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Thread: "a" vs. "an"

  1. #1

    "a" vs. "an"

    Ok, checked a few rule books and still can't decide. In question is this: a girl with a unusual name.

    Should it be as written or "an unusual name" ? Or do I get to go with what sounds better. (If so - WHICH sounds better?!)


  2. #2
    Patricia Cooper

    Re: "a" vs. "an"

    The strict rule is:

    always use "an" before a vowel or a mute "h".

    The one that never seems to be used nowadays is "she wrote an historical novel."

    Now I will probably get shot down over this, and I'm ducking already. I am going back to the "proper" English as taught in the UK back in the 50s.

    So you are right when you write: a girl with an unusual name.

    There are always exceptions to the rule -- the exception is when using it in dialogue and the speaker wouldn't know any better -- like those who say [off] of. *g*

    Having said that -- I have decided that rather than ducking, I will leave the room.


  3. #3

    Re: "a" vs. "an"

    Hi Pat!

    "an historical novel"....maybe it's just me but it's not a mute h. Doesn't mute mean it isn't pronounced?
    (h)istorcal? I'm confused. Enlighten this product of the American Public School. *S*

    But it is definately "an unusual name" It starts with a vowel and that's that!

  4. #4
    Gary Kessler

    Re: "a" vs. "an"

    According to the princpal authorities, the "h" in historic/historical is aspirated, which should mean it's "a historic document." But after agreeing with that, some of them disagree or hedge on what really to use. The descriptive dictionary, "Webster's" uses "an," but the prescriptive dictionary," American Heritage," specifies "a." Fowlers hedges by saying the use of "an" persists, although Fowler doesn't know why it should. Bernstein in "The Careful Writer" flatly says "the preferred form today, on both sides of the Atlantic, is 'a historic document,'"

    The answer to the original question, however: According to Bernstein, "an is used before a word beginning with a vowel" (e.g., usual), with the exception of "a is used before words beginning with a 'yew' sound" (e.g., university)--so "an unusual name" (vowel without a 'yew' sound).

  5. #5
    Karen LaCross

    Re: "a" vs. "an"

    A historical novel
    An honorable discharge

    If it sounds like a vowel use an

    If it sounds like a hard consonate us a

    at least that is the way I learned it.

  6. #6
    Gary Kessler

    Re: higher-level writing

    P.S. Incidentally, when you've moved into higher-level writing than school composition, it's best not to rely on "that's the way Mrs. Tremble taught it to me in eighth grade" and to take the effort to learn what some of the athorities are, to have some of them on hand, and to consult them. The grammar you learned in school is very basic and often stopped at what the teacher could make rhyme so you could memorize it; it's not the stuff that supports elegant writing at the level of book authorship. (The British school system is better than the American systems with this basic education--as my children found out much to their chagrin and my delight.) You no doubt will have been taught you can't begin a sentence with a conjunction or end it with a preposition, which is all hog wash in the real writing world, but it did keep you in a comfortable little composition box for school assignments. If interested, I include a basic library list (not just my own idea of what should be on the list) of writing resources for serious writers on my www.editsbooks.com website (and invite suggestions of good ones not listed there--Irene gave me another one to add just last week: Thomas S. Kane, "The New Oxford Guide to Writing" Oxford University Press, 1988).

  7. #7
    Irene Rheinwald

    Re: higher-level writing

    I have to laugh. I STILL avoid ending a sentence with a preposition if at all possible. There's a story (maybe aprocryphal) about Winston Churchill. Once, after being admonished on just this subject, he calmly replied: "This is the sort of thing up with which I will not put."

    Definitely, 'an unusual name'.
    Definitely, 'a ubiquitous problem' (the 'yew' vowel).

    Cheers, Irene

  8. #8

    Re: higher-level writing

    It's unanimous about the "an unusual name" but the silent/soft/aspirated (all used above to describe the same thing, even though they are not the same) is pretty dodgy. We still mostly use Brit. English here in Australia, but the "an historical" is showing up less and less. A friend of mine is an editor for public TV, and asked me to tell her "once and for all" which it is: "a historical or an historical". She favoured the former, and had informed the actors that they had to re-do their lines accordinlgy (she's very lovely but also very bossy I'm afraid.) I told her that there is no once and for all, that both are used (though the latter less and less) and then went away to find out why. Apparently the "an" before h's, usually for soft sounding beginings, stems from the old English tendency to drop h's when they speak: of the 'urricanes 'ardly hever 'appen ilk. So this aspect of our Queen's English, which is supposedly of a higher level than all others, is actually based on the assumption of poor or uneducated speaking skills.

    Cute, hey. Well, I thought so.


  9. #9
    Catherine McCallum

    Re: higher-level writing

    I had to laugh when I read the first two posts here. Pat answered Carmella's question by citing the rule about using 'an' before any word that begins with a vowel. Immediately, what popped into my head was, "Hmmm. What if she had a usual name?"

    Dang rules.


  10. #10
    Bly Oxford

    Re: higher-level writing

    This always gives me pause when I read a guideline that instructs, include AN SASE. This happens so often, I question my A SASE.

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