Friday, December 12, 2008

A Conundrum of Historical Proportions

From today’s Vancouver Sun review of Frost/Nixon:

“…a film that is more a study in the psychology of guilt than it is an historical turning point.”

At first blush it seems quite straightforward: use “a” with consonant sounds and use “an” with vowel sounds. Some vowels can make consonant sounds (so we get “what a unique way to wear a uniform”) and some consonants can make vowel sounds (“it would be an honor to meet you in an hour”). But what about an historic?

Bill Walsh, veteran copyeditor and author of Lapsing Into a Comma, is adamant. “Some British people pronounce ‘historic’ as ‘istoric,’ he writes, “and that has led many Americans to believe an historic is correct. It is not.”

Harrumph. Ok, Bill, but I know that in speaking I say “That was an historic occasion, seeing you in your unique French Maid’s uniform for an hour.” And it’s not like I go around talking about al-yoo-mini-um foil and tyres on lorries.

Bill is unswayed. “Many Americans will argue that they say “an historic”—that may be true, but it’s because they’re letting “an” do the driving. Ask them to pronounce historic all by itself and you’ll no doubt hear the h.”

But that’s just it. We’re not talking about pronouncing historic by itself; we’re talking about riding along with “a” or “an.” And if “an” is doing the driving, as he says, maybe it’s because it’s the better driver. Just try enunciating “a historic.” It feels as natural as saying “an banana.” Nevertheless, as Bill Bryson writes, “Some British authorities allow an before hotel, historian, heroic and hypothesis, but most prefer a.” So there you have it. Only with those aspirated h-words, only according to some people, and only if you have tea and biscuits and pronounce extraordinary as if it had two syllables.

I would go online and see how other language nerds are dealing with this pressing issue, but as Marge said in an episode of The Simpsons I watched last night, “I don’t want to bother the Internet with my problems.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Yes, Us Can

Today in Slate, Ron Rosenbaum (who wrote The Shakespeare Wars, which, I have to say, I found just a little bit silly, what with all the ponderous pontificating) talks about how Barack Obama has been evading the issue of his smoking habit:

All us sinners—of various habits and forms—loved Obama for it and loathed Brokaw, Walters, and the nation of scolds we have become in their collective attempt to shame the poor guy…

At the risk of coming across as a ponderous pontificator, I believe this is an example of using the objective case when the subjective is clearly called for—something that becomes obvious when the subordinate clause and other extraneous verbiage are removed. You wouldn’t say “Us loved Obama…” All of us are sinners, true. But we love other sinners.

Monday, December 08, 2008

These Tenants Need Evicting

From today’s blog post by Jack Healey on the Huffington Post:
“Sixty years ago, the best document ever written came together in Paris under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt. It is called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That's the good news. The bad news is less than 5% of the world even knows about this document. Worse yet, many governments do not properly adhere to its tenants.”
Leaving aside the hyperbole about “the best document ever written” (what about the Magna Carta? The Declaration of Independence? “Green Eggs and Ham”?), we have here a fairly common misusage. “Tenants” are occupants of a dwelling. The word needed here is “tenets,” which are beliefs or doctrines held to be true.