‘A’ vs. ‘An’–the why and how

It’s been a while since I’ve updated anything at all, and even longer since I’ve posted anything about writing. I’ve taken on a new project which I’ll probably talk about more once I have something to show for it. For now, all you get is a pedantic rant about one of the smallest yet most irksome mistakes I see in writing.

Putting an ‘a’ where there should be an ‘an’ might not seem like such an unforgivable offense at first. It doesn’t obscure the meaning of the sentence as other grammatical mistakes may. But every time I see or hear this mistake it grates on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard.

It’s not just a stylistic or pedantic reason that this particular mistake bothers me. Coming across this mistake robs the entire passage of any narrative momentum it may have had, making you stop dead in your tracks much the same way a misplaced comma does. It’s one of the little things that can suck you right out of whatever you’re reading.

What is the rule?

Most–if not all–of you have probably heard this rule before. If a word begins with a consonant it gets ‘a’ while a word that begins with a vowel gets ‘an.’

However, saying it this way is what leads to some of the confusion. The truth is, whether you use ‘a’ or ‘an’ has nothing to do with how a word is written or spelled. The difference is entirely for spoken English.

Everyone knows the five and a half vowels (a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y), but how many people are actually taught what makes a vowel a vowel? The difference between a vowel and a consonant is in what you do with your mouth while you pronounce them.

Consonants are closed sounds. While pronouncing a consonant your mouth closes in one way or another, either by touching your lips together or pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth. In contrast, while pronouncing vowels you keep everything open.

This difference is actually why consonants and vowels combine so well to form syllables, whereas several consonants in a row are hard to pronounce. It’s also why vowels tend to merge together and change their pronunciation when placed side by side.

For most letters you can only say them one way. No matter how it’s stressed you can’t pronounce an ‘a’ without keeping your mouth open and you can’t pronounce a ‘b’ without closing it.

Y is the exception. Sometimes you pronounce ‘y’ by closing your mouth and then opening it, such as in the words yonder or yodel. In this case it’s a consonant. But other times, such as in the word why, you keep your mouth open, making the ‘y’ a vowel. This is why we say that y is only sometimes a vowel.

So the rule ‘a’ if consonant, ‘an’ if vowel, applies only to the sound it makes. If it sounds like it starts with a consonant, whether or not it does when you write it out, you put an ‘a’ in front of it. Two examples of this are “a unit” and “a eukaryotic cell”. Both of these words sound like they begin with a consonant ‘y’, and so they get ‘a’.

Similarly, if it sounds like it starts with a vowel it gets ‘an’. An heir, or an hour are good examples of this, since in both cases the ‘h’ is silent and thus, when spoken, they begin with vowels.

Again, the reason for this rule is to make spoken English clearer and more fluid. Multiple consonants in a row sound slow and sloppy, which is why “an banana” just sounds wrong. Multiple vowels in a row merge together, which is why “a apple” just turns into “apple” with a long ‘a’ in front. The ‘n’ was added to the end in order to keep space between the two vowel sounds, to make it clear where one word ends and the other begins.

What really gets me are the hypercorrections people make, such as putting ‘an’ in front of every word that begins with an ‘h’. This is why you’ll have people talking about “an historic event.” These hypercorrections stem from people knowing the rules but not really understanding why they exist, which is why I went into more detail than you’d ever wanted to know about vowels and consonants.

Hopefully that cleared somethings up for people. If not, at least it let me rant about something that had been bothering me lately. Until next time,

~JC

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About Schools and Being Educated

As the holiday weekend comes to a close, the day that millions across the country dread silently approaches. That’s right. For many, the first day of school approacheth.

The undeniable fact is that far more students dislike school than enjoy it. This is more than just about any fact or statistic depresses me to no end. It shouldn’t be this way. There is no one party responsible for this—neither the ungrateful students nor restrictive schools are entirely to blame. Both sides share responsibility, and both must make concessions to fix this.

First, let’s address the schools.

The concept of fairness and equality in education is a great and noble goal. Unfortunately, the practices associated with that principle often fall far short of their goals. Many policy makers mistake “the same quality of education for all,” with “the same education for all,” which has disastrous effects for everyone involved. This where restrictive and inflexible curricula and standards that favor rote memorization over true and fundamental understanding come from.

