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‘H’ is for “Horribly Confusing”

When it comes to writing, have you ever wondered what the difference is between active voice and passive voice? Have you ever heard someone say you shouldn’t split an infinitive and thought (a) “What does that even mean?” and (b) “I wonder if I would even have the necessary strength to do so?” Did anyone ever tell you that you should never leave a participle dangling resulting in your visualizing a small cartoon-like creature caught in an unfortunate situation? No? Ah, well, maybe it’s just me.

The reason for today’s meandering musings is that the process of penning my previous column (Let’s Read Our Little Cotton Socks Off (Part 3)!) reminded me that I really do need to get back to work on my magnum opus: Wroting Inglish: The Essential Guide to Writing English for Anyone Who Doesn’t Want to be Thought a Dingbat.

I can tell you from experience that—unless you end up being a lucky rascal—writing technical books is something you have to do for fun because your chances of making any worthwhile money are slight. When I think of the countless hours I’ve spent scribing my own humble offerings (search for “Clive Maxfield” on Amazon), it pains me to realize that I could have amassed significantly more boodle stocking shelves at my local supermarket. In my heart of hearts, I’m hoping that this new non-technical tome—when I eventually finish it—will go “gang busters” like the legendary Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.

On the bright side, my mother loves to show my existing books off to her friends. You never know, one day she may even open one of them up (one of my books, not one of her friends).

One of the driving forces behind my new work is that I want to make the topics of grammar and punctuation interesting. You may scoff if you wish… don’t worry, I’ll wait… but I’m not afraid (or proud) and I know I can rise to the challenge. One of the funny things is that, as part of the process of writing this work, I find that I’m learning myriad nuggets of knowledge and tidbits of trivia myself.

The book itself is going to be composed of a (relatively) large number of (relatively) short chapters, each introducing a simple topic while making the reader look at things from a new perspective. My hope is that there will be something for everyone, and that every reader will end up saying, “Well, I didn’t know that!”

Consider, for example, Chapter 5, which discusses the words A, An, The, Some, and Any. “Really?” I can imagine you saying, “This is simple stuff. Surely, we all know everything there is to know about these little rascals” (I hate to tell you, but you just said “rascals,” which means you are already picking up bad habits from me). Well, let’s see, shall we? The remainder of this column is taken directly from Chapter 5 of Wroting Inglish. After you’ve perused and pondered the writings below, I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

There’s Good News and There’s Bad News

As we discussed in Chapter 2, an article is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made to that noun. There are three articles in the English language: a, an, and the. One way to think of these is that they are used to express the amount of “definiteness” we wish to associate with the target noun.

The good news is that understanding the use of these articles at a high level of abstraction is relatively easy. The bad news is that the actual use of a and an can be somewhat complex because you often have to work things out on the basis of what “sounds right.” As you can imagine, this can be rather frustrating for someone who is trying to learn English as a second language, and even native English speakers may “throw a wobbly” on occasion.

The Definite Article: The

Let’s start with the definite article, the, which is used when one knows that the person with whom one is communicating can determine the particular person or thing that is being discussed. For example, let’s assume that we have a plate of cookies (“biscuits” in England), that there are many different types of cookies on the plate, but that only one of these cookies is of the chocolate chip variety. In this case, one might say:

          Please pass me the chocolate chip cookie. (“Cookie” is singular.)

Alternatively, if our plate of cookies contained more than one chocolate chip cookie, and if one was feeling particularly greedy, one might say:

          Please pass me the chocolate chip cookies. (“Cookies” is plural.)

In both of the above examples, the is used to identify the particular cookie or cookies of interest. In English, the is always used as the definite article, irrespective of whether the noun with which it is associated is singular or plural. (As we noted in Chapter 3, some languages use different articles when referring to singular and plural and/or masculine and feminine nouns.)

