Thursday, December 18, 2008

Magical Mystery T

Read the following sentence silently aloud. (You know what I mean.):

Accommodations are provided by the Snofitel Hotel, a AAA Four Diamond Award-winning resort and spa.

Now, here comes the question:
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Did you hesitate at the article "a" before "AAA"?

I was fascinated to stumble across something like this in my copy editing recently. It had an "a" before "AAA." Most fascinating was that I almost didn't catch this because my mind's ear heard not "a AyAyAy" but "a triple-A," making this perhaps the only vowel-only initialism pronounced as though it begins with a T!

Out of curiosity, I printed this out on a piece of paper and asked two co-workers to read it aloud. Josh, without hesitation, read "... a triple-A ..." Darlene, who had to reach for her glasses, was still trying to adjust her eyes when she began reading aloud. It sounded something like, "a Ayay ... uh, a triple-A ..."

While focused on visual tasks, she began to read it as written. When her brain kicked in with some interpretive help, she found the word "triple" without even realizing what she had done.

Call me nerdy (or bored), but I find that pretty cool. And I decided to leave it as-is.

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4 comments:

Lorem said...

English as third language here.

Articles always get me. I understand definite and indefinite articles. I even know why it’s an historical something. The problem is, I never know if something needs an article or not. Examples: He wrote a screen play about aliens and became a Hollywood big shot.
Is second “a” needed?
He owns an island and travels in personal jet.
Should it be a personal jet?
At this place you are treated like rock star.
...a rock star?
I usually trust my ear. It would be nice to have a more reliable system.
Please help.

June Casagrande said...

What a great question. And, to the ears of a native speaker, a mind-boggling question. I guess I never realize how truly difficult it is to know when to use an article in English.

A lot of times, it's purely idiomatic. (I'm going on a hike. I'm going to the mall.) A lot of times, it's optional. (I'm going on vacation or I'm going on a vacation.)

I think the only real guidelines I can give you are:

1. Make sure you understand the concept of "mass nouns" versus "count nouns." Just as the names suggest, mass nouns are things not counted individually: I want some milk. Count nouns are things that are counted individually. I have a dog and two cats. (Note that, as illustrated in that last example, the indefinite article is often dropped before a plural.)

2. Google. Because so much of this stuff is pure idiom, it's lucky that you have the magic idiom tester at your fingertips. "He became a Hollywood big shot" = 2 hits. "He became Hollywood big shot" = 0 hits.

3. Dictionaries often include examples of how words are used and those examples often contain clues as to whether to include an article (or a preposition, for that matter).

I bet that, throughout your studies, you've been given the answer: Read, practice, immerse yourself in the language. But because English is your THIRD, it's obvious to me that you're already putting in enormous effort. So the best I could do is swap out that advice for out for: Be patient and keep doing what you're doing.

I'm sorry I can't be more helpful than that. I really wish I could give you the reliable system you seek. But, thumbing through "Garner's" and "Fowler's" and "Webster's New World" and my own sleepy mental database, that's the best answer I can come up with.

As to your specific questions, it's:

* He wrote a screenplay and became A Hollywood big shot.

* He owns an island and travels in A personal jet.

* At this place you are treated like A rock star.

Non-native English speakers are often caricaturized as people who drop their indefinite articles a lot. So maybe that tells us something. In all your examples, the article IS required. And the absence of it sounds "funny" to an American ear. So maybe your position shoud be: When in doubt, add the indefinite article. (That could be bad advice, though. I haven't spent enough time thinking about it.)

Sorry I couldn't be more helpful, but know that I'm impressed that you're working as hard as you are to fully master a THIRD language!

Lorem said...

Thanks for your detailed response. I feel a bit silly about mentioning my ETL-ness. I don’t think I deserve all that praise. We had English from elementary school. Guess I should have paid more attention.

I am actually trying to get rid of the Google crutch. It’s those pesky optional ones (vacation); what’s the safe choice here? I tend to overuse articles. From my examples, I knew “a private jet” was correct (came after “an island”, something about consistency). I can’t quite figure out why a Hollywood big shot, why a rock star. As you can see, I am having trouble separating the optional ones from non.

Again, thanks for your advice, will keep on studying.

PS: In an unlikely case you haven’t read it, here’s a possible addition to your list of conservative crankstas. I have read just a few pages, so don’t have an opinion yet. On (the?) plus side, he’s quite funny and open to American modes of expression.

http://www.amazon.com/Kings-English-Guide-Modern-Usage/dp/0312206577/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237483255&sr=1-3

June Casagrande said...

Happy to (try to) help! If I come across any better info about articles, I'll post 'em on the main blog page (instead of this archive one). Thanks for the link (it's been on my to-read list for a long time. Maybe I'll get around to it now!)

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