The word “a” becomes “an” if it’s followed by a noun that begins with a vowel. So we have “a fool” and “an idiot.” If we insert a adjective between them, “a” becomes “an” on the basis of the adjective: “an interesting fool,” “a handsome idiot.” So far so good. The question before us today is, what if the interceding adjective is in parentheses? In deciding whether it should transmogrify itself into “an,” does the “a” look at the word in parentheses, or does it skip over that word and look to the noun following? In short, is it “a (handsome) idiot,” or “an (handsome) idiot”? (By the way, I place my question mark on the outside of the parentheses advisedly. Just because I’m concerned with the technicalities of “correct” grammar does not mean that I’m unwilling to break the rules where I disagree with them, and in some cases the “punctuation inside quote” rule is just nuts.)
I discussed this issue with several newspaper folks (Folks who, I suspect, were not quite able to get over conflating the issue with something rather separate — that it is in newspaper writing completely blinkered wrong to have a parenthetical adjective before a noun. Yeah, but I just like to use byzantine parenthetical constructions, I protested. It’s part of my style — a sort of deconstruction of the linear hegemony usually exerted by the written word. And it works for the casual nature of blog writing. And it inserts a mood of doubting and probing to writing that fits a particular mental style. But they don’t read my blog. They don’t understand. Life goes on.), and to a one they all agreed with what you are probably thinking: that the parenthetical adjective takes charge, and you get “a (handsome) idiot.”
Among other seemingly valid reasons for why this should be the case is the appeal to the spoken word. Were you speaking the phrase, you would certainly say “a handsome idiot” — it would be almost impossible not to. But parentheses are funny things, and they don’t really exist in the spoken language. Speakers may make clear verbal asides, but these do not get transcribed as parentheses — they’re typically set off with dashes — because parentheses in transcriptions cannot help but to look silly. Therefore, the appeal to sound cannot be used in arguing this particular case.
A key consideration when constructing sentences with parenthetical asides is that the sentence must remain perfectly constructed should the parentheses and everything within them be removed. The reader ought to be able to skip over the parentheses and feel that nothing is amiss. (I bet you wished you’d skipped over some of these parenthetical remarks, e.g.) For me, this is the clincher. Correct as though it may seem at first blush, I must insist on “a (interesting) fool” — a parenthetical adjective cannot be enough to force “a” to become “an.” A separate, and less clear, decision is whether a noun following a parenthetical adjective ought to. Do we really end up with “an (handsome) idiot”?
This, I guess, is the question I’m submitting to you. By the argument I’ve laid out it seems inevitable. But. Common sense interjects that it’s crazy, right? Could it be that when followed by the beginning of a parenthetical aside, “a” never becomes “an”? Could we have “a (handsome) idiot,” and “a (interesting) fool”? Maybe. Maybe, because parentheses are inherently a tool of the written word, and “an” is inherently a concession to the spoken word (however codified it is in the rules of grammar — after all, there’s nothing difficult to read about “a idiot,” right? (Or isn’t there??!)), the rule pertaining to the latter is somehow canceled out by the use of the former?
But how can this be? How does a grammatical rule get canceled out? As much as I doubt anyone can, I sure hope someone will clarify this issue. (Other than to say, “with as many other grammatical problems as you’ve got going, this ought be the last of yer worries, bud.”)
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