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A Unique Example of When Grammar Rules Should Bend

01/07/2015 05:48 EST | Updated 03/09/2015 05:59 EDT

Maybe it's because I'm about to turn 65 or maybe it's because I'm a contrarian by nature or maybe it's just because, for once, I'm right. Whatever the reason, I want to come out against two editing positions religiously followed by the magazine The New Yorker.

For decades now, I've put up with silly absolutist positions. As a Canadian, I'm apparently supposed to honor the sacrosanct rule proscribing American spellings for such words as honour, labour and colour. Although the American options seem to be more efficient, I'm OK with employing the Canadian versions if it will assuage the occasional stubborn Canadian editor. Same goes for such Anglicisms as centre and cheque.

I'm even amendable to a single space between sentences rather than the double spacing convention I was taught as a child. I'm not sure why some editors are adamant about using the former but, unlike them, I'm willing to be flexible and adapt. Like Bill Murray's character in the movie The Ghostbusters who at first claims he has a rule about not getting involved with possessed people when being seduced by the demon-possessed Sigourney Weaver, I, too, tend to eventually relent and simply say "Actually, it's more of a guideline than a rule."

There is, however, one application of a particular grammar rule that continues to annoy me and one that I will not yield to willingly. I'm speaking of the commandment that thou shalt use the indefinite article "an" before words beginning with a vowel.

For the most part, this is a useful and workable rule. Think of such examples as "an uncle", "an army" and "an identical twin." But there are instances where the strict application of this rule just doesn't make sense. Consider the phrase "an unique example." Luckily the complete rule recognizes this anomaly and states that "an" is used before a vowel sound. In the case of "unique", it starts with the non-vowel sound "y" and thus "a unique" is the preferred choice. This makes sense since the phrase "a unique example", for example, rolls off the tongue much more easily and sounds better to the reader's or listener's ear.

Most editors take this reasonable approach and use "an" not just before a word commencing with a vowel but also with words that begin with a vowel sound. But not the editors at The New Yorker. A cursory review of a recent issue of that magazine reveals the following examples: "a hallucination", "a historic" and "a honest."

One could argue that the first two of these examples are correct because the leading "h" is pronounced. But that still doesn't justify the third example. In any event, to my ear, even the first two sound better when using the indefinite article "an."

Nevertheless, I strongly doubt that I or anyone else will get The New Yorker to change their usage style. After all, these are the same folks who stubbornly persist in using those two little dots called the diaeresis in such words as "reëxamination", "naïve" and "coöperate." Like diarrhea, I think a diaeresis is not just something best avoided; it's something that shouldn't be spoken of (or printed, for that matter) ever again.

I think I now know how Robert McCormick, the long ago owner and publisher of The Chicago Tribune, must have felt about his campaign to simplify the English language. While in control, he was able to compel The Tribune to use "thru" instead of "through", "tho" instead of "though" and almost 80 other simplifications. Once the Colonel departed this earth, however, the paper eventually reverted to type, so to speak, and reinstituted the more complex spellings. At least he had his day in the sun. As for me, I don't think The New Yorker would consider my request and even make a honest effort to reëxamine the issue.