I often comment upon how people don’t understand grammar. But I don’t usually mean that they have poor grammar, or that I think they are undereducated, or that they aren’t smart. No, most of my examples of people misunderstanding grammar comes from my 31+ years working in the telecommunications and software industries surrounded by extremely bright engineers, technologists, and the like—people who are used to looking for patterns that can be turned into algorithms, or used to identify anomalies. Therefore, they either slightly misunderstand grammar rules, or think that all grammar rules work like algorithms. So I will get asked, “Settle an argument about grammar for me…” and then they will outline something that isn’t actually about any rule of grammar at all, but is more a matter of style.
They aren’t always happy when I tell them that this thing they have gotten into spirited arguments with their spouse/relative/co-worker over doesn’t have a clear answer.
They are even less happy when I tell them that it does have a clear answer, and they are partially correct but have misunderstood the actual rule. I’ll give an example.
Which of the following do you think is correct:
- A FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police.
- An FBI agent called me today about the threatening letter I reported to the police
I’ve had a huge number of engineers who insist the first sentence is correct because “you only use ‘an’ when the next work begins with a vowel.” And they are sort of right, but completely wrong. Whether one uses the indefinite article “a” or its variant “an” isn’t determined by the spelling of the following word, it is determined by the pronunciation. Because most people pronounce that three-letter initialism FBI as if it were spelled “eff-bee-eye.”
It isn’t whether the next word begins with a vowel, it’s whether the next word begins with a vowel sound.
If that’s still a little too vague for you, you can use the instruction given in the Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer: “Use the indefinite article a before words in which the first sound is a consonant, a sounded h or a long u… Use the indefinite article an before words in which the first sound is a vowel, except long u, and before words beginning with a silent h.”
The reason that pronunciation determines which word is used is because written English is not a programmatic system for creating sentences nor an algorithmic apparatus for manipulating the alphabet. Written English is a methodology for representing the speech of English speakers. And when you try to pronounce a phrase like, “a hour” it feels wrong. The “uh” bleeds into the “ow” sound. Some people literally can’t force themselves to say it without the “nnnn” sound in there to break them apart; that’s how deeply rooted the habit has become.
This is a bit of a ramble to get to my point (and to introduce a new series of posts I’ve been plotting for a while): using language is not like assembling a piece of furniture. Language can be ambiguous and still be proper from a grammatical standpoint. Words have different meanings in different contexts. Sentences usually provide enough context that which meaning the author wants is clear. But sometimes the ambiguity is the author’s intent. That’s how much of poetry works; a line or group of lines are constructed in such a way that several meanings of a particular word are evoked, in order to create a synthesis or a juxtaposition of the concepts.
One of my problems when I am copy editing someone else’s work is not just that I have a bad habit of unconsciously decoding common typographic errors (so I literally don’t perceive the wrong word a person has written in some cases), but also because I love the many variant ways that language can work. Enforcing a standard style guide is difficult, because sometimes, even though a sentence in a particular article or instruction violates the guide, it more elegantly conveys the meaning than one which followed the guide.
This isn’t to say I don’t have my own style preferences that I will enforce on others if I’m in an editorial role (copy editors I have worked with can tell you about the long rows we’ve had because I insist that the only acceptable spelling is “okay” and not “OK” for instance), but I also know that those instances are preferences that I’m insisting on because I like them, not because there is an absolutely right or wrong answer to the particular question.
There are times when ambiguity is bad. There are times when you have to make the meaning crystal clear leaving as little doubt as possible about the exact meaning of a particular description or instruction. Most of those cases have to do with procedures which people are undertaking: instructions related to medical conditions, or repairing equipment, or recording legal documents. But quite often in fiction, a little ambiguity is required; it provides the wiggle room necessary to breathe life into your story.
“Semicolons revel in ambiguity; ambiguity is beautiful.”
This is hardly the first time I’ve written on this topic, of course: Editing is not about understanding the semi-colon and similar arcana.