‘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 Light Novels and the new Standard of Readability

If you don’t know what a light novel is, it’s a kind of literature pretty much limited to Japan.  They’re written primarily for young-adult audiences, but are distinct from traditional young-adult novels. They’re usually serialized chapter-by-chapter in magazines before being gathered into full-volumes (a topic which I’ll probably discuss later because I love the idea of serialization).

Rental Magica, a Light Novel written by Makoto Sanda

Rental Magica, a light novel written by Makoto Sanda

A lot of people define light novels by the fact that they’re illustrated, which they are (usually in manga-style), but I disagree with that. I think it’s possible to have an illustrated novel that isn’t light and a light novel that isn’t illustrated. To me, the difference is wholly in the style of the writing, and that’s why I’m so interested in them.

The first thing to notice about how light novels are written is that they tend to be…shall we say playful…with the conventions of the language. It’s not uncommon to see musical notes used as punctuation, as well as things like “What???!!?!?!??” and my personal favorite: “…” to indicate a pointed silence. Whether it’s grammatically correct or not to use ellipses that way I think it’s fantastic. And sometimes they go on forever, taking up entire lines so that you can actually feel the awkwardness of it as you read.

But that’s all superficial. The real differences is that they’re very minimalistic in terms of their writing style. They’re generally shorter than regular novels, though not always (and, just as we see in regular novels, they tend to get longer the farther into a series you go). The good ones use their illustrations to make providing descriptions quicker and more fluid (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all), which can be helpful in cutting out some of the bloat. But again, that’s not necessary.

What really makes them faster reading is how their paragraphing is laid out. It’s rare in a light novel to see a paragraph longer than three sentences. This actually makes a huge difference in terms of reading speed. On my best day I can get through a full-length novel in eight hours. I can get through a light novel in three and get just as much out of the experience. The best example I’ve seen in American literature is the Danial X series by James Patterson and various co-authors (no paragraph is longer than three sentences and no chapter is longer than three pages).

This actually brings me to my main point, about what it means for a novel (or anything for that matter) to be “readable.” By definition that would mean if you are capable of reading it, it’s readable. But when we say that, we’re usually only thinking in terms of legibility, of whether or not it can be understood. Yes that’s an important thing to keep in mind, but there’s another question that is equally important that must be kept in mind: Is anyone going to take the time to read this?

There are some people who absolutely love books. For them, reading is its own reward. For them, the time spent reading isn’t a factor. That’s fine, and that’s why books like Ulysses get published despite being hellish verbal bogs through which readers must fight for every step forward. But I would argue that most of the market for novels isn’t made up of this kind of bibliophile. They’re not reading to be reading, they’re reading to be entertained. To hear a story, to see something different or unusual. And for a time, books were the only game in town if you wanted that kind of diversion.

But not anymore. Now books need to compete with movies, TV, video games, and comics to earn the right to entertain us, and just looking at the time commitments involved books don’t look so good. Let’s say it takes an average person ten hours to read a full novel. In that time, they could watch nearly seven movies or an entire 13-episode series of a TV show (I should know, I spent the first part of my winter vacation getting caught back up on How I Met Your Mother when I still have unread books on my shelves).

I believe that each media has some advantages over the others. There are things books can do that movies will never even come close to touching. But are those things really worth a whole 8.5 hours of someone’s life per book? With more things to occupy our time than ever before, now more than ever every moment is valuable and how we choose to spend it matters.

In light of this, I think the traditional ideas of readability, as well as the traditional idea of the novel, may need to change and adapt to the modern marketplace or else face extinction. This is why the style of the light novel interests me so much, because anything we can do to make our writing just that much faster will definitely help it stand out and ultimately survive.

But those are just my thoughts. What are yours?