Standardization is one of the worst things to happen to education, for the simple reason that only measurable artifacts can be standardized. But learning and understanding often can’t be quantized across a large and diverse population. In today’s environment, schools and teachers are implicitly instructed to favor the product over the process simply because products are easier to measure.

But in education, the process is all that matters.

Especially in the increasingly digital world we live in today, the memorization and regurgitation of facts is becoming an antiquated skill. While I would prefer that students be able to recite from memory Newton’s Second Law or the date Magna Carta was signed (F=ma and 1215, in case you were wondering), today it’s so easy to look things like that up on smart phones that there seems to be no point in even bothering to memorize them. I’ll address the issues with that later, but it’s certain that no one’s life or career will ever depend on their ability to recite trivia from memory any more, if at all they ever did.

Schools should focus not on how much students can memorize, but on how well they can use the resources presented to them. School should be a place for the enrichment of thought and cultivation of understanding, not a place to sit for hours on end and have facts jammed into your head.

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The rigid structures of the school day, the emphasis on shallow assessments, and the passive way in which all too many students are taught to learn are slowly but surely killing education. If we want to thrive as a country and as a culture, they need to change. That said, there’s no simple solution to this problem, no matter which politicians or policy-makers say otherwise.

Now for the students.

You don’t know how lucky you are. That’s not your fault, and I certainly didn’t when I was your age. Given the way things are now, it seems impossible that a little over a hundred years ago there was no mandatory education.

If you go to school, I don’t care what happens in the rest of your life you are privileged. Less than 1% of the human population has ever had access to the kind of education at your fingertips every day. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, but think about that for a bit. For most of human history, the opportunity to sit in a classroom and do nothing but learn was restricted to only the wealthiest and highest born children. That’s how far we’ve come.

You are privileged because you’re not forced to spend every minute of every day struggling to support yourself and have enough food to make it through the day. Even if you work part-time jobs, the fact remains that five days a week you are given a time and place in which to only think about exploring the world around you and discovering yourself.

Because that’s your primary job as a student. As you are now you’re incomplete. Take the time during the school week to figure out who you are and what you want. Learn to write, learn to think, learn to explore and be self-sufficient.

Yes tests can be tedious and frightening, and sure the rules and regulations can seem restrictive and counterproductive, but that will always be the case, even after you’ve graduated and moved on. Now is your chance to learn how to deal with that pressure while being free from the many responsibilities that will saddle you when you’re older.

If you find yourself wondering when exactly you’ll use the things you’re learning in school, maybe you never will. That doesn’t detract from the value of having learned them. A secondary education is more about learning how to learn than about the particular facts and formulae you end up learning. You’re learning skills, practicing on what might be trivia so that later you can use them on things that will be more directly relevant to your life.

And never forget that your education isn’t free, even if you attend public school. We, the adults of your community, pay through taxes for you to receive the best education possible. This isn’t charity, and it’s not for your benefit. It’s for ours. We are investing in your education so that you can go on to do great things that will make our lives better and longer in the future. We pay for you to be educated so that you can cure the diseases that would otherwise kill us as we age, or clean up the disaster we’ve made of the planet so we don’t choke to death on all the smog, or even so you can invent the device that heats up butter just enough to make it spreadable but not enough to melt it.

No matter who we are, there will inevitably come a day when we need you, and for that reason we want you to be as prepared as possible for when that day comes. Remember that the next time you’re debating the value of the things you’re learning in school.

By all means enjoy yourselves, but also take full advantage of this time in your life where your major responsibility is to learn and grow and develop as a human being. Trust me, it won’t last nearly as long as you think it will.

About Teaching and Writing

As most of you have probably noticed, most of the time I’ll write about writing on my blog. That’s because I love writing and I love talking about writing. However, as much time as I’ve spent doing it over the past few years, writing isn’t my area of expertise.

My degrees are in physics and education. By day I’m a teacher. It’s only by night that I’m a writer, at least for now. I love teaching just as much as I love writing. After all, I get paid to talk nonstop about a subject I really enjoy to kids who are required to sit and listen to me. What could be better than that?

With the school year fast approaching, I was thinking about my two passions, and I realized that it’s no coincidence I enjoy them both so much—they’re practically the same thing.

