This week we take a look back at the five Scribe Tips that received the most comments in 2012. (Where else can you find Captain Barbossa, Yoda, Agent Smart, and Abraham Lincoln together in one post?) Enjoy!
Click on the tip below and you will be directed to it:
Semicolons are useful little chaps!
Who do you love, or is it whom?
Return of the Sentence Structure!
A tip for the lonely … verb.
What can Pirates of the Caribbean teach us about simplicity?
This week we discuss the correct use of “a” and “an.” These words are indefinite articles that are used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns—as opposed to the definite article “the,” which modifies specific or particular nouns (e.g., the lawsuit versus a lawsuit, the movie versus a movie, the car versus a car).
The indefinite article “a” is used before nouns that begin with a consonant sound, including nouns with a pronounced “h” or a long “u” sound, or nouns such as “one” or “Ouija.” For example:
- a baseball game
- a coach
- a yellow bird
- a hotel
- a union
- a Ouija board
The indefinite article “an” is used before nouns beginning with a vowel, vowel sound, or an unsounded “h.” For example:
- an attorney
- an engine
- an igloo
- an onion
- an umpire
- an honor
As you can see, determining whether to use “a” or “an” basically comes down to this: what sound does the noun begin with? If the first sound you make is a vowel sound, use “an.” If it’s a consonant sound, use “a.”
Finally, when using an abbreviation, the indefinite article that precedes it depends on how the abbreviation reads. If the abbreviation is read as a word, it is an acronym and you should follow the above rule. For example:
- a NATO member (since NATO begins with a consonant sound)
- an OPEC oil minister (since OPEC begins with a vowel sound)
If the abbreviation is read as a series of letters, it is an initialism and again, you should follow the above rule. For example:
- an SEC team (since the first letter has a vowel sound)
- a DOJ attorney (since the first letter has a consonant sound)
That is all for now …
In this first tip for 2013, we discuss references to dates in briefs and other documents. Specifying the date on which something happened suggests to your reader that the date is important. And sometimes, dates are important, e.g.,
- This lawsuit is not barred by the two-year statute of limitations. On January 25, 2011, Sam Smith’s car struck Sally Jones as she was crossing the street. Jones filed this lawsuit on January 9, 2013. It is not, therefore, barred by the statute of limitations.
But usually the specific date on which something happened just doesn’t matter, and references to dates will only mislead and annoy your reader—who expects that the date’s significance will be made clear at some point. When it instead becomes clear that the date was irrelevant, your reader will wonder why you wasted her time. Furthermore, numerous date references interfere with the flow of your story. Consider this example:
- On March 1, 2008, Sally Jones began working at Columbia Industries. On August 2, 2008, Sam Smith became Jones’s supervisor. Jones and Smith had confrontations on November 9, 13, and 15, 2008. Jones’s employment was terminated on December 1, 2008. On January 9, 2009, Jones filed an employment complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries. BOLI’s investigation concluded on February 23, 2009, with a finding of no discrimination. Jones filed this lawsuit on August 3, 2009. Now, Smith argues that the lawsuit should be dismissed because of BOLI’s no-discrimination finding.
As you can see, the point of this paragraph is that BOLI’s no-discrimination finding is fatal to the lawsuit. So why all the date references? They are unnecessary, and bog down the story. Consider this revision:
- In March 2008, Sally Jones began working at Columbia Industries. A few months later, Sam Smith became Jones’s supervisor. Jones and Smith had confrontations shortly thereafter, and Jones’s employment was terminated. In January 2009, Jones filed an employment complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries. BOLI’s investigation concluded with a finding of no discrimination. Jones then filed this lawsuit. Now, Smith argues that the lawsuit should be dismissed because of BOLI’s no-discrimination finding.
As you can see, instead of cluttering your story with meaningless dates, you can use relative time references—such as “later,” “after,” and “then”—to link events and tell the story. That allows you to present the story in chronological fashion without bogging it down and annoying your reader.
That is all for now …