Tip of the Week #6: An Honor on an Historic Occasion?

Have you ever heard someone refer to “an historic occasion” and wondered whether they were right or wrong about that “an”? Keep reading for the easy rule that will let you know what’s what.

(Bonus tip: A, an, and the—those common words we use before nouns—are known as “articles.” Today we’re talking about just two of the articles: a and an.)

At the most basic level, an is the article we use before words that start with vowels (a, e, i, o, u). A is the article we use before words that start with consonants (the other 21 letters!).

  • a squirrel, a chipmunk, a hedgehog
  • an otter, an emu, an elephant

But—SPOILER ALERT—that’s not the whole story! Plot twist ahead.

If this rule were all we had to consider, then we’d say, for example, “It was a honor to be asked to give an eulogy for the late mayor.”

That probably sounds off to you (good ears!), but why? After all, honor begins with a consonant, so shouldn’t it be preceded by “a”? And eulogy begins with not just one vowel but two (two!), so shouldn’t we start off with “an”?

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS, paragraph 5.72) articulates what’s really going on here:

The choice of “a” or “an” depends on the sound of the word it precedes. “A” comes before words with a consonant sound . . . no matter how the word is spelled. . . . “An” comes before words with a vowel sound.

An comes before vowel sounds. A comes before consonant sounds.

  • Honor is pronounced with an o sound first, thus we say, “an honor.”
  • Historic is pronounced with a “huh” h sound first, thus we should say “a historic occasion” NOT “an historic occasion.”

This even applies for acronyms, as CMS points out:

  •  an LSAT exam room: pronounced “ell sat,” starting off with an e sound
  •  an X-Files episode: pronounced “ex files,” again with that leading e sound

One final note: some of you have heard the letter y referred to as a “sometimes” vowel because it sometimes represents a vowel sound (i or e) as in sylph and funny. When the letter y makes a “yuh” sound, as in you and yours, we treat it as a consonant. With a vowel sound—as in, say, Ypsilanti—we treat it as a vowel.

Thus: I spent a year of bliss working in an Ypsilanti donut-tasting facility. Aha!

Your rule of thumb for a and an is to trust your ears more than your eyes.

Here’s to the next draft!

Got a burning question about writing rules or best practices? Drop me a note at info@seaneverdry.com or reach out on Twitter or Facebook!

Tip of the Week #5: Allow Myself to Introduce . . . Myself

Any serious Austin Powers fans* among you will recall the notoriously awkward spy’s famous lead-in: “Allow myself to introduce . . . myself.”

It’s obvious to us just how not-quite-right his comment is, yet somehow when we’re speaking, we sometimes find ourselves tripped up by our selves: yourself, myself, and so on. (For the record, Austin should have said, “Allow me to introduce myself.”)

More often than I would like, I hear a person say something like this: “If you have any problems or questions, please speak with Anjali or myself.”

And I cringe.

While that wording almost does sound more serious or learned, it’s really just wrong. The grammatical version of that statement is “Please speak with Anjali or me.” Simple and correct.

The key thing to remember about these –self words is that they only apply when a speaker or writer is talking about an action she is taking toward herself. (See? I told you!) So, while you talk to me, I talk to myself. (Sue me—I live alone.)

While I find you wandering around the mall parking lot, you find yourself lost. While he may think highly of himself, she knows he isn’t all that.

The next time you’re second-guessing yourself, just remember these guidelines. Intuitively, you know them most of the time—but on occasion, you might forget. And of course, if you have any questions, please see me (not myself!).

Here’s to the next draft,


Got a burning question about grammar and punctuation rules or writing best practices? Drop me a note at info@seaneverdry.com or reach out on Twitter or Facebook!

* “Serious Austin Powers fans”: Is that an oxymoron?

Tip of the Week #4: Oxford: So Fancy It’s Got Its Own Comma

The serial comma—also called the Oxford (yes, that Oxford) comma—is one of my favorite pieces of punctuation. And I’m not the only one. It even has its own Facebook page. Seriously.

As you know, commas are used for a vast number of tasks, including separating items in a list:

  • one, two, three
  • red, white, blue
  • Kim, Kourtney, Khloe

The serial comma is the comma before the “and” or “or” at the end of a list:

  • We need cups, plates, knives, forks, and napkins for the picnic.
  • Should we serve chicken, hot dogs, or salad?

Newspapers and many magazines tend not to use serial commas (because their punctuation follows Associated Press style, a topic for another week!), but serial commas are typically the rule for books.

Very often, leaving out a serial comma won’t affect how a sentence reads. But in other cases that little guy can make all the difference in the world. I’m partial to the serial comma because it can help prevent amusing (or alarming) misreads.

Here’s an example:

  • Elouisa arrived with her puppies, Clara, and Winston.
  • Elouisa arrived with her puppies, Clara and Winston.

To get the full effect, try reading both sentences aloud—and be sure to pause after each comma.

The serial comma in the first example is the one that comes before “and Winston.” The meaning is clear: Elouisa walked in the door with a) her puppies, b) her friend Clara, and c) her decorator Winston.

