Whether you’re writing a sales proposal, staff memo or report to colleagues, you don’t want to make a mistake like this: The team’s effort deserved a F. You would be the one flunking!
The rule we learned as children was to use a before words that start with a consonant – a ball, a mitt, a tee – and an before words that start with a vowel – an apple, an enchilada, an orange. But that’s not quite the whole story.
It’s the sound that counts (which is why we’re more likely to make the mistake writing than speaking). Use a before words that start with a consonant sound – even if the letter happens to be a vowel:
• A European joke The E sounds like the y in your.
• A one-week trip The o sounds like the w in won.
• A unique situation The u sounds like the y in you.
Use an before words (or letters or numbers) that start with a vowel sound – even if the letter happens to be a consonant:
• An NFL game The N begins with an e sound (as does the F in the first example).
• An 80-year-old house The 80 begins with an a sound.
• An hour for lunch The h is silent; the word sounds like our.
H-words in which the h is unstressed or weak – words like historic and hypothesis – are a gray area. Both a and an are commonly used. One study noted that a is used more often with those words, but an is used often enough to be considered standard usage. Here at SKAR, following the AP Stylebook, we prefer a historic and a hypothesis.
Next time you think you have a piece of writing the way you want it, try this exercise: Shorten it. Yes, you’ve already worked on it and are pleased with it, but don’t become defensive. Adopt the attitude that it’s “much too fat and a little too long,” and search for words to prune. It usually turns out better.
Here are examples of sentences that could be shortened, should be shortened and actually benefit from being shortened:
• I am unsure whether or not mama’s little baby loves shortening bread. Usually you can drop or not from this phrase, but not always: I love shortening bread, whether or not the baby does.
• I was always a romantic railroader; in fourth grade I really liked a rather pretty girl who had a Lionel model train set. Avoid qualifiers like really, rather, very, little and actually. Although intended to strengthen a statement, they actually may weaken it.
• It’s my regular routine to stop by and visit the Department of Redundancy, where I look over and view new inventions. Look at the sense of your words and search for redundancies to eliminate.
• The badness in her art reveals bad talent and bad skill informed by unquestionably bad taste. When you repeat the same word in one sentence, that usually means you need to rewrite and simplify: Her art is bad.
Maybe it’s because lose rhymes with choose. Maybe it’s because too many writers snooze or drink booze or get tattoos or play kazoos.
Whatever the reason, sometimes when we mean to write lose – to misplace, not win, elude – we accidentally write loose – unfastened, not precise, freed.
We know better. It happens when we’re rushed or not paying attention. We hope it will be caught – by us or a friend or an editor – before it is published and a large number of readers see it. After all, we don’t want too many people thinking we’re dumb.