Indefinite Article With Initialisms

Note: An initialism is a group of initial letters, each pronounced separately, used as an abbreviation of a name.

Many English speakers who probably use the indefinite article an in front of a vowel when speaking seem to encounter a mental disconnect when it comes to writing.

The following examples were found on major news sites or on sites offering professional services or advice:

Pieces of the bag recovered have been sent to a FBI lab for forensic testing. 

The 404 or Not Found error message is a HTTP standard response code.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to add a LED to a USB thumb drive.

Applying to a MBA program can help you advance in your career or switch careers entirely.

A NBC executive indicated that the independent formatted Nonstop channels were doing well but needed separate 24/7 programming. 

There are several benefits to being a RSVP Volunteer.

Did you setup and assign a STMP server for this account?

The problem lies in an incomplete understanding of the rule for the use of a and an.

Many speakers retain the rule as “Use an before words that begin with a vowel and a before words that begin with a consonant.”

The complete rule is “Use an before words that begin with a vowel sound and a before words that begin with a consonant sound.”

The 26 letters of the alphabet are sound symbols, but the symbols have names. And several of the consonant letters have names that begin with vowel sounds:

F [ef]
H [aitch]
L [el]
M [em]
N [en]
S [es]
R [ar]

Here’s the correct way to write the words and initialisms given in boldface above:

Pieces of the bag recovered have been sent to an FBI lab for forensic testing. 

The 404 or Not Found error message is an HTTP standard response code.

Step-by-step tutorial on how to add an LED to a USB thumb drive.

Applying to an MBA program can help you advance in your career or switch careers entirely.

An NBC executive indicated that the independent formatted Nonstop channels were doing well but needed separate 24/7 programming. 

There are several benefits to being an RSVP Volunteer.

Did you setup and assign an STMP server for this account?

In deciding whether to write a or an in front of an initialism, say the name of the first letter. If the letter name begins with a vowel sound, use an.

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Daily Writing Tips

A Historic vs. An Historic

My post A Useful Reminder About ‘An’ prompted an outpouring of emails asking, “How about an history or an historic?”

Some points of English usage stir strong feelings. Placing the indefinite article “an” in front of the words historical or historic is one of these. Here are some comments prompted by a post I wrote on this topic several years ago:

When people use “an historical” on NPR, it’s because [they’re] snooty.

Only a Cockney or an hidiot [would say] “an historic.”

[People who defend “an historic”] are pseudo-intellectual, American linguistic “posers.”

For certain Americans, it’s all about self-consciously pompous affectation!

I would never ever use “an” in front of any word with an aspirate H at the beginning. That just isn’t what it’s for, and it sounds pretentious.

The simple facts about the use of “an historical” and “an historic” are these:

1. Style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style, The AP Stylebook, and The Penguin Writer’s Manual regard the following as correct in modern usage:
“a historical event”
“a historic event.”

2. Many speakers still say and write “an historical”–and they do so with no intention of sounding affected, pompous, or pretentious.

Pronunciation changes from generation to generation, but never in one fell swoop. Pockets of older forms continue to exist even after the majority of speakers have made the switch and authorities have recorded the new rules.

The Google Ngram Viewer provides an interesting look at the progress of “an historic” vs “a historic.” In 1800, “a historic” barely shows. It begins its rise in the 1820s. In 1869, “a historic” is neck and neck with “an historic.” The two travel along fairly close together until the First World War when “an historic” pulls ahead and dominates until 1938. After that, “a historic” becomes the clear winner, although “an historic” and “an historical” remain in use. Here are two recent examples of the use of “an historical” in the context of educated English:

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period. (Note on the New York University library site.)

The Making of Southern Europe: An Historical Overview (title of a recent publication of the London School of Economics)

Clearly, modern usage prefers “a historic” and “a historical,” as well as a before other “h words” that readers asked about: “a hotel,” “a horrible accident,” and “a horrific statistic.”

