the nose of the sphinx

A or An? | Why h, ch, tch, mb, and Other Letters are Silent | Affect or Effect? | I.E. | E.G. | I.E. & E.G. — Don't Bet on Them | Long S and Old-Fashioned Spelling | Plurals and Possession | Plurals: The Nose of the Sphinx | Plurals and Acronyms | Plurals and Acronyms, Continued | Mice? Mouses? | Passed or Past? | Website or Web Site? | Cyberspace? | Email? E-Mail? | Spelling Adjectives and Adverbs | British Spelling | Capitalization Questions

A or An?

Question: I have a question regarding the proper use of the indefinite articles "a" and "an." Specifically, I would like to know the rule concerning which indefinite article to use with words beginning with the letters "h" and "u."

For example, I often see the phrases "an unique experience" and "an historic moment." To my ear, this usage of "an" sounds awkward, and "a" sounds more natural.

What is the exact rule regarding these examples? Thank you in advance.

Answer: The pronunciation of a word determines whether "a" or "an" precedes it. "H" is a problematic letter. Sometimes "h" is sounded, as in "history." Sometimes "h" is silent, as in "hour."

A sounded "h" is treated as a consonant: a history book. A silent "h" is treated as a vowel: an hour. Sometimes "h" is sounded, but weakly — as in "historical." In speech, "an historical event" is fine; in writing, "a historical event" is correct.

The long "u" (pronounced "yu") takes the article "a": a universal condition. Similarly: "a European film," "a youth," "a euphoric experience."

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Why h, ch, tch, mb, and Other Letters are Silent

Pronunciation and spelling do not always go together in English. Sometimes people say words very differently, even if they spell the words the same.

People in America say some words differently from people in England. For example, Americans and the English spell "herb" the same way. Americans say "herb" with a silent "h" so that it sounds like "erb." But the English pronounce the "h" and say "herb."

Some words never use their "h" at all in England or America. Hour sounds like "our." "Heir" (someone who inherits something) is pronounced like "air." But all educated speakers in England and America pronounce the "h" in "hair."

Many other words do not sound like their spellings. We say "lum-ber" but pronounce "plumber" as "plummer." We say "toom" for "tomb" but "bawm" for "bomb" — there is a silent "b" in both words, but different "o" sounds.

Why don't we always pronounce words the way we spell them? One reason is that the English language has changed a lot. If you could take a time machine back to the time of "Brave Heart" and knights in armor, you would not be able to understand what people were saying. Their English would sound like a foreign language.

Back in those days, people spelled words the way they sounded. For example, the "k" in "knee" and in "knight" used to be pronounced. And once upon a time, the final "e" in most words (such as "made") was pronounced.

These old-fashioned spellings were "frozen" with the invention of the printing press. (Before the printing press, people used to have to write everything out by hand — no typewriters, no word processors!) People changed the way they said words, but did not change the way they spelled words.

Another source of strange spelling is foreign words. Some English words are borrowed from other languages, such as Latin and Greek. These languages have "silent" letters or different sounds from English. For example, Greek has letters and sounds we do not use, such as the "rh" in "rhythm" (we say "rithim").

Many words are pronounced the way they look — thank goodness! But to be sure, use a dictionary. Some dictionaries come on CD-ROMS you can play on your computer. They will actually pronounce a word for you. However, even print dictionaries will try to show you how a word is pronounced.

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Affect or Effect?

Affect is most commonly used as a verb, meaning "to influence": "Smoking affects health." Effect is usually a noun, meaning "a result": "The medicine had no effect."

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Looking for the meaning of the abbreviation i.e. Is it Latin??? If so, what is the translation?? Searched through all the dictionaries and cannot find it.

Answer: It is id est, which means (in Latin) "that is." Use English.

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I know we use e.g. as "for example" but what is the translation from?

Answer: Exempli gratia is Latin, meaning literally "for the favor (sake) of example." Again, use English instead of Latin abbreviations.

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I.E. & E.G. — Don't Bet on Them

Question: When are the correct times to use i.e. and e.g.? We have bet a round of drinks on this.

Answer: Perhaps you and your colleagues should look forward to treating each other to rounds of drinks (and taxi fares): The proper times to use "i.e." and "e.g." are never and not ever.

Having asked several hundred of my extremely well-educated students to define the two terms, I found almost no one knows what they mean or how they differ. My advice, therefore, is do not use either abbreviation. Even if you know what it means, chances are excellent that your reader will not.

Toss "i.e." and "e.g." onto the great rubbish heap of Latin abbreviations whose day has passed. Instead, use "that is" in place of "i.e." (id est). Use "for example" or "such as" in place of "e.g." (exempli gratia).

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Long S and Old-Fashioned Spelling


1. American history is one of my hobbies. In my reading I have found that our founders seem to use the letters "s" and "f" almost interchangeably. Often, when two "s"s appear together, the first is written as an "f." Do you know why this was done?

