Wednesday, November 03, 2010

When a Vowel Isn't a Vowel

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend my daughter's Grade 1 class for "reading with a partner" time, where parents are invited to sit in chairs designed for 7-year-old butts (seats that are preposterously narrow and three inches from the floor) and listen to their children read to them.

Abby regaled me with a dramatic reading from the classic Sounds All Around, which included this page:

That first caption reads: "A girl makes sound with an ukulele." Hmm. Later in the day, Abby withdraws from her backpack an order form for school pictures. We have approximately 11,000 digital photos of Abby, but we don't have one of her posed awkwardly in front of a fake rustic fence with a sick expression on her face, so of course we pony up the 27 bucks. This is the order form envelope:

That text in the upper right, intended for families of Walton-esque proportions, reads: "If you have 3 or more children at a MJM school, please pay full price for the first 2 orders and 1/2 price for the 3rd." 

The issue here, which becomes evident as soon as you say the offending sentences out loud, involves confusion about when to use a and when to use an. To quote Bill Walsh in Lapsing into a Comma:
Pronunciation, not spelling, rules. Vowel sounds get the an; consonant sounds get the a. Note, however, that a vowel doesn't necessarily produce a vowel sound. Uniform, for example, is pronounced "YOO-ni-form," and thus it does not merit an an.
The same goes, of course, for "YOO-ke-LAY-lee." And M is pronounced "em," so the an does need to come into play when we say "an MJM school".

Class dismissed.