The word herb (succulent plant used for seasoning) is pronounced both with and without an aspirated h. “A herb” is modern British pronunciation, although British author Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) wrote “an herb” in one of her novels. Many Americans–although by no means all–say “an erb” and write “an herb.”

Unquestionably, accepted current practice is to use the indefinite article a in front of all but a very few words that begin with the letter h.

The most common exceptions are:

an heir to the throne
an honorable man
an honest man
an hour or two

Speakers who say “an historic” are not necessarily being “pretentious or snooty.” It could be that they learned the usage from family members and teachers educated in earlier generations.

Follow the style guide of your choice. Save your linguistic wrath for things like, “Me and my brother graduated from Georgetown.”

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Daily Writing Tips

Name Change for ISIS

English speakers have yet to agree on a word, phrase or acronym to label the terrorist group making news for such atrocities as beheading noncombatants and butchering unarmed prisoners.

A few years ago, American journalists started referring to the group that was calling itself “Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham” as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), but this acronym has proved to be a poor choice; it suggests that the group’s focus is limited to Iraq and Syria.

The term al-Sham does not stand for Syria. The English translation of al-Sham is “the Levant.”

Levant came into English from French in the 15th century with the meaning “East,” (from French lever, “to rise.”) The region referred to was in the East. The sun rises in the east, ergo, levant (rising), present participle of lever.

The Levant is “the eastern part of the Mediterranean, with its islands and the countries adjoining.” According to one interpretation, the Levant is made up of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and part of southern Turkey. Others claim that the Levant refers only to Syria, Lebanon, and Syria.

The Associated Press has rejected the continued use of ISIS, preferring ISIL (L for Levant) as a more accurate interpretation of al-Sham. John Daniszewski, AP vice president and senior managing editor for international news says, “We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East.”

Since June 2014, when the terrorist group named a “caliph” and dropped both Iraq and Levant from its name, ISIL has become less than accurate as a reflection of the group’s aspirations. Referring to themselves as “the Islamic State” reflects their self-image as a reincarnation of the medieval caliphate founded in the 7th century. The Umayyad caliphate (661-750) conquered lands from Arabia to Spain; their advance into Western Europe in 732 was turned back by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours.

The words caliph and caliphate derive from Arabic khilafa, “succession.” A caliph is seen as the successor of Muhammad. A caliphate is a sovereign state ruled by a caliph under Islamic law (sharia). The office of caliph combines the functions of king and priest.

British journalists seem to have decided on the initials IS as a short way of referring to the group without limiting its perceived goals to any particular region of the world. They use the term “Islamic State” for the first reference in an article and the capitalized initials IS in subsequent references.

It seems to me that either ISIL or IS is preferable to ISIS. As a student of mythology and comparative religion, I cringe every time I hear the murderous terrorists referred to by an acronym that sounds like the name of the benign mother goddess Isis. And I sympathize with women like Isis Martinez of Miami who sees people “recoil in disgust” when she introduces herself these days.

Postscript: I just heard an American reporter on NPR refer to the group as IS.

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Daily Writing Tips

There’s A Style Guide for That

Authors who specialize in one field of knowledge are sometimes unaware of style guides used in other areas.

In writing for DWT, I mostly rely on these three style guides:

The Chicago Manual of Style
The AP Stylebook
Penguin Writer’s Manual

Chicago is directed at a broad audience that includes both scholars and entrepreneurs. AP is targeted specifically to journalists. CMOS and AP recommendations don’t often differ, but when they do, the differences sometimes reflect an interesting divide between scholarly and popular usage.

I trust the Penguin reference guides to point me to differences between American and British usage.

When wearing my academic hat, I regard the MLA Handbook (published by the Modern Language Association) as my style bible.

These are my preferred guides because I write chiefly about standard usage and literature. Not all disciplines process and present information in exactly the same way. Authors who write about other subjects–sociology, science, and mathematics, for example–look to other guides. Here’s a sampling of instructions in authors’ guidelines for just four specialized journals, each recommending different guides:

Journal of Aging and Physical Activity
Manuscripts that do not conform to APA guidelines…may be rejected without review.

Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation
References must conform to the format printed in the journal and must include titles. The article should conform to the usual ACS format.

Sociological Theory
In general, please refer to the ASA Style Guide (4th edition) for style and formatting guidelines. Manuscripts that do not conform to the desired format will be returned to the author for rectification.

Amyloid: Journal of Protein Folding Disorders
[This journal] conforms to the CSE style guidelines, using the NLM style for references.

What the initials mean:

APA: Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
APA format is the official style of the American Psychological Association and is generally used for writing about research in psychology, education, and social sciences.

ACS: The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information
Published by the American Chemical Society, ACS style is followed by writers and reviewers of scientific manuscripts.

ASA: American Sociological Association Style Guide
Similar to APA, ASA is also used by writers about sociology and related fields.

CSE: Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers
Developed by the Council of Science Editors (CSE), this guide is used by writers in all areas of the sciences.

NLM: Citing Medicine: The NLM Style Guide for Authors, Editors, and Publishers
This guide is published by the National Library of Medicine to provide instructions and examples for formatting citations of published and unpublished material, both printed and digital.

Other guides for other areas of specialization also exist. Of the guides mentioned here, MLA and APA are probably the best known because high school students and college undergraduates are most likely to be required to use one of them for their research papers. I’ll discuss the differences between them in another post.

Related: 5 Online Style Guides

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Daily Writing Tips

Talking about Age in the Media

Everyone wants to live longer, but no one wants to be old. –Harry Moody, director of academic affairs for AARP (2012).

To me – old age is always ten years older than I am. –Bernard Baruch, American financier (1870-1965).

About forty-two million Americans are 65 years or older. Advertisers, politicians, and researchers often need to refer to this group, but finding a term that will not insult its members is not easy.

Various terms have been suggested with varying degrees of success. Elder, elderly, senior, and retiree are the most common.

In Canada, according to what I’ve read in forums, the term elder has connotations of venerable age and wisdom; in the United States, however, people tend to associate elder with disapproving church elders or the word elderly. The decline of the acceptability of the word elder is illustrated by the name change of a travel organization established in 1975 for active Americans 60 and older. The parent organization is still called Elderhostel, but in advertising, the program is now known agelessly as “Road Scholar.”

Even the word retiree is heavy with the connotations of age. These days, the American Association of Retired People (founded 1958) goes by its initials only: AARP.

When politicians talk about “our seniors” in the same breath as “our children,” mature adults understandably bristle.

An article in The Senior Times says that the term “senior citizen” was coined in 1938 during a political campaign. Its use soars on the Ngram Viewer beginning in the 1940s. According to National Public Radio reporter Ina Jaffe, “senior citizen” is a term that “seems to annoy just about everyone.”

Recognizing the minefield of age and terms relating to it, The AP Stylebook has this entry for the word elderly:

Use this word carefully and sparingly. Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story. It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals: concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc.

If the intent is to show that an individual’s faculties have deteriorated, cite a graphic example and give attribution for it. Use age when available and appropriate.

Apply the same principle to terms such as senior citizen.

Age is one of the realities of life that our culture prefers to deny. It’s unlikely that any term can be found to refer to old people that would not be offensive to someone because in our culture, old age itself is seen as offensive.

Perhaps the safest course is to refer to the intended age group in numeric terms:
between the ages of 65 and 75
above the age of 65

Colloquial synonyms for “old person” range from friendly to deliberately hurtful, for example:

Although the word codger (like coot) usually has a negative connotation, this review about Dick Van Dyke in the Chicago Tribune (1992) makes a kind of compliment of it:

The wonderfully funny Dick Van Dyke, insufficiently honored in his prime, has now passed into the lovable-old-codger stage.

His comic gifts are sharper than ever, and he still dances with grace, style and a naughty insouciance. He is much too good for the quirky-old-coot roles that are his lot nowadays.

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Daily Writing Tips


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