Monday, August 15, 2011

Grammar Girl is WRONG!!!!!!!

Mr. Anemone: I'll show you whether I'm on a wire or not. Give me the 'oop.
Mr. Chigger: What?
Mr. Anemone: Oh, I don't suppose we know what an 'oop is. I suppose pater thought they were a bit common, except on the bleedin' croquet lawn.
Mr. Chigger: Oh, a hoop.
Mr. Anemone: 'Oh an hoop.' (taking hoop) Thank you, your bleeding Highness...

I've mustered up the courage to say it: Grammar Girl is WRONG! (You may remember Grammar Girl from my post late last week.)

Well, maybe not. But the following is my case that the indefinite article that belongs in front of the word "historic" is an, not a, and that in this situation, the H in "historic" should not be pronounced. I'm arguing against Mignon Fogerty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl from Quick and Dirty Tips, who took the opposite position.

Premise: Language in its purest form is spoken, not written. Writing is derived from speaking. Written Language is a subject of its master Spoken Language, so Written English is a servant of Spoken English.

I am actually in full agreement with Grammar Girl when she says this:
The rule is that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound.
Spot on! It's the first sound made by the word that governs whether you use a or an. So the question is this: what is the first sound made by the word "historic" when it follows after an indefinite article?

Bear with me, because the next two seeming tangents will actually support my case:

Pronounce the names of these three cities: Milwaukee, Louisville, and New Orleans. If you're not from or near any of these cities, you probably pronounced their names wrong.

Milwaukee. Unless you're from out of town, or you're a news anchor, you don't pronounce any L's in Milwaukee. It's pronounced more like Muh-wau-kee. Why? Because with heavy use, over time, the locals decide that for a word so frequently used, it's simpler to pronounce it in a way that flows more easily. Pronouncing "Mil" engages more muscles around the face; it requires much more effort compared to "Muh."

Louisville. You probably said it Loo-ee-vill. But if you ever go there, the locals pronounce it Lou-uh-vul. Same principle as Milwaukee.

New Orleans. Just admit right now that you pronounced at least three syllables. Because if you did, you are WRONG! It's NAW-lins.

These are three examples of elision, that is, "the omission of one or more sounds... in a word or phrase, producing a result that is easier for the speaker to pronounce." Pick one of these cities and pronounce it "properly" for thirty seconds nonstop. Notice the unexpected workout you just gave your facial muscles.

Words derived from the same stem will sometimes pronounce the stem differently. Let's look at Christ and christology. Christ is pronounced with a Long I. But the word christology is pronounced with a Short I. Or how about cycle and cyclical? The same general principle is in effect.

Grammar Girl cites the word "herb" because it can be pronounced "herb" or "erb." According to British rules the H sound is retained, but in American rules it elides. It is your accent (British or American) that governs how you pronounce "herb." A bit further along, she writes:
Here’s my reasoning: If you have an odd accent for an American and pronounce historic as “istoric,” you can make an argument for writing an historic, but it’s a stretch since the standard American pronunciation of historic is with the h-sound: “historic.” So even if you pronounce it “istoric,” most of your readers won’t.
There is no disputing that the word historic by itself retains the H sound. But just like in Tangent Two, there is no British Accent vs. American Accent between history and "istoric" just like there is no regional accent difference between cycle and cyclical. The pronunciation changes solely on the basis of what else is going on around the stem. So let's look at "historic" in context. Say this sentence out loud:
The battle at Gettysburg was a historic event.
It feels very unnatural to pronounce the H sound immediately after saying "a." It's forced. It sounds and feels like you are coughing out the H sound. I'm not a trained linguist, but I contend that the H sound, because it is only an aspiration, does NOT qualify as an English consonant sound. Along the same lines, variations of the letter H represent voiceless sounds or aspirations in the International Phonetic Alphabet. In Koine Greek, the equivalent of the English letter H isn't a letter at all, but one of two diacritical marks - one representing rough breathing, the other representing smooth breathing.

So I'd say at this point we can either leave the H sound there but ignore it for purposes of applying the a / an rule, or we can allow the H sound to elide. The end result will be the same either way.

Let's take the long route and keep the H sound for right now, but ignore it for the purposes of applying the a / an rule. The H sound is not a consonant sound, it's just filler at the beginning at the word. So the first "real" sound at the beginning of "historic" is a Short I vowel sound. so now we have:
The battle at Gettysburg was a (h)istoric event.
And Grammar Girl gave us the a / an rule, so we know that this is wrong. Let me fill you in on WHY it's wrong. I contend that this is not grammar's rule. Grammar is simply enforcing a rule of linguistics. In layman's terms, we have two vowel sounds crashing directly into each other. This is known in linguistics as hiatus, which is more properly defined as two vowel sounds occurring in adjacent syllables with no intervening consonant. Some languages don't mind hiatus, but we generally want to avoid hiatus in English.

To prevent the Long A in the indefinite article from colliding with the Short I in historic, we need to put a consonant in between them (because the H sound doesn't meet that requirement).The word "an" is really just the word "a" that has been modified to avoid hiatus. That's why the A / AN rule is based on SOUNDS, not letters, just like Grammar Girl said.

But wait, we're still pronouncing the H sound in "historic" because we're just ignoring it for grammatical purposes. You're right, we've removed the hiatus, but we are still pronouncing the H sound in historic. Our sentence looks like this:
The battle at Gettysburg was an historic event.
We're still coughing up even when it comes after the N sound in "an." Then let's go ahead and change how we pronounce "historic" for the same reason we say Milwaukee the way we do, and for the same reason we say cyclical even though it's based on the word cycle: to make it easier to pronounce.
The battle at Gettysburg was an 'istoric event.
See, it's not a stretch after all. If you are talking to someone and say "an istoric," that just flows so much better than any alternative pronunciation, just like you wouldn't say CYCLE-icl, you say cyclical. And it's not about feigning a foreign accent just for the sake one word, either.

