Friday, August 10, 2007

Writing Blogs and Article Determination

As I discovered today, Mike Billings at Copy-Editing Corner has a pile of useful language observations and tips. He also has some great links in his blogroll. One of those led me to Bill Walsh and his Sharp Points.

There, I found a pointed exposition on “a” versus “an”. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read through not only Mr. Walsh's opinion but the quotes for other writers as well. I was concerned that my bourgeois insistence on “a historic” was going to be mocked. Apparently, I've been correct all along. It's nice when professionals agree with you. [Please read that paragraph as tongue-in-cheek, as it was intended. I'm really not that insufferable.]

One of the points on which he touches is brought up by Bill Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. What do you do when writing with acronyms? I have seen people who adhere strictly to the rule of using “a” before consonants, leading to nasty things like, “a SPCA protest”. The article depends on how the following word or letter is pronounced, not on whether or not it begins with a vowel.

If SPCA is pronounced as a series of letters (as invariably happens) then “es” is the sound following the article and “an” is the article required. Similarly, you would use “a CAT scan” because you don't spell out the acronym when you read such a sentence out loud.

If you needed another reason to read your work aloud, there you have one. Strict adherence to a rule of grammar can lead to awkward sentences that disrupt the flow of your writing. That's why exceptions get made and why people argue about their application. Having these discussions pushes the language to evolve for better usage.