Another singular-plural example that just popped into my head (I can’t help myself) is as follows:

          The worm squelched between his toes. (“Worm” is singular)

          The worms squelched between his toes. (“Worms” is plural)

From these examples we may suppose that—in addition to being barefoot—the person in question either doesn’t particularly care for worms or he doesn’t pay sufficient attention to where he’s planting his feet. Observe that the latter case indicates that there are multiple worms and that our hero manages to stand on all of them. Had we wished to indicate that he stood on only a subset of the worms, we might have used the word some as shown in the following examples (we will return to consider words like some and any in a little while):

          Some of the worms squelched between his toes.

          Some worms squelched between his toes.

We may also use the when we have already introduced the particular person or thing we are talking about; consider the following example (which, by some strange quirk of fate, happens to be true):

          We have two dogs; a male and a female. The female smells dreadful, and the male smells worse!

The Indefinite Articles: A and An

Depending on one’s point of view, we can consider a and an either to be two different articles or to be two “flavors” of the same article. The main point is that these are known as the indefinite articles because they are used to refer to something that is not specifically known by the person with whom one is communicating. In this case, let’s assume that we have a plate containing multiple types of cookies and multiple cookies of each type, in which case we might say something like the following:

          Please pass me a cookie.

          Please pass me a chocolate chip cookie.

          Please pass me an orange-flavored cookie.

The first example indicates that there are multiple types of cookies, that we would like one of these cookies, and that we don’t care which type we receive. The second example indicates that there are multiple chocolate chip cookies, that we want one of these cookies, but that we don’t care which particular chocolate chip cookie we receive. Meanwhile, the third example requires us to understand the difference between a and an as discussed below…

A versus An

Before we leap into the fray, we need to note that a vowel is a sound in spoken language that is pronounced with an open vocal tract such that there is no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis (the opening between the vocal cords at the upper part of the larynx). The word vowel is also used to refer to a letter of an alphabet that denotes a vowel sound. There are five such letters in the English language: a, e, i, o, and u. Also, in some cases, the letter y may act as a vowel, such as in the word myth, for example.

By comparison, a consonant is a sound in a spoken language that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples in English are p (pronounced with the lips), t (pronounced with the front of the tongue), k (pronounced with the back of the tongue), h (pronounced in the throat), f and s (“fricatives,” which are pronounced by forcing air through a narrow channel), and m and n (“nasals,” which involve air flowing through the nose). The word consonant is also used to refer to a letter of an alphabet that denotes a consonant sound. Consonant letters in the English alphabet are b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z.

All of this explains the need for having two indefinite articles: a and an. Try saying the following out loud, for example:

          Please pass me a egg. (Incorrect)

          Please pass me an egg. (Correct)

As you will soon realize, it’s hard to say “a egg” and the result is a gap in our speech; by compassion, “an egg” rolls off the tongue and is easier on the ear. Now try saying the following out loud:

          Is that a banana in your pocket? (Correct)

          Is that an banana in your pocket? (Incorrect)

In this case, it’s harder to say “an banana” and easier to say “a banana.” All of this leads to a simplistic way of looking at things, which is as follows:

          We use the indefinite article a to precede a word starting with a consonant

          We use the indefinite article an to precede a word starting with a vowel

Oh, if only life were so easy. The problem lies in the fact that these rules actually apply to the sound of the letter beginning the word, and not just the letter itself. This leads to the following rules:

          If a word begins with a consonant sound then use a.

          If a word begins with a vowel sound then use an.

Let’s look at some examples. We would say “an umbrella” because umbrella starts with the vowel sound u. However, we would say “a university” because university actually sounds as though it starts with the consonant sound y as in “you-niversity.”

Similarly, we would say “a hippopotamus” because hippopotamus starts with the consonant sound h. However, we would say “an hour” because the h in hour is largely silent and this word sounds like it starts with the vowel sound o.

All of this can lead to numerous complications. One that I run into all the time as an engineer is the abbreviation for Light-Emitting Diode (LED). Which of the following would you say is correct?

          Is there a LED on your circuit board? 

          Is there an LED on your circuit board? 