2. Those same founders tend'd to replace the "ed" suffix on past tense verbs with "'d." Were our founders sloppy writers or was this good grammar at the time?

3. The previous observations lead me to wonder whether grammar is an ever changing "fashion" or, as we were taught, a time-honored rule.

Answer: Take a closer look. Our ancestors were using a "long s" — not an "f." Compare that mark to an "f": You'll see a subtle, yet clear distinction. The plain "s" was used only at the end of a word.

They expected words to be pronounced as written. Folks used to say lik-ed; lik'd would show that it should be pronounced as one syllable, not two.

It's not a matter of "fashion" — or at least not in the main. Language is organic; it evolves. Grammar changes relatively slowly, but it does change: Just pick up Shakespeare! Then read Chaucer!

Mechanics (spelling, punctuation, and such) change faster. Most of our "rules" were formulated only 150 years ago, and many rules have been modified since.

Standard written English reflects an evolving consensus among writers, scholars, and linguists. Standards are discussed in many forums and eventually make their way into grammar books, dictionaries, and the like. See Miss Grammar's Links for directions to some of these forums.

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Plurals and Possession

My friends and I were having a discussion the other day concerning the possessive of names which end in the letter 's'. Several of us remembered being taught that, for example, it was correct to use either James' or James's to indicated that something belonged to James. Others in our group were adamant that only James' was correct. Could you clarify the issue for us?

Answer: Forming possession on words that end in s" is much less confusing if you sound out the word. The rule you are trying to remember concerns forming possession on *plural* nouns — not words ending in "s" generally.

Though it ends in "s," "James" is singular: "James is a great guy." To indicate possession, you would *say*, "Fido is Jamziz dog." You would write, therefore, "James's."

Say you live next door to a family surnamed James. When describing the lot of them, you'd form a plural with "es": the Jameses. You would use the "es" because the singular ends in "s," and we couldn't pronounce the double-s: the Jamess. You would *say*, "We are dining with the Jamziz (Jameses) tonight."

When describing a family possession, you'd *say*, "That is the Jamziz car," but you would write, "Jameses'." In this case, you would not need the extra "s." It does not get pronounced. You do not say,"Jamziziz." The apostrophe alone suffices to indicate possession.

Apostrophes, by the way, indicate that something has been left out (don't = do not). What is left out with 's is a morpheme English used to use a long time ago. In 1290, we would have written something like "Fido is Jamesis dog."

Plurals: The Nose of the Sphinx

the nose of the sphinx

Question: Have exhausted my search for the possessive of "Sphinx." As in, "Napoleon's troops were credited with shooting of the Sphinx, Sphinx', Sphinx's, Sphinx'es (????) nose."

Thank you for "being there" on the web.

Answer: Sphinx follows the rule for any name ending in a letter sounding "s" — like Jones, Fox, or Chavez. Add an apostrophe "s": the Sphinx's nose. If you have 2 Sphinxes, then add an apostrophe only: many Sphinxes' noses.

Acronyms and Plurals


I have been asked to edit a department newsletter at work. I was under the understanding, as is Funk and Wagnalls and Bowling Green State University and NASA's Technical Writing Department, that the plural of an acronym is formed by adding "'s" to the acronym. I changed all instances of "PCs" to "PC's" in the newsletter. ("PC" is the acronym used for "personal computer.") I distributed the newsletter for review and am now about to be dragged to the parking lot and tossed into the slough for using "PC's" versus "PCs." Only you can save me. Help . . .. . . .

Answer: I would save you from being tossed into the slough (do you really have a slough in your parking lot?). It seems an excessive response to a minor error. Yes, I am afraid your reviewers are correct — and current — in this case. Authorities now advocate creating plurals of acronyms by adding "s" only — no apostrophe: CODs, ABCs, CEOs.

Apostrophes show something is missing, so we have no reason to use them to create plurals. Exceptions are made for instances where using only "s" might confuse: "all A's," "dotting the i's," and so forth.

I advocate avoiding the problem altogether by getting rid of acronyms. You might enjoy my essay on acronyms.

Acronyms and Plurals, Continued

Please help resolve a long-disputed grammar question of mine. When you pluralize acronyms, for example, "I work with PCs" it is correct not to use an apostrophe, yes? For some reason, I (often) see people use the apostrophe with acronyms they would like to pluralize. ("I work with PC's.") It drives me nuts. I am having a hard time finding this grammatical rule written down, however, and wonder if I'm just being overly picky. Along similar veins, when you say, "The best music of the '80s" you certainly don't need an apostrophe before the "s" either, right? I often see such a phrase written "The best of the 90's," and again, it is frustrating.

Thanks for your help and clarification, and if you have a resource that I can refer to (written or electronic) and refer others to, this would be very helpful.

Answer: People have gone mad with apostrophes: They insert apostrophe's wherever they write plural's. [This last sentence is a joke.] You are absolutely correct about the rule: PCs, not PC's.

