An Came First

A reader writes:

I propose that “an” was invented to prevent us from having to interrupt the flow of speech. And it still fills that purpose before unaccented first syllables starting with h.

This comment suggests that the indefinite article form an developed from the form a as a means of facilitating pronunciation.

Unlike Esperanto, English is not an invented language, but the product of more than a thousand years of development. An was not invented to facilitate the flow of language. Neither did it begin its life as “an indefinite article.” It started out as a numeric adjective.

The English indefinite article a/an derives from the Old English word for one: ane. The word was written ane, anne, aenne and aene in its various declensions. As it evolved into our modern indefinite article, sometimes it signified the number one and sometimes the article a.

For example, in an OE version of the New Testament parable of the workmen who are all paid the same for different amounts of work, the owner of the vineyard pays them “anne pening,” that is, “one penny.” In the account of the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, Ohthere refers to Skiringssal as “an port,” that is, “a port.”

Even in modern usage, the article a/an can be used in the sense of “one,” as in, “I’ll have a hamburger, a cherry Coke, and two orders of fries.”

Like the reader whose comment prompted this post, some modern speakers feel that that an “still fills [a] purpose before unaccented first syllables starting with h.” According to a note in the OED, “many (perhaps most) writers down to the 19th century retained an before sounded h and some even before eu, u, as “an historian,” “an euphonic vowel,” and “an united appeal.” Most modern usage guides, however, recommend a. That’s not to say that you can’t say “an historic” if you want to.

Related posts:
A Useful Reminder About An
A Historic vs. An Historic

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Daily Writing Tips

Carriage Trade

The “carriage trade” is the industry engaged in transporting passengers and goods.

Because of recent campaigns by animal activists to ban the use of horses in heavy city traffic, the term has come to apply specifically to the horse-drawn carriage trade:

The NY carriage trade is under attack by the HSUS and Animal Rights activists. 

Liam Neeson slammed for support of NY carriage trade

The Campaign to Ban the Carriage Trade in Montréal

The expression “carriage trade” acquired the figurative meaning of “wealthy people” because only the wealthy could afford to keep a carriage for private use. The expression has survived into the automobile age to refer to wealthy consumers. Businesses that offer luxury items or services are still said to “cater to the carriage trade”:

Herzfeld is steadfastly and proudly antiquated in its viewpoint and business practices. On its website, it says, “We provide custom shirts, suits and a full line of haberdashery to the carriage trade.” 

These petty usurers often are more heartless than the major moneylenders because they live in the midst of poverty among people dressed in rags that the rich usurer who deals only with the carriage trade never sees.

Over the last century, the Shaker Square and Larchmere neighborhoods on Cleveland’s East Side have attracted not only the carriage trade of adjoining Shaker Heights but also, in the 1950s, a wave of immigrants from Hungary who settled nearby on Buckeye Road.

Because carriage also occurs in the expression “baby carriage,” some marketers have begun using “carriage trade” to mean, “merchandising aimed at parents of young children.” For example, a Wall Street Journal article about stay-at-home mothers starting child-related businesses bears this punning headline:

The Carriage Trade: Stay-at-Home Moms Get Entrepreneurial

The Ngram Viewer shows “carriage trade” in use as early as 1800. Interestingly, the expression soars in popularity beginning in the 1920s, when automobiles had already begun to push out the horse-drawn carriage.

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Daily Writing Tips

Slideshow English

Although I know they are a time-suck, slideshows with intriguing titles or photos often lure me in. The most recent to attract my attention was about “freaky coincidences.”

Because the format was the kind that requires two clicks for each slide–one for the photo and one for the caption–I was ready to stop after the second slide, but the first sentence of the second caption prompted me to continue:

A man saved the same baby’s life twice on accident.

Always on the lookout for material, I felt I had found a possible source of nonstandard English, so I kept going.

I was not disappointed.

