Kathryn McCary has asked for a post on when to use a and when to use an.
Her request was prompted by the following passage she read in a piece of professionally produced corporate publicity:
Since the HLB is a secured lender, all of our credit products require collateral to maintain our positions [sic] as a accessible and cost effective source of credit for members.”
HLB is the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, part of a system of banks chartered by the Federal Government in 1932–you would think they could hire writers who know REALLY BASIC English usage rules!
This post is not going to explain the uses of a and an. You’ll find no fewer than four posts on the indefinite article in the DWT archives:
The kindest thing we can say about the lapse in the bank copy is that it may have been a simple typo. It happens to the most conscientious writers. We proof an article twenty times, and as soon as the piece is published, the dratted error leaps out at us.
But let’s say that it wasn’t a typo. Let’s say that the writer didn’t see anything amiss with writing “a accessible.” That’s not a reflection on the writer’s professional education so much as an indictment of U. S. elementary education.
It’s not just professional writers who should know “really basic English usage rules” like when to use “a” and when to use “an.”
Any English speaker educated in an English-speaking country should have a form of basic standard usage down by the age of 13. As much of the content of this blog reflects, many high school and college graduates manage to get by without mastering the basics.
So, what’s to be done, other than to tear our hair?
I think that a possible answer is for language lovers to put their money where their mouths are.
Improvement in the teaching of basic English skills is not to be hoped for from the current flurry of education reform. The emphasis is all on math, science, and computer skills.
Thanks to the ubiquitous computer keyboard, handwriting has already become a despised skill. Spelling instruction is on the way out because spellcheck programs are seen by many as a substitute for knowledge of the English sound code.
Something that might help delay or reverse the decline of basic literacy skills would be a grassroots movement spearheaded by language lovers: people who respond to blogs like this one, and language zealots who go around painting out unnecessary apostrophes and correcting misspelled words on signs.
Language lovers could get together on a local level and sponsor contests for handwriting, basic grammar, and spelling. (And by spelling, I don’t mean the kind of oral exhibition that rewards overachievers for their ability to memorize words few people use. I mean competitions in which children write down words like February and definite from dictation.)
Local groups and individuals could organize contests for children ages 6-13 through youth clubs and county fairs. Aspiring novelists could be recruited to sponsor contests in which children demonstrate an acquaintance with books. After all, there’s not much point in writing books if the audience for literature continues to dwindle. Prize money could be minimal, anything from a dollar to $25.
Who knows, if such contests got started at a local level, a corporation might come along to offer a national contest with big bucks in prize money. A 13-year-old Brooklyn girl just won $50,000 from a manufacturer of mobile phones for her ability to text quickly and accurately.
Perhaps the answer to declining literacy skills lies outside the classroom.