There are some exceptions. Abbreviations that use 2 or more periods (and the trend is away from using periods) often use 's to form a plural: C.O.D.'s (but CODs). If a plural initialism could be read incorrectly, use 's: "She earned all A's."

As for plurals of years, I have seen the New York Times use "90's" — though no authority supports such usage. Speaking of authorities, though, here is chapter and verse for your reference:

Council of Biology Editors, Scientific Style and Format, 6th edition. Cambridge, 1994. Pages 90-93.

Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition. Chicago, 1993. Chapter 6.16-6.17.

Miss Grammar

Mice? Mouses?

Dear Miss Grammar,

Normally, the plural of "mouse" is "mice," but does that hold true even when one is referring to computer pointing devices? We've been kicking this one around the office and cannot reach a consensus. So far, we've come up with three options: mice, mouses, or mouse devices. Which suits Miss Grammar best?


Dear Walter,

Either mice or mouses for the computer input devices is acceptable, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. The plural "mouses" might better distinguish the plastic devices from the furry creatures.

Miss Grammar

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Passed or Past?

I'm having a real problem with the difference in usage between "passed" and "past." I want to say "somebody passed by the house," which I think is correct, but just when I think I have it, I don't. Can you help? Can you refer me to examples of how each is used? It seems so simple, but...well...I obviously have a problem!

Answer: Past and passed sound almost identical.

"To pass" is a verb: I pass the ball, you pass the test, he/she/it passes the sweet potatoes, we passed the hat, they passed on to a better life. "Pass" can also be a noun, as in "he made a pass."

"Past" can be one of many parts of speech: a noun ("we didn't have spell checkers in the past"); an adjective ("past experience proved worthless"); an adverb ("she smiled as she walked past"); or a preposition ("half past noon"). "Past" cannot be a verb, however.

Perhaps it will help to remember than most verbs in the past tense use -ed: classed, gassed, massed, passed.

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Website or Web Site?

Is web site hyphenated? website? web-site? web site? Inquiring minds (my brothers) want to know.

Answer: "Website" is not a compound noun (yet), though you could probably hyphenate it. However, do capitalize Web since it's part of a proper noun, the World Wide Web.
— Miss Grammar

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Should the word "cyberspace" have an initial cap?

Answer: No, "cyberspace" follows the punctuation rules of common nouns. However, "Web" should be capitalized (because it abbreviates "the World Wide Web," a proper noun) as should Internet. Some argue that "E-mail" should be capitalized, following the model of T-shirt, H-bomb, and X-ray.

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Email? E-Mail?

I said, she said, he said. I'm confused! What is the correct spelling of email or is it E-mail or maybe Email? AP style hasn't touched this one yet. Can you help me?

Answer: I now prefer "email." However, dictionaries and some word mavens advocate "E-mail" because it's analogous to other initialized words (T-shirt, H-bomb, and X-ray, for example).

But: No one rule has been established for this abbreviation. You'll see literate people using everything from "Email" to "e-mail."

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Spelling Adjectives and Adverbs


I teach grammar and writing at the 8th-grade level, so I find the information at your site very informative. I have a question regarding the words everyday and every day. I learned that the single-word everyday should be used only as an adjective, as in an everyday occurrence; and that the adverb should be written as two words. It seems that I see everyday as a one-word adverb constantly now. What is the currently and formally correct form?


You are correct about everyday and every day; nothing has changed: It is still "an everyday occurrence" versus "something that happens every day."

British Spelling


What is the correct spelling of practice in this example: "Continued practise is necessary to achieve success." Should I use it as a verb and spell it with an 's' or as a noun and spell it with a "c"? I would argue that it may be used as a verb in this instance

Thank you,
Victoria, Australia

Answer: If you are following American usage, spell it "practice" — always. If you follow British usage, then follow the rule you reference: practice for the noun, practise for the verb. As your sentence uses the word, it is (in either dialect) a noun and would be spelled practice.

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Capitalization Question 1

Do I capitalize or quote the title of a poem? What about a poetry anthology?

Answer: Capitalize the first and all other words — except for articles, prepositions, and conjunctions — in the titles of poems and other literary matter: The Grapes of Wrath (a novel), "Merlin and the Gleam" (a poem by Tennyson), The Night of the Living Dead (a film), The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Please note that short works are placed in quotes and long works are italicized (underline only if you do not have italics).

Regardless of the rules, always follow the author's practice — presuming that the practice was intentional. The poet e.e. cummings, for instance, rarely capitalized anything: "you shall above all things be glad and young" is one of his titles. Correcting his usage would be an error.

Capitalization Question 2

Does one make the "s" in "southeastern" capital? Since it's not a pronoun I would say not. But my associates say yes. Help!

Answer: You are right. Capitalize directions only when they refer to specific regions or form part of a proper name: "the southeastern part of the state" vs. "Southeastern University."

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