like I have to trust that it somehow makes sense for Merriam-Webster to publish an official Scrabble dictionary that says “xz” is a word and a regular dictionary that has no listing for “xz.”
Personally, I’ll always believe that Logan and Marie win because they cheat. But this year, I will have to become a cheater, too—it’s a family tradition. © Columbia Daily Tribune 2015
Kathy Fox is a longtime resident of Columbia, an editor by trade and a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send grammar questions or pet peeves to firstname.lastname@example.org.