by M A N @roquesdoodle
I don’t rant very often, but when I do, it’s because of something that irritates me to the Nth degree. No, it’s not about the BP oil spill or the slow creep of genuine insanity into our world of politics. It’s about grammar. So, to those of you who are bored easily, fair warning.
There are quite a few writers whom I respect not only for their views and insights, but for the gifted way they express themselves. However, several months ago I began to notice that many of my favorite bloggers have been using the articles “a” and “an”--especially “an”-- in a way that makes my teeth grind. Allow me to explain.
--BEWARE! Grammar ahead!--
Let’s look at this simple sentence:
That is a cat.
This is one of the simplest sentence structures in the English language. We have our noun (“That”), our verb (“is”), while “cat” serves as our predicate nominative. What about “a” you ask? “A” is an article (one of the three: “a”, “an”, and “the”). Articles fall under the adjective category, which makes sense since they are words that modify nouns or pronouns. In this instance, it’s modifying the word “cat.” It’s “a cat.” Now let’s look at this sentence:
That is an octopus.
Notice how we changed the article from “a” to “an?” The reason for this is that the word octopus begins with a vowel sound. And that’s the funny thing about the articles “a” and “an.” It’s the phonetics of the word the article is modifying that determines which is the correct article to use. If the modified word begins with a consonant sound, we use the article “a”, as in “a cat.” If the modified word begins with a vowel sound, we use the article “an”, as in “an octopus.” Easy, right? I mean, this is a concept that most English speakers grasp in grade school.
Now, this is where things start to get fucking annoying.
Let’s look at this sentence:
That is an ugly octopus.
For those of you who had to diagram sentences back in the day, you know that even though the word “ugly” comes between “an” and “octopus,” “an” still modifies the word “octopus” and not the word “ugly.” Unless you’re a cat using LOL speak, it’s “an octopus” and not “an ugly.” However, the phrase still flows because “ugly,” the word that immediately follows “an,” also begins with a vowel sound. But lately I have been seeing many writers doing things like this:
That is an beautiful octopus.
Hold on, I need a minute. Just typing that makes me want to run through the streets, kicking old ladies.
Okay, let’s look at that horrid fucking sentence again, shall we?
That is an beautiful octopus.
So here’s my problem. When reading that, let alone speaking that, I find the sentence clunky, awkward, and that it takes me out of the reading experience entirely. Yet, technically, the above sentence is correct. “An,” our article acting as an adjective, is still modifying the word “octopus” and not the word “beautiful.” Because “octopus” begins with a vowel sound, we must use “an,” regardless of the phonetics of the word immediately following the article.
Personally, I believe the sentence should read: That is a beautiful octopus. For me, the article should be determined by the phonetics of the word that immediately follows it, NOT the word it modifies. The rules of English grammar disagree.
And I hate it.
I mean with a drag-it-into-the-middle-of-the-street-so-the-whole-neighborhood-can-watch-me-skull-fuck-it-like-I-was-a-sailor-on-shore-leave kind of hate.
Let me be the first to say that I am no grammarian. Even though I have a degree in English Education and spent a year teaching High School English, I am not impervious to mistakes. Just ask my editors. There’s a reason I keep a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and The Beacon Handbook within arm’s reach. And I would never deign to tell other writers to refrain from following that rule, no matter how much I feel it might stain their otherwise pristine prose.
But for myself, it is a rule I refuse to follow.