If the slideshow was created by a non-native English speaker for personal amusement, the numerous errors are understandable. If the captions are the work of a professional writer whose native language is English, they reflect a serious lack of revision.

The show’s 14 slides yield 16 examples of nonstandard usage and punctuation. I won’t comment on punctuation.

1. A man saved the same baby’s life twice on accident.
Although often heard, “on accident” is unidiomatic. The standard expression is “by accident”: “A man saved the same baby’s life twice by accident.”

2. In 1930, a baby fell out of a window and Joseph Figlock broke the land.
The writer is thinking of the baby’s landing. “Broke the landing” would do the job, but “broke the baby’s fall” would be better.

3. In 1858, a man was shot dead while playing poker as an act of vengeance.
Correcting this sentence requires rearranging phrases and changing as to in. The man was not “playing poker as an act of vengeance.” He was “shot as an act of vengeance.” Why the man was shot is not as important as the fact that he was shot: “In 1858, a man playing poker was shot dead in an act of vengeance.” Changing as to in subordinates the reason for the shooting to the act of shooting.

Context for the next item: The man who was shot left $ 600 on the table. Another man appropriated the $ 600 and continued playing, increasing the amount to $ 2,200.

4. When the cops heard word of this [the fact that the dead man’s winnings had been used by a subsequent gambler] they demanded the $ 600 was given to the next of kin to the deceased.

This sentence requires editing in segments.

i. When the cops heard word of this
The idiom is “to have word of something.” For example, “I just had word that our team lost by one point.” Two ways to edit the original sentence:
“When the cops heard of this, they demanded…”
“When the cops learned of this, they demanded…”

ii. they demanded the $ 600
A that is needed to introduce the noun clause that follows demanded: “they demanded that the $ 600….” Without the that, the reader is led to believe that the police were demanding the $ 600 for themselves.

iii. demanded [that] the $ 600 was given to the next of kin
The noun clause requires a verb in the passive subjunctive: “The police demanded that the $ 600 be given to the next of kin.”

iv. given to the next of kin to the deceased
The expression “next of kin” means, “nearest relation,” usually of a deceased person. For that reason, the prepositional phrase modifying kin is overkill. If another phrase were needed to explain the relationship with kin, the preposition would be of, not to: “the next of kin of the deceased.”

5. In 2002, two identical twin brothers were killed on the same road, from two different accidents…

i. two identical twin brothers
The word twin conveys the meaning of two.

ii. killed…from two different accidents
People are killed in accidents. They die of injuries. They suffer from diseases. And, again, the two is unnecessary. We already know that there were two people involved in separate accidents.

6. Later, Ziegland went to go chop down the tree that the bullet was inside.
It’s enough to say, “went to chop down the tree.” The idea of “going” is contained in the verb went.

7. Coincidentally, their father was in the same hospital from recovering from a surgery.
This sentence is meant to convey the idea that the father just happened to be in the same hospital his two sons were brought to following their accidents. The phrase “from recovering” seems to mean, “because he was recovering.” The indefinite article is not needed before the word surgery, at least not in American English. Edited: “Coincidentally, their father was in the same hospital, recovering from surgery.” An American speaker would use an article with the word operation: “recovering from an operation.”

8. Robert E Lee himself showed up at the cottage to request it’s use as a formal place of surrender.
The contraction it’s stands for two words: it is. The context calls for the possessive adjective its. Edited: “Robert E Lee himself showed up at the cottage to request its use as a formal place of surrender.”

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Daily Writing Tips

The Lapsus Calami of Principle for Principal

The third time I let the erroneous “principle parts” slip into a published post instead of the correct “principal parts,” I began to worry.

Why would I continue to make this mistake even though I know perfectly well that the word spelled principle is used only as a noun and never as an adjective? Principal, on the other hand, is usually an adjective, although it may also be used as a noun:

principle (noun): a fundamental truth; a rule adopted as a guide to action.

The desire to help the helpless is a basic principle of morality.
She lives according to the principle that it is always possible to be kind.

principal (adjective): most important; highest in rank or order.

