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Commentary: Tiny Words

By Paula LaRocque, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

You wouldn't think such little words as "a" and "an" could cause much trouble, but they do. Many misunderstand even such a simple principle as using "an" before a vowel sound and "a" before a consonant sound so that we hear, for example: "a incident" instead of "an incident," or "an historic" instead of "a historic."

Seems a small thing, but it makes people grit their teeth. And it's a wonder such mistakes happen at all because the incorrect form is harder to say than the correct form. An incident is easier to say than a incident, and a historic is easier to say than an historic. That's because vowel sounds glide effortlessly into consonant sounds, and vice versa, but they fight when butted against their own kind. Try saying "an airplane" and "a airplane," and "a book," and "an book," and you'll see what I mean.

Still, we hear "an historic" or "an historical" all the time. A politician recently referred to a conference as "an historic" meeting, and a news anchor termed Margaret Sanger "an historic" figure.

"An historic" is incorrect because we sound the consonant h-. Only when the h- is silent do we use "an." Therefore, we say a hair, but an heir. We say a house or a habit, but an hour or an honor.

The problem with h- is more common when the stress falls on the second syllable - so we may hear incorrect phrasing such as an habitual criminal, an hypothesis, or an heroic. Although the h- may be weakened in such structures, it is not silent, and that settles the question.

A similar error can occur with the word humble, sometimes mispronounced "umble." So we hear "an umble person" - which observes the rule of using "an" before a vowel sound, but incorrectly uses the vowel sound.

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 say "an" is wrong because it precedes the consonants F, N, and M. But that misstates the rule. The rule is to use "a" before a consonant sound and "an" before a vowel sound. It's true that F, N, and M are consonants, and that we would use "a" before the words federal, national, and master's. But the abbreviations FBI, NCAA, and MA sound as though they begin with the vowel E: "eff," "enn," and "emm."

By the same token, words beginning with vowels that sound like consonants take "a." So it's a eulogy, a uniform, a Ouija board. That's because the E in "eulogy" sounds like Y, the U in "uniform" sounds like Y, and the O in "Ouija board" sounds like W.

American English made no clear distinction between "a" and "an" before the 1800s. The U.S. Constitution, for example, refers to "an uniform" rule of naturalization. But for the last century at least, American English has let the matter of "a" or "an" rest on pleasing the ear and tongue - it's as difficult to say "a hour" or "an historic" as it is unattractive to hear.

Paula LaRocque is a former editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News and the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.