Sunday, July 15, 2012

Writing by Ear

It's one of the simplest rules in English: use a before a word beginning with a consonant; use an when the following word starts with a vowel. Easy-peasy, right?

Not so fast, Ben Kuzma, sportswriter for The Province, who wrote the following in a piece about the re-signing of Canucks forward Mason Raymond:
Next summer he'll be an UFA and it's up to him to determine what leverage he'll have.
 The trick here is that the correct deployment of the indefinite article depends on the sound, rather than the spelling, of the word it's "articling." UFA, in this context, stands for "unrestricted free agent," and if Kuzma had gone with the full monty description, an would have been the correct choice. But "UFA" is an initialism and its initial sound is pronounced "yoo" so "a UFA" is the way to go. Similarly, we would say that Raymond is "an NHL player," because even though "N" is a consonant, it is pronounced "en."

All of which sounds ridiculously complicated but is in fact intuitively easy in most cases if you sound out the phrase in question. Just try saying "an UN resolution" or "a IRS investigation" without spraining your larynx or sounding like Sarah Palin. Impossible.