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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

“A Ukulele” or “An Ukulele”? | Mignon Fogarty, The Grammar Girl, The Quick and Dirty

Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty describes an interesting dilemma in this article about respecting cultural differences in pronunciation when choosing the proper words. Her focus is on the pronunciation of ukulele in Hawaii, how it differs from the pronunciation elsewhere, and the impact on word choice.

But I like the article because it provides a unique example of when to use an and when to use a before a noun or adjective. By highlighting the correct rule for making that choice, she reveals misunderstandings about that rule:
  • Wrong: Use a before words that begin with a consonant, and use an before words that begin with a vowel.
  • Right: Use a before words that begin with the sound of a consonant, and use an before words that begin with the sound of a vowel.
In other words, pronunciation matters in those choices. Spelling does not matter (except that the words must be spelled correctly, of course).

She concludes with this advice about which word to use with ukulele:
If you’re writing for a national publication, I suggest you stick with “a ukulele”; but if you’re writing for a Hawaiian publication, you should definitely go with “an ukulele.”
Here's how I put the use of a and an in the first entry of my online writing guide, Garbl's Editorial Style Manual; I also include the:
a, an, the The articles aand and the are adjectives that modify nouns. Use the to point to a specific noun; use a and an to point to a general, nonspecific noun: Please bring me the newspaper suggests a specific newspaper, while Please bring me a newspaper doesn't specify which newspaper. 
Use a before consonant soundsa European countrya B.A.a historic eventa one-year terma style manuala utopia. Use an before vowel soundsan 18-year-old candidate, an environmental disaster, an FDA study, an MBA, an heir apparent, an honorable man, an hour ago, an NBC sitcom, an SBA loan. If the letter h is sounded, use aa hamburger, a history book, a house, a hotel.

Fogarty's article is featured today, Feb. 6, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Styles tab above and by free email subscription.

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