Many rules are based on the way words sound together.
You wouldn’t think such little words as “a,” “an” and “as” could cause much confusion, but they do. The chief problem with “a” and “an” is using “a” before a vowel sound or “an” before a consonant sound – “a eagle,” “a incident,” “an gratuity,” or “an historic,” for example.
Seems a small thing, but it makes people grit their teeth just the same. It’s a wonder that such mistakes with “a” and “an” happen at all, because the faulty form is harder to say that the correct form: an eagle, an incident, a gratuity, a historic. That’s because vowel sounds glide effortlessly into consonant sounds, and vice versa, but they fight when butted against their own kind. Say aloud “an airplane” and “a airplane,” and “a book,” and “an book,” and you’ll hear what I mean.
Still, we hear the incorrect “an historic” or “an historical” all the time. A newspaper reporter recently referred to a conference as “an historic” meeting, and a television news anchor termed Margaret Sanger “an historic” figure. The U.S. Navy resurrected a patriotic symbol from the past when it directed its fleet to fly the red-and-white-striped “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake flag. Navy Secretary Gordon England said the flag would reflect the nation’s determination in its war on terrorism because it represented “an historic reminder” of America’s will to triumph.
“An historic” is incorrect because we sound the h-, a consonant. Only when the h- is silent do we use “an”: an heir, but a hair.
The problem with h- is more common when the stress falls on the second syllable – thus such incorrect phrasing as an habitual criminal, an hypothesis, or an heroic. Although the h- may be weak in such structures, it is not silent, and that settles the argument. As Bryan Garner writes in “Modern American Usage,” an before such words is “likely to strike readers and listeners as affectations.” (The practice is probably more accepted in Great Britain, although even there R. W. Fowler, a leading authority on English usage, wrote nearly 80 years ago that “opinion is divided” regarding h- words with unstressed first syllables.)
A similar error is seen with the word humble, in which the h- is also sounded. But the problem here is that some fail to sound the h-, pronouncing it “umble.” Thus, they say “an umble person” – observing the rule of using “an” before a vowel sound, but incorrectly using a vowel sound. I know of no dictionary whose preferred pronunciation for humble or humbly is “umble” or “umbly.”
Sometimes people protest such phrasing as: “An FBI investigation that started the whole mess.” Or “It’s an NCAA policy.” Or “She has an MA degree.” They object that the article “an” is wrong because it precedes the consonants F, N, and M. But that’s a misstatement of the rule. As we saw above, we use “a” before a consonant sound and “an” before a vowel sound. It’s true that F, N, and M are consonants, and we would use “a” before the words federal, national, and master’s. But here they are part of abbreviations, and they sound like “eff,” “enn,” and “emm.”
Conversely, words beginning with vowels that sound like consonants take “a.” Thus, it’s a eulogy (the E sounds like Y), a uniform (the U sounds like Y), or a Ouija board (the O sounds like W). It’s an herb or an herbal (the h- is silent), but a herbicide (theh- is sounded).
American English made no clear distinction between “a” and “an” before the 1800s. The U.S. Constitution refers to “an uniform” rule of naturalization, for example. But for the past century at least, we’ve let the whole matter of “a” or “an” rest on pleasing the ear and tongue – it’s as difficult to say “a hour” or “an history book” as it is unattractive to hear.
“As” is another little word that causes big trouble. For example, we often read or hear “as far as” without the words necessary to complete the thought: “As far as Williams’ outside activity, the committee will disregard it.” Accurate phrasing would render that sentence: “As far as Williams’ outside activity goes [or is concerned], the committee will disregard it.”
Another way to deal with unfinished “as far as” structures is to change them to “as for”: “As for Williams’ outside activity, the committee will disregard it.” (A tidier sentence, however, would be: “The committee will disregard Williams’ outside activity.”)
As often incorrectly follows such verbs as named, called, elected, etc.: “The association elected her as president.” Or: “In high school, Jansen was named as the most likely to succeed.” That’s like saying: “The parents named their new baby as John.” Omit as: “The association elected her president”; “In high school, Jansen was named most likely to succeed.”
The ungrammatical “equally as” is yet another problem with that tiny word. A newspaper restaurant critic wrote that he liked the beef, but the veal was “equally as good.” The veal was equally good, and that’s what he should have written.
In careful writing, small things matter.
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was a writing coach for 20 years. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.