 

Here’s what I mean.

Writers as Teachers:

In order for us to enjoy a book, it has to be able to teach us. If you’re writing fiction, you’re creating a new world. This is true whether your book takes place in a distant galaxy, in a magical realm, or in downtown Detroit. When you write you create a setting that’s distinct from the everyday lives of your readers. It’s your job as the creator and writer to teach your readers how your world works. What does it look like? What are the rules (magical, societal, legal, it doesn’t matter where they come from)? What can we expect?

The same is true for your characters. They are obviously not real people, but you must teach your readers enough about them that we can forget this and think about them as people rather than constructs. You need to teach your readers about each character’s history and how it has shaped their present. You teach their quirks, their interests, their hopes and dreams, and if you’ve done your job right we know them as well as our own friends.

The better you are at teaching your readers about the worlds you create and the characters who inhabit it, the more lasting an impression your book will leave. What separates a good book from a great book is how much and how well a writer can teach his or her readers about the world they’ve created.

Teachers as Writers:

If you think a teacher’s job is to sit in front of a class all day and just spout facts and information, think back to your best and favorite teachers in school. Is that how they taught? Odds are it wasn’t.

If all it took to learn was exposure to knowledge, school would consist entirely of someone standing behind a podium reading an encyclopedia. But as anyone who’s ever tried to memorize an encyclopedia (just me?) can tell you, it’s not that easy.

That’s because facts devoid of context are boring, and boring things are harder to commit to memory. What we learn best are stories, so that’s what teachers have to create.

In order to teach effectively, you need to create a story out of your material. You need to reshape it so that it’s interesting and relevant to the lives of your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching science, history, foreign language, or art, the best teachers weave their subject matter into a narrative that’s interesting and easy to follow.

Why this Matters:

Teaching and writing mesh together really well, and incorporating aspects of one into the other have made me better at both. I mentioned last week how my outlining process is the same for writing units and novels, but that’s not all the crossover I’ve seen. Teaching has made me more conscientious of my readers, always keeping in mind where they might be coming from, what they’re expecting to get out of a book and what they may want to see. Writing has made my units more cohesive, my classes more engaging. I’ve even reshaped my curriculum, straying from the traditional sequence to form a better and more compelling narrative.

So my question to all of you this week is this: How does your job relate to your hobbies? This could be writing, gardening, boxing, I don’t care. What might doing one teach you about the other? What aspects can be shared between them? Think about it and let me know. I’d be interested to hear from you.

About the Importance of Planning [a Novel]

Another post on writing, or my opinions thereof. As I get ready for school in a few weeks maybe I’ll write about education week. Let me know if that sounds interesting.

In terms of writing, and I suppose more generally life, there seem to be two schools of thought. One favors spontaneity and diving in head first while the other favors thinking and looking before taking the leap.

I’m talking, of course, about whether or not to outline a story.

Honestly, I’m not sure why there’s even a debate about this. My first attempt at a novel I wrote with unfortunately limited forethought. It was 130,000 words of absolute train wreck. On the upside I still take it out and read bits of it when I’m feeling down to remind myself that I used to be much, much worse. So at least I got something out of the process (aside from the experience).

Part of the reason I think it was so bad (sadly neither the fact that I was in college at the time or that most of it was written at three in the morning count as decent excuses) is that I didn’t take the time to plan it out properly.

Planning a novel, or even a short story, is the only consistent way to end up with a good product. At least in my experience. There are, of course, flukes and exceptions, but then someone has to win the lottery every once in a while. But more to the point, after I took the time to think about it, it’s the only way to write that actually makes sense to me.

Think about it. You don’t take a trip across the world without first booking yourself a place to stay. Painters don’t immediately put their brushes to the canvas but sketch out their vision in pencil. Architects make blueprints and models long before they break ground. That’s because all of these things—trips, paintings, buildings, and even novels—all represent huge investments of time and resources.

There are bound to be flaws in everything we do at first. As Hemmingway once said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He’s right, and not just about writing. When we first conceive of something, it’s riddled with holes and inconsistencies, parts that are hazy and parts that are just bad and we don’t have the perspective yet to notice.

Often, writing a full draft on that first hazy idea is like building a model around a broken skeleton. Don’t be surprised when it can’t stand on its own.