In fact, this really is a tricky one, because it all depends how you “hear” the word LED in your mind when you are reading it quietly to yourself. What do I mean by this? Well, when speaking this word aloud, some folks say it as a single word LED to rhyme with “bed,” in which case they would say “a LED” because the first letter of LED is/sounds like a consonant. By comparison, other folks would sound this out as the individual letters L-E-D, so they would say “an L-E-D” because – in this case – the letter ‘L’ sounds like the vowel e (as in ell-E-D).

‘H’ is for “Horribly Confusing”

Many older English people were taught that, in addition to nouns that start with a vowel, one should also use the indefinite article an with any noun that starts with the letter ‘h.’ Many non-English speakers have also been taught this, especially if their teachers were of the “old school.”

In fact, both ways (with an a or with an an) are technically correct. It depends which school one went to and how the teacher taught this topic. Generally speaking, using an with a noun starting with an ‘h’ was considered to be more “posh.”

The problem is that using an with every noun that starts with the letter ‘h’ is taking things a little bit too far. You still hear some older people saying things this way, but it does tend to “jar on the ear.” Consider the following, for example

          We went on an holiday and stayed in an horrible hotel. 

This makes me cringe just to think about it. A better guide is to determine how the ‘h’ sounds and then use a or an as appropriate. For example, we’d say “…a heffalump…” because we sound the ‘h,’ but we’d say “…an historian…” because we tend to downplay the ‘h’ and put more emphasis on the ‘i,’ which is, of course, a vowel. In fact, this latter case is a bit of a tricky one, because some people will use a soft ‘h’ for a word like “historic,” in which case they might say something like “…an historic moment…” However, many people use a hard ‘h’ (really emphasizing the ‘h’), in which case they might say something like “…a historic moment…”

And while we are on this topic, the same thing also applies to adjectives. For example, we might say:

          He was a horrendous glutton but an honorable historian.

Well, if the truth be told, we probably wouldn’t expect to find ourselves saying this very often, but I’m sure you get the gist. With the first adjective we say “…a horrendous…” because we sound the ‘h,’ but with the second adjective we say “…an honorable…” because we’re soft-pedaling the ‘h’ and placing more emphasis on the ‘o.’

Some and Any

As we previously noted, we can use the to refer to singular or plural items:

          The worm squelched between his toes. (“Worm” is singular)

          The worms squelched between his toes. (“Worms” is plural)

By comparison, a and an are used to refer only to individual items:

          A worm squelched between his toes. (“Worm is singular.)

          An unhappy worm squelched between his toes. (“Worm” is singular.)

This also applies if we are using a word that indicates multiple items, but we are using that word in the context of an individual entity in its own right. Consider the following use of the word “group,” for example:

          A group of galloping geeks is a ghastly sight. (“Group” as an individual entity.)

But what happens if we wish to indicate multiple items without specifying exactly which ones we are talking about. In this case we use the word some, which we may think of as the plural of a or an:

          Some worms squelched between his toes.

          Some geeks guzzled Guinness and started burping.

Some is also used with uncountable nouns; for example:

          I would like some downtime.

          I’m really thirsty and I need some water.

Now this is where things start to get interesting, because the rule-of-thumb is that we use some (meaning “a little,” “a few,” “a small number,” or “a small amount”) in positive sentences, and we use any (meaning “one,” “some,” or “all”) in negative sentences and questions as illustrated in the following figure:

Well, this certainly seems to be fairly straightforward, but did you really think it was going to be that simple? As fate would have it, we sometimes use some in questions when we expect to receive a positive (“Yes”) answer; for example:

          Would you like some pizza?

          Could I have some chocolate cake?   

But wait, there’s more, because we may also use any in a positive sentence if the underlying sense of the sentence is negative (good grief, give me strength); for example:

          He ate three large pizzas without any problems. (He did not have any problems)

And, last but not least, generally speaking we would use the words something and somebody in the same way as we use some; and we would use the words anything and anybody in the same way as we use any.

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