Dr. Singh is the principal author of the study.
It’s necessary to memorize the principal parts of irregular verbs.

principal (noun): a person occupying the most important position in an organization or activity.

Mr. McCarthy has been named the principal in the lawsuit.
Ms. Washington is the principal at Jones School.

According to Sigmund Freud, when we make an error in speech (“a slip of the tongue”) or an error in writing (lapus calami), we are being guided by “a subdued wish, conflict, or train of thought guided by the ego and the rules of correct behavior.”

Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, say that such slips can be caused by mere inattention or lack of knowledge.

Knowing that my errors with principal/principle weren’t the result of lack of knowledge or inattention (I proof these posts at least six times before submitting them), I read further. I think I’ve found my answer in this explanation quoted in the Wikipedia article “Freudian Slip”:

[these errors may be caused by] the existence of some locally appropriate response pattern that is strongly primed by its prior usage, recent activation or emotional change or by the situation calling conditions.

My slip with principal/principle always occurs in the context of writing about the principal parts of the verb. And what are these parts? They are: present, past, past participle, and present participle. I think my brain anticipates the -le of the word participle.

That may explain why I write the term incorrectly, but why don’t I catch the error when I proofread?

Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, says that it’s difficult to catch errors because the brain generalizes the simple components of sentences so it can focus on complex tasks, like combining sentences into ideas. We don’t catch errors because we don’t see them.

Writing about typographical errors, Freud cites a case in which an article had been carefully proofed by the author and the editor-in-chief of the paper in which it was to be published; both men were satisfied that everything was correct. The printer’s reader caught the mistake that the other men missed:

Our readers will bear witness to the fact that we have always acted in a selfish manner for the good of the community.

The intended word was unselfish.

Stafford suggests that one way to catch errors to which we’ve become blind is to change the font and colors of the proof copy; changing the visual form makes it easier to see details we would otherwise miss.

It’s also probably a good idea to acquaint yourself with your own particular bêtes noirs and be on the lookout for them. Things like mixing up principal and principle.

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Daily Writing Tips

Borne By, Borne On, and Borne With

The English word bear has so many definitions and uses that it could provide fodder for several posts. This article is about the use of the past participle borne followed by a preposition.

Here is the odd usage in my local newspaper that prompted this post:

there’s blame to be borne on everyone.

I looked on the Web to see if anyone else was using “borne on” in this way. I found these examples:

[Lack of fresh food] leads to lower lifespans in these areas, higher healthcare costs borne on everyone and general malaise.

And, we had people opting out of the system and waiting until they got sick to charge ER costs that were ultimately borne on everyone else. 

If you have seen the documentary The Corporation, you will be familiar with the economics term externalities — which are the external costs of any enterprise which are borne on everyone else but the enterprise itself.

Today most people think that [the expense of] having children should be borne on everyone else.

Blame and expense are borne by people, not on them.

Here are examples of the correct use of borne followed by the prepositions with, on, and by:

His wife has borne with his faults for fifty years.

The returning war hero was borne on the shoulders of two burly police officers.

The price increase was borne by consumers.

Borne is more poetic than mere carried. Fitzgerald used the word in the closing line of The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Borne often has the connotation that whatever is being carried–literally or figuratively– requires great effort:

Over the casket the great flag that had draped it [was] held widespread in the hands of the eight petty officers who had borne the heavy weight to its place.

She is a woman who has borne disappointment all her life.

Borne is used as a suffix to create words that have the sense of being carried or distributed:

Water-borne diseases are any illness caused by drinking water contaminated by human or animal faeces, which contain pathogenic microorganisms.

High in the sky, water in clouds can act as a temptress to lure airborne pollutants such as sulfur dioxide into reactive aqueous particulates.

The speaker who said, “There’s blame to be borne on everyone” was mixing up two ideas. Blame is placed on someone, but, once placed, blame is borne by the person blamed.

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Daily Writing Tips


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