To paraphrase Mark 2:27, "Grammar was made for man, not man for Grammar." Real language is spoken, whereas written language is only a symbolic representation of the spoken word. That is NOT to say that written language is bad, but it is inferior (and don't take the word inferior the wrong way - any Federal court is inferior to the Supreme Court; that the other courts are inferior just means that they not the top rung of the Federal Judiciary ladder). The rules that govern written language do not trump the linguistic rules of how we speak. Grammar is a servant to spoken language, which is the master.

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Now, all that being said, Grammar Girl KNOWS HER STUFF! I clearly do not. That is why when I can justify the expense (it's under eleven bucks, so sooner rather than later) I will purchase her Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (affiliate link) because I'm not happy with my level of writing at this point and I need to improve it before I make another run at seminary. Grammar Girl has other books, too, (affiliate link) if you're not a student or want a shorter read.

And I follow Mignon on twitter.

And while you're at it, sign up for her email newsletter.

PS - I should have read Grammar Girl's blog post / podcast episode from 2008 on Historic vs. Historical because while writing this blog post, I repeatedly typed "al" after historic and then had to delete it.

In that podcast, she says this:
Further, nobody would ever say a song was “an hit.” You'd say the song was “a hit,” and the “hi” sound at the beginning of “hit” is exactly the same as the sound at the beginning of “historic” and “historical.”
This point gave me pause. And for a while I considered it. This allowed me to, among other things, notice something I'd previously overlooked which could fall under Tangent One: When you are speaking, do you pronounce the indefinite article "a" as a Long A or as "uh" like the interjection? I assume the default pronunciation is "uh" when saying "a hit" and that this choice is easier to pronounce. Actually, I would cite Tangent One as the case for saying "a hit." It is the least labored of the pronunciations. It has to do with where the sounds are formed in the mouth. The combination of "Uh" and "hit" employs minimal facial muscle use. And when words that end with a dental sound (like the d in "God") are spoken out loud, that dental sound at the end of the word is often left unpronounced (or at least substantially muffled). Since "hit" is a one syllable word, and we're already not fully pronouncing the last letter, if we get rid of the H sound, there won't be anything left but a Short I sound. Without the consonant sounds in spoken English, you need to rely almost exclusively on context for the meaning of the word to be understood. But even if we go through the effort of fully pronouncing that dental T sound, "it" sounds like another word, doesn't it? Oh I said it. Oh, I said it again! But "istoric" doesn't sound like any other words. Your ears know it's "historic" even without the H sound. There's no auditory confusion like you have if you leave off the H sound in "hit."

Say this sentence out loud: The day when this song becomes a hit, we will celebrate it as an historic achievement.

In the above sentence, "hit" is a noun and "historic" is an adjective. When you say that first phrase, you want to emphasize the word "hit" because A) it's a noun, and B) it's exciting!

But "historic" is an adjective, it is not an object of focus in that phrase; it modifies the object (the noun "achievement"). "Historic" describes a main idea, but it is not of itself the main idea. "Historic" works for its boss "achievement."

There's another linguistic principle in play between "hit" and "historic." As was previously mentioned, "hit" has one syllable but "historic" has three. This difference highlights a more important difference: the syllable that receives stress is the second syllable, like this: hi-STOR-ic. But since "hit" only has one syllable, that lonely syllable is stressed: HIT. The H sound in "hit" is stressed, but the H sound in historic is not stressed. So comparing hit to historic is not an apples to apples comparison.

If you go back to Tangent Two, you see this stress principle in play with Christ vs. christology. Christ is one syllable and, like "hit," is stressed. But in christology, the second syllable is stressed: chri-STOL-o-gy. Again, I'm not a linguist, but I'm willing to bet that the reason the Long I in Christ turns into a Short I in christology is because it no longer has the stress. It's yielding to or setting up the syllable that IS stressed, the syllable that comes right after it. In a very similar way, the H sound in "historic" should yield to or get out of the way of the other sounds to allow for smooth, clean (and refreshing? What is this a lite beer commercial?) pronunciation.

Saying "an 'istoric" gives those four syllables a really nice flow. It's the same pattern as "anesthesia" (because there is actually no H in anesthesia - it's a Greek word where the th was a Theta). "an-e-STHE-sia. an-i-STOR-ic." But putting the H sound back into "historic" disrupts that flow with an indefinite article in front of it. The H sound is forced out, it is naturally stressful. It sounds better to reduce the stress in the phrase and let proper syllable receive the stress. But with "a hit" you WANT to stress the H sound. The N sound in "an" has a weight or a stress to it that it brings to its syllable "AN-HIT." That sounds clunky and awkward. So DON'T use "an" with hit. Use "a" with hit (because "a" is pronounced "uh" which sets up the stressed syllable quite nicely).

A grammar rule that invokes sound (The rule is that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound.) concedes by implication that it is not a grammar rule but a phonetic / phonological / linguistic rule. So the ultimate question is "What sounds the best?" A grammar rule can only answer grammar questions, but this problem goes beyond grammar; it appeals to "speakability," if you will. After all, language, in its highest form, is spoken. And just like the bylaws cannot contradict the constitution, the rules of writing must conform to the rules of speaking.

PPS - Perhaps another reason I favor "an historic" is because "a historic" to my ears sounds like the prefix "a-" which means no or not, as in atheist, amillennialism, or aypical. That's not to say I would use an with those words (it wouldn't sound right and it wouldn't flow). This consideration is pretty low on the list, but I at least wanted to throw it out there.