This week, we received a form email from a positively seething person about the use of a/an in one of our headlines. It reads:
” …An NJ Gem”
It is A NJ. A New Jersey.
Use: An Historic, An Apple. An Underling, An Elbow…
Seeing it? USE AN FOR ANY WORD BEGINNING WITH A VOWEL OR H.
— 4th Grade.
Can’t read this story because the author’s literacy is in question in the title…An Nincompoop..Lol.
–A Literate New Jerseyan
Alright, first of all: Chill the fuck out.
Let’s put the grammatical argument aside for a moment and ask some questions instead. Does such a surly, condescending and incorrect argument about such a minor quibble really require a response? No. Do I have better things to do, like figure out how to continue to grow NJ Indy, than write a 1,300-word response to this email? Yes. Is this hypophoric asking of questions and then answering them a hackneyed literary and hellish corporate-boardroom device that should be replaced with short, declarative sentences? Certainly.
I gotta tell you, though. While I couldn’t give one single fuck about the majority of grammatical rules, grammar Na—uh… sticklers—bother me. And I can’t simply respond to this person because they submitted it anonymously. Plus, the energy that comes across in this email just jacks me up, too, to be honest.
But, seriously? You can’t read the story because of one perceived, minor error? Do you not read E. E. Cummings because he doesn’t follow conventional rules of grammar? When he stylizes his name “e e” do you read it as a long “e” sound, like the sound your tightening butthole makes when you come across a perceived grammatical infraction in the recesses of the internet?
Whatever you do, and I’m saying this as a friend, do not read Gertrude Stein. You might implode.
And fuck Bob Dylan, right? That dolt wrote “Lay Lady Lay” and not “Lie Lady Lie.” Go back to Duluth, you deadbeat!
Now, ultimately I take this as a compliment. This person cares about what we publish. It’s yet another sign of NJ Indy’s growth—when we launched out of the abyss a little over a year ago, no one cared about the details. Today, with tens of thousands of readers every month on the site, a robust social media presence and plans for a print edition in October, it’s evident that people care.
That’s great, because we want people caring about the details. Look, we’re a small team and so we are going to make plenty of errors in our pieces, whether because we missed a typo or we chose the wrong word usage. We’re humans! But, seriously, don’t look too closely at what we’ve published (or, even, this piece). We welcome anyone who finds errors or who has questions about the way a story was framed or reported to contact us, and we’ll have a nice, productive conversation, or simply fix the error. (That’s how it usually works).
But typing out a fiery (and, may I say, not particularly well-worded) response to a perceived error is useless to us, although probably pretty satisfying for the sad, navel-gazing crowd. Which is what happened here.
True, we learn in elementary school basic rules of grammar like an before vowels and I before E except after C. Those rules are taught to us in generalities because English is a robust, advanced language with contradictions and exceptions, and we’re supposed to learn the nuances of language sometime in the years after fourth grade, when our brains develop.
(It occurs to me A Literate New Jerseyan might have just finished fourth grade, in which case, we offer our sincere apologies and wish you best of luck next year in fifth grade. Enjoy Ocean Week!)
A/An is one of those nuances. Usage is determined by sound. Unicorn, usage and USA all start with the “y” sound and so are preceded by a, even though they all start with vowels. Go ahead, try to say, “I saw an unicorn.” One or once start with a “w” sound, so they get the a. Honor and homage start with short and long “o” sounds, respectively, so they get a preceding an, even though they start with consonants. And it’s not any word that starts with H that gets an, as A Literate New Jerseyan posits—consider horse. Consider. Fucking. Horse.
And did A Literate New Jerseyan even stop to think about the proper article for X-ray?
The same rule applies to acronyms and initialisms, which when viewed on the printed page may lead to a certain visual incongruity, especially if readers are not silently voicing the words in their head as they read. For instance, if one were to write about a memo sent by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (in its initialized form) it would be “an FBI memo”; even though the word following an clearly begins with a consonant, it is voiced as a vowel (“eff-bee-eye”). Should one, however, write about a memo sent by the Central Intelligence Agency (again using the initialism for the name) it would be “a CIA memo.”
Editor’s Manual puts it succinctly: “Use a or an before an acronym or abbreviation depending on how it is pronounced instead of how it is written.”
See, it’s not so hard. Use your mouth instead of your eyes to determine usage, and let that big old brain of yours take a break.
Now, I will throw A Literate New Jerseyan a bone. The best I can do is forget that we’re talking about the written word, and admit that some people might read the acronym NJ as “New Jersey.” In which case, yes, an a is called for. But we write language based on common trends in usage (and not, necessarily, what’s written in the books). It’s reasonable that many people would read NJ as simply N-J, in which case an is the choice (because it starts with a short “e” sound, as in elbow, which A Literate New Jerseyan uses as an example for usage of an).
And if there’s doubt that people say N-J, just scroll up to the top of the page and read the name of our publication. I, for one, haven’t read out the full state name in thousands of usages of our name, maybe ever. I also often refer to Pennsylvania as P-A. It’s pretty normal. Not many people call it the District of Columbia. I’m cherry-picking examples, but the point is usage is context-dependent and individual, and it changes from person to person, moment to moment.
But more broadly, words are nothing but symbols for meaning. If you understand the meaning of a sequence of letters and words, then that language did its job, and there’s no good reason to cease reading more from the producer of that language, unless you just like taking stands for the sake of doing so. Which may be the case here, but one can die on the hill of retaining the sacrosanct meaning and usage of an, or any word, and we’ll bury ’em next to those who died for google, queer, awful, nice, clue and many more.
So, at best and if I’m feeling generous (which I’m not), we’re both right. But A Literate New Jerseyan came at us with fire, and so we felt the need to put that shit out. And taking a second long look at “a/an NJ” (we did indeed think about it for a while the first time), I think we’re right.
Now if anyone has any comments about any of our stories, feel free to email us here. If it’s good, we’ll publish it. If it’s a stinker, we might publish it, too, but we’ll do something like this.