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Tech Talk in the Mainstream Media - Dr Ron's An indefinite article

From time to time we hit the mainstream media

November 28 2007
ABC Radio National - Dr Ron's "An indefinite article"
Perspective with Sue Clark

What's an article? I was asking myself this very question in the post office yesterday, standing in line waiting to sign for, as it so happens, an article. A postal article. Not the postal article. Now before we get ahead of ourselves, an article in English is a word that precedes a noun, and simply indicates specificity. This sounds quite complicated, and to be honest, it's quite complicated to say without spraying everyone within 15 feet, but the concept's quite simple.

The definite article in English is the word "the", and indicates a specific thing or type; for example, the train is an hour late. By contrast, the indefinite article in English is any of the words "a", "an" or "some", and the indefinite article indicates a non-specific thing; for example, would you please pass me an apple.

We always preceed a word with "a" if it doesn't start with a vowel sound. For example, take a hike; I'm spending a Weekend at Burnie's; or there's a Knight in Shining Armour. Similarly we preceed words with the indefinite article "an" if they do start with a vowel sound, for example, an ostrich, an enormous mess or an Occupational Health and Safety Policy.

I'm sure this all sounds quite familiar to you, being the upstanding custodians of our precious language that you are.

But there's one thing that really gets my goat when it comes to indefinite articles. What upsets me the most is the way newsreaders, journalists, public speakers and people who should know better, mixing their "a"s with their "an"s. This fequently happens where the indefinite article is used before a word starting with the letter "h". Now if you're still with me (and I'd like to think that most of you are), this is where we start to explore the seedier side of Indefinte Articles...

Put simply, if the word starts with a vowel sound, preceed it with the indefinte article an. Otherwise, use a. Let me say once and for all that: Police will not be attending an horrific accident; I will never stay at an hotel, no-one will ever discover an historic gravesite and an heroic act doesn't even bear thinking about. You actually have to pause and make a conscious effort to say "an" followed by the next word starting with the "h". It's just wrong.

"But Dr Ron," I hear you quip knowingly, "this morning the train was running an hour late." That's because even though "hour" starts with an "h", the word "hour" is pronounced with a vowel sound. And because we live in Melbourne. We don't say the train was running "a hour late".

To complicate matters further, some dialects like British Cockney drop the first-letter "h" from many words. In 17th century London it was common for people to stay "at an 'otel guv'nor." Who could forget Audrey Hepburn's performance of Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 award-winning rendition of My Fair Lady? Eliza repeats the phrase, "In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen," although her first attempt features no pronounced "h"'s other than in front of the word "h'ever". Eliza's use of the indefinite article in this story doesn't even bear thinking about.

Another annoying dialect spoken by over 300 million people is Microsoft English, predominantly in the United States. When it comes to indefinite articles, Americans drop "h"s with gay abandon. Many have "an 'ispanic" neighbour who grows "an 'erb" garden, stays in "an 'otel" and almost avoids "an 'orrendous" bastardization of the English language.

Another problem we're sometimes faced with is pronouncing abbreviations. An inspector from the RSPCA would be an RSPCA inspector. The letter R's not a vowel - but it's pronounced with a vowel sound. Likewise a spokesperson from the UN is a UN spokesperson. The letter U is not pronounced with a vowel sound, so the "a" indefinite article does nicely.

In the time it took me to ponder this speed-hump in the English language my place in the queue at the Post Office had progressed somewhat and I dutifully signed for my article. I assure you it was definitely an article. I double-checked.

 

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