Rather than that doomed draft, write an outline. That way, you’ll be able to see which parts aren’t working without investing the months (or, more realistically for a novel, years) it takes to write something only to find out it’s crap. It’s a sketching and diagnostic process where you enhance the parts that work well and cut out the parts that are dragging you down, just as an artist perfects his vision in malleable pencil before moving to paint and the architect first works with models before building the real thing.

You could argue that writing is far less permanent than a building, or even a painting, and you would be right. We can always go back and fix our mistakes (at least until it gets picked up and published, but that’s a different story), but do we really want to spend that time? Isn’t the whole point of the first draft to just get it on paper, even if it all ends up being unusable gibberish? Well, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be. It seems like a shame to waste that much time, especially important if you have to support yourself with something other than writing. For most of us, time to write can be hard to come by. I personally don’t want to waste it running in circles chasing my tail.

That said, the main argument against planning and outlining is that such forethought becomes constraining, inhibiting the naturally creative process of writing. If you ever find this to be true, then you’re not using your outline properly.

An outline should never constrict you. You’re the boss, you make the decisions. If you come up with a better idea while writing, then by all means go for it. It’s a guide, not a cast-iron contract. You’re always allowed to branch off, the outline is just there to keep you focused and heading in the right direction. You should never let any part of your writing control you, and that includes your outline.

Outlining novels has worked well for me since I started doing it, cutting down the number and severity of re-writes I’ve had to do and making the writing itself go quicker. I’d definitely recommend everyone at least try it. If it’s not for you then that’s fine. But I’ve found the process has helped me in more than just my writing—I plan weekly lessons and monthly units for my classes the exact same way I plot a novel. And now, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way.

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A little planning could keep this from happening to you.

What do you think? How do you prepare before you write? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?

About Reading [Poorly Written Books]

Sometimes it makes you want to pull your hair out, but it's worth it...usually.

There are two ways to learn how to write: by reading and by writing. Both of them are equally important. All it takes to get experience writing is a pen and paper or a word processor and a laptop. As for reading, you read all the best books you can get your hands on. Isn’t that enough?

I don’t think so.

I think a flaw in the way we teach English in America, at least in terms of preparing students to write their own stories and novels, is that we have a bias toward good books. Think about it, what did you read and analyze in high school? Shakespeare? Moby-Dick? Huckleberry Finn? Catcher in the Rye? Chances are, you read nothing but classics. Even if you had a progressive teacher who had you reading current books, I’ll bet they were still award winning and well-written.

There’s nothing wrong with reading good books. That’s how we as budding writers begin to develop our own voices and styles. We read them to see how they did what they did, so that we can one day write like them. From the good books we read come our aspirations and inspiration.

But that’s only half of the picture that we, as aspiring writers, need to be successful. Watching a master dance effortlessly through a mine field might take your breath away and inspire you, but it won’t do anything to show you where the mines are buried. Maybe one rare genius may be able to follow in their footsteps exactly and not blow herself up. But for the rest of us it can more helpful to watch someone else step on a mine so that know where it’s buried.

That’s where poorly written books come in. Notice I don’t call them bad, because I believe a book can be at once both good and poorly written. To me, a bad book is one that fails to meet its own expectations. Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, despite being written with all the grammatical understanding of a gerbil, are, I would argue, good books. I certainly don’t enjoy reading them, but many, many people do. And that’s all those books want for themselves. They’re not meant to be literature, to withstand the test of time and be this generation’s Sound and the Fury. They’re meant to be the potato chips of the literary world, consumed quickly and without thought, and by anyone’s count they’ve certainly succeeded at this.

But they are still poorly written, earning their success in spite of their writing as opposed to because of it. Books like this can get away with being poorly written, but they don’t have to. And these authors all make a lot of the same mistakes.

So even though it can be painful, read them. Learn from their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones in your own writing. You may not enjoy yourself, but I think your writing will be better for the experience. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

What do you think? What are some of the most poorly written books you’ve ever read and did you learn anything about how not to write from them? I’ll share some of my own experiences later. I’m even thinking of making a podcast reading and critiquing Fifty Shades if that would be something anyone is interested in (I’m certainly not looking forward to the idea but I think it’s worth doing).