Sunday, August 16, 2009

A error

Provident Bank runs this ad in the New York Times:

I think it should read "an SBA..."

Upon encountering the abbreviation "SBA", most people neither think nor say "Small Business Administation" so even that reachy argument would not prevail. The whole purpose of "an" is to make nice-nice phonetically. This is something the Bostonians do in spoken English when they substitute "er" for a word's concluding vowel if the next word begins with a vowel, as in "Rhonda charges $200." but "Rhonder always charges $200."

This matter was also with us yesterday when C requested a ruling regarding the use of "an" before words beginning with an "h". And there you have the long an short of it.


Anonymous said...

The test, it seems to me is consistency: Are you willing to say "That is mine SBA." After all my/mine employs the same logic ("Mine eyes have seen the glory...").

It is principally now an issue for written English (as opposed to spoken). Consider the vowel "u" for instance; pronouncing "an u" is actually more difficult than pronouncing "a u."

Just you wait Henry Higgins, just you wait.

Birdie said...

Usage of "a" or "an" is determined by pronunciation, not spelling. Use "a" before a consonant sound, regardless of its spelling (such as "a unicorn") and use "an" before a vowel sound (such as "an herb"). The confusion comes from a number of words that begin with "h" that historically have had a silent "h" but no longer do. The British have also added sound to that "h" in "herb" and so correctly would say "a herb."

You're right: it should be "an SBA" because we would read it aloud as "an ess bee ay."

My quotation mark quota is near its limit.

Miss Grammarian

DrRuss said...

I always thought the phonetic rule was if the sound of the consonant was the sound of a vowel it should be preceded by the word "an." Therefore, the ess (S), aich (H), eff (F), and exx (X). My teacher used to call it the cheerleader rule--Gimme a(n) __leter of choice__.

The Milkman said...

One possible explanation of this issue may be the body's tendency to work toward the path of least resistance. To create a glottal stop (the sudden onset sound that one creates when one grunts, or pronounces a vowel-onset word), the vocal folds close and air pressure builds up underneath them. That pressure blows the vocal folds apart to create the sound. This is a small amount of effort when discussed in isolation, but the repeated use of glottal stops in connected speech can prove vocally fatiguing over the course of a whole day of talking. It's much easier from a laryngeal/biomechanical standpoint to produce a vowel-onset word by eliding it with the final consonant of the previous word.

The body will always compensate in some way for processes that it deems inefficient... it's fascinating to me how this process interacts with the development of articulation patterns.

Tony Adams said...

Yes, Milkman, and the French are especially elegant in their approach to this vocal fatigue. Their elisions act like morphine on the words being coupled.

tornwordo said...

Birdie's right, but then she usually is.

This concept is what makes French so difficult for people to learn. How does one know where one word ends and another begins if they all are harmoniously linked together?

I like English and its glottal stops.