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Who are you calling a SOB:

Several readers have questioned an Arkansas Times headline that said “Do test scores mean an LR charter school is working?”. They think it should have said “Do test scores mean a LR charter school is working?”. An is used only when the following word begins with a vowel, they say.

Frankly, I was not unhappy to catch the Times education staff with its usage down. They think they’re so smart, with their Ph.Ds, But when I pointed out their “error,” they rebutted me forcefully — even rudely, one might say — sending me to the appropriate authorities, all of whom say essentially the same thing as the Cambridge Guide to English Usage:

A is used before words beginning with a consonant, and an before those beginning with a vowel. This is straightforwardly applied in a doctor, a receptionist and an astronaut, an engineer. But note that the rule depends on the sound, not the spelling. [Emphasis mine.] We write a union, a unique gift and a once-in-a-lifetime experience because the words following the article actually begin with a consonant sound (the ‘y’ sound in the first two cases, and the ‘w’ sound in the third). The same principle makes it an hour, an honor, and an honest man. The word following the indefinite article begins with a vowel sound.”

Sometimes what’s correct depends on how the words are read. Suppose we see in the newspaper that “A FBI agent has been arrested.” If we read FBI as “Federal Bureau of Investigation,” the “A” is correct. If we read FBI as I believe most people would read it — “Eff-Bee-Eye” — then “An FBI agent” is correct.

That holds true for the Times headline also. If we read “LR” aloud as “Little Rock,” then a is correct. But an is required if we read it as “Ell-Arr.”

The Times writers suggest that I stop spending all my time looking for errors in my colleagues’ copy, and instead find grist for my mill in other publications once in a while. I never thought of that. It just might work.

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