A subtle point of grammar

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.”)

13 thoughts on “A subtle point of grammar

  1. “a sort of deconstruction of the linear hegemony usually exerted by the written word”


  2. Ahhh, Grammar Fun!

    You are correct: text within parentheses (called parenthesis) is not actually a part of the sentence. It is additional information: an in-line footnote, if you like. Removing the parenthesis should leave you with a grammatically correct sentence.

    From the Oxford English Dictionary, emphasis mine:
    “An explanatory or qualifying word, clause, or sentence inserted into a passage with which it doesn’t necessarily have any grammatical connection, and from which it is usually marked off by round or square brackets, dashes, or commas”

  3. If you’re using parentheticals in this way, I think it’s safe to say that you’re defining your own rules, and thus should do what comes most naturally here. When I use this construction, I do what scans most easily, as I’d only use the construction in informal writing anyway, which is all about flow, not stupid language maven grammar nazi rules. That usually means making the article “agree” with the adjective, parenthetical though it may be.

  4. kingofrance: sorry. that phrase was literally the last thing I wrote, and at that point I’d thrown hopes of writing something coherent and persuasive out the window in favor of a baroque language construction. Hegemony was a dumb choice of words. Tyranny would have been just right.

    CL: Yeah, but does that mean I’m right?? (BTW, i’m purely guessing, but is ‘parenthesis’ the singular form?

    Adrian: Yeah, I obviously am breaking lots of rules. Under no conception is it correct to start parentheses in the middle of one sentence and close them in the middle of a different sentence, even if the text flows fine without the parenthetical text. But I feel that there should be a crisp delineation between the rules I break and the rules I don’t, because I don’t want to be spewing crap arbitrarily. I’m spewing very specific crap for very specific reasons, and and it bolsters my credibility (which needs all the help it can get) when that comes across.

    I have a nagging suspicion that you’re on to something, though. The weakness in my whole spiel is that for most people, even when they’re reading silently to themselves, there is a vocal aspect to the reading. You sort of read the words to yourself in your mind, right? And, I’m having a difficult time getting a clear read from my internal voice right now, but I have a suspicion that it might stumble just a bit on “a (interesting) fool.” Then again, it might just be the grammar maven that’s stumbling. Weird.

  5. Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend about grammar and the importance of it in everyday interactions (no beer was involved).

    I believe her point was that grammar serves as a standard through which the english language can be used uniformly by everyone so that we can communicate adequately, but ultimately, it shouldn’t take precedence over being understood. Basically, grammar is secondary to the clarity of communication. e.g. it doesn’t matter whether you use “a (handsome) idiot” or “an (handsome) idiot.” One of those may not “sound” right to some but we all know what you’re talking about.

  6. R: I don’t think you DO understand what I’m talking about. I think YOU ARE MISSING THE POINT COMPLETELY.

    And frankly, I think the lack of beer is a big part of the problem. The magic of beer is that not only can it aid in communication, but it can reveal gaps in communication and understanding which are so frequently and tragically swept under the rug by the sober.

    True story, which I can’t believe I left out of the post: one of the conversations that preceded all this was paused with the remark “we’ll have to settle this during a beer summit…” which then digressed into a discussion of summits organized around other mood-altering substances, and how long our country would have to wait before the prospect of a joint summit at the white house seemed as reasonable as a beer summit does today.

    But to your point, you’re talking about the distinction between prescriptivism and prescriptivism, which is a hot debate in the field of grammar.

    Do see “Authority and American Usage,” from David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, which deals at some length with this issue (the essay is over 120 pages as I recall, and GREAT). From Wikipedia:

    “A review of Bryan A. Garner’s “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.” Wallace applies George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language to grammar and the conditions of class and power in millennial American communication. In addition to examining seemingly technical ideas such as descriptive linguistics versus prescriptive grammar, Wallace digresses to discuss the legitimacy of Ebonics as opposed to “white male” standard English.”

  7. The article a is used before consonant sounds; an is used before vowel sounds.

    Words beginning with h, o and u sometimes begin with a vowel sound, sometimes a consonant sound.


    Hmmm. Note the emphasis on SOUNDS. This suggests the presence of parentheses is irrelevant to the content therein. Go by the sound as if you were reading aloud (including parenthetical content).

    You (ugly) idiot.

    PS Beer required for further input.

  8. The truth is that I was slightly intoxicated when I posted that comment and I might need another beer, or two (or three), before I further delve into the subject.

    But while we’re here, one can’t help but notice how ‘the prospect’ will change the way we look at the Joint Chiefs of Staff…

  9. …..you’re talking about the distinction between prescriptivism and prescriptivism….”

    Nice. The computer has been drinking, not you.

  10. descriptivism. yeah, whatever.

    “a adjective” is pretty funny tho.

    If I didn’t blog while intoxicated, I’d never blog at all.

  11. Squathole is right. Try substituting “an” for “a” in “a unique fellow.” Reading has an internally spoken component and a/an is meant to accommodate it. The only exception I know of is “an historic moment,” which only sounds good if you’re British, but it distinguishes it from “ahistoric” which is something else entirely. (I use “a historic.”) Regarding the punction-quote order:

    Fine: “What on earth are you doing?”

    Also fine: What is in this so-called “appetizer”?

    Not fine: I use “a historic”.

  12. I think you’re both correct about the internal voice. But bringing up the word “historic” is interesting — “an” sounds correct if the ‘h’ is silent, “a” is correct otherwise. So you have a rule about written grammar that is based on one’s particular pronunciation?

    There is something very very odd about that.

Comments are closed.