But in the second sentence—the one without the serial comma—we might think our girl waltzed in with just her two puppies, whose names are Clara and Winston.

One of your tasks as a writer is to communicate yourself well to your readers. In a case like this one, some readers might know exactly what you mean immediately. But occasionally, one might end up doing a double take and then having to puzzle out your intent.

Using the serial comma consistently will make it clear when you are talking about what:

  • puppies and Clara and Winston (because you’ll always write it the first way); or
  • two puppies, C and W (because you’ll always write it the second way).

Serial commas for the win! And don’t forget to like the Facebook page.

Here’s to the next draft,


P.S. Got a burning question about writing rules or best practices? Drop me a note at info@seaneverdry.com or reach out on Twitter or Facebook!

Tip of the Week #3: Happy Fourth from Our Nation’s Capital! Capitol?

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! In honor of Independence Day, we’ll take a look at a star-spangled pair of homophones: capital and capitol.

The difference between capital and capitol frequently trips people up, not least because the two words are related—in fact, one often sits right inside the other.

What do I mean? Well, capitol—with an o—refers to a building. Our nation’s Capitol is the domed building where Congress meets in Washington, DC. Our nation’s capital—with an a—is the city itself: Washington, DC.

States and other countries also have capitols, the buildings where their own legislatures meet. And they have capitals too: Sacramento, Juneau, Brussels, Kuala Lumpur, Lilongwe, and so on.

CaPiTaL letters also call for capital with an a, as do capital crimes and start-up capital.

Pretty much every time you are using the word, you’ll spell it with an a—unless you’re talking about a building. Make that your rule of thumb. A capital idea!

Here’s to the next draft,


P.S. Be sure to e-mail info@seaneverdry.com to suggest a topic or request a consultation with me!


Tip of the Week #2: There Are, There Is, but There Doesn’t Have to Be.

I like to remind people that even little changes can make a big difference in their writing.

As you edit your own work, you might notice that you tend to use certain words over and over, or that a lot of your sentences have a similar style. This kind of repetition can make your text seem a little flat.

Today we’ll look at one small change you should consider making to eliminate an overused sentence structure.

Many writers often begin sentences with “There are,” “There is,” “It is,” and the like. But these constructions can be pretty boring and passive ways to start a sentence, and they often limit the directness, vitality, and variety that could otherwise exist in your writing. See here for example.

There are still five or six mom-and-pop grocery stores in the city.

What could this sentence look like if we committed to eliminating “There are” from the front?

Five or six mom-and-pop stores are still in the city.

This sentence is more direct—albeit somewhat awkward and not terribly interesting!

Okay, back to the drawing board . . . The blandness of the new sentence could prompt you to come up with more interesting verbs than forms of “to be” (we’ll tackle that one in detail in a later post!). This requires more work, but the result will be worth the effort.

Taking another stab at it might produce something like this:

The city still boasts five or six mom-and-pop grocery stores.

Five or six mom-and-pop grocery stores dot the city.

In other instances, the verb you’re looking for will already be part of the original sentence. Easy fix!

Original: In neighborhoods across Bloomtown, there are still many grocers that sell locally grown produce.

Edited: In neighborhoods across Bloomtown, many grocers still sell locally grown produce.


Original: It seems unlikely that the locavore trend will reverse anytime soon.

Edited: The locavore trend seems unlikely to reverse anytime soon.

It is not my contention     (Whoops—caught myself!) I’m not arguing that none of your sentences should begin with “there” or “it.” I’m simply suggesting that you keep an eye out for that wording and minimize it. Your writing will be better for it!

Here’s to the next draft,


Tip of the Week #1: And I . . . Me. No, I.

By now the grammar police have probably drilled into you that the proper way to describe, say, you and a friend taking a trip to the ice cream store is this:

“Spanky and I went to get some gelato.”

Not “me and Spanky” and not “Spanky and me.”


But go beyond that, and things can get a bit hairy.

Dorothea went to the gelato shop with Spanky and he? With Spanky and him?

Are you talking to him or me? Him or I? He or I? He or me?

You can rest assured, however, that the proper grammar is actually pretty easy to figure out in cases like these. Here is a helpful tip to make sure this never trips you up again:

When you’re struggling to figure out the correct pronoun to use in a pair, just ditch one person—and note how you’d refer to the other person on her own.

So, while you might wonder about “Dorothea went to the gelato shop with Spanky and he,” you’ll probably have no problem understanding that you’d say, “Dorothea went to the gelato shop with him.” (Not he!) Which is perfect because now we’ve figured out our grammar issue—and nobody likes a third wheel.

“Dorothea went to the gelato shop with him.”

“Dorothea went to the gelato shop with Spanky and him.”

The same rule applies when you are working with two pronouns.

De Niro/Bickle helped us out with “You talkin’ to me?” So that’s taken care of. Violent tendencies aside, the man is a paragon of grammar for our purposes.

And of course you’re already comfortable with “Are you talking to him?”

So, together it’s “Are you talking to him or me?”

Problem solved!

Questions? Send an e-mail to info@seaneverdry.com.

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