Monthly Archives: January 2013

Excuse the Intrusion

Damned if sometimes things don’t just look funny.

The other day I ran across an “a vs. an” issue that I can’t recall having even thought about before. As we know, when choosing whether to use a or an, we decide based on whether the word the article precedes begins with a vowel or a consonant sound. Thus, while we would say “a union,” we would alternatively say “an unfair practice.”

What momentarily threw me was a sentence that used the word great and then, to let the reader know that the author was self-consciously repeating the word, used a construction similar to what follows.

The Great Gatsby spends a, uh, great deal of time . . .”

The actual word choice wasn’t that poor, but you get the idea. The point of interest here is that, as a copy editor, I’m so attuned to matching a or an with the correct sound that seeing a before uh set off the ol’ alarm bells. As if acting on reflex, a part of me wanted very badly to change that a to an.

Then I came to my senses.

In the sentence, uh is an interrupting element. The author intended to say “a great”—no problem there—and uh, as an interrupting element, can simply be ignored as though it were surrounded by em dashes or parentheses.

Interrupting elements are also famous for wreaking havoc with subject-verb agreement, but that is a discussion for another day.


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Going to the Well Once Too Often

One guy sits at the bar in his favorite watering hole. Another guy sits down next to him. After a brief exchange, it’s established that the second guy is from out of town. The first guy asks after the football team in the second guy’s home city.

The second guy says, “They’re looking really well this year,” and he lingers just enough on the word well to reveal a hint of pride at his word choice.

“That’s good,” says the first guy. “I’m glad they’re not ill.”

And then a Boy Scout, a bear, and the president enter the bar, prompting the bartender to ask, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

* * *

In the same way that people are deathly afraid of saying “you and me” in any context, whether it’s grammatically correct or not (“You and I!” your first-grade teacher scolds), people are also afraid of using good incorrectly. Unfortunately, this leads to them always replacing it with well, which of course renders them susceptible to looking foolish.

Good is an adjective. Well is an adverb. Simple enough.

Adjectives come before nouns. Adverbs hover around verbs. Got it.

Unfortunately, there is the sad case of the predicate adjective, often following “to be” verbs. Saying “He is good” indicates that someone is in high spirits or is generally in a satisfactory place in life. Saying “He is well” would indicate that the person is not sick. The confusion arises from a fear of using the adjective when the adverb is called for. Someone saying “He hits the ball good” would have made this mistake.

In addition to “to be” verbs, there are reflexive verbs such as “looking” that can also take predicate adjectives, because the action of the verb refers back to the subject: “The Bashers look good this year.”

Just between you and me, I’ve had my fill of wells this week.

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