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In Print Is Forever

Oh, the things we see in print these days …

From Time magazine: “General David Petraeus asked a famous question: ‘Tell me how this ends?’ ” Did you catch it? Here’s a clue: tell me how that’s a question. If Petraeus had asked a question, it would have been something like, “Tell me, how does this end?” But in Time’s sentence, “tell me” is a request, so delete the question mark.

A school district official was quoted as saying, “We have been appraised of all the relevant issues …” The word appraise means “decide the value of.” The gentleman clearly meant “we have been apprised,” i.e., informed. A bungled sentence from a representative of educated America is not the message our embattled schools want to be sending.

But that’s minor compared to this mindlessness from “a leading Latin American scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies” who reportedly said, “My personal view is, it’s us who is more responsible than Mexico.” The more forgivable of this man’s two howlers is “it’s us.” OK, he was trying to sound like a regular guy. But “it’s us who is”? That would even make a regular guy nervous. And this is an esteemed expert speaking on the record. We don’t want to have a beer with him; we want him to speak to us in a manner befitting his authority. He should have said “it’s we who are more responsible.”

A while back, an e-mail to the Associated Press website asked, “Is there a rule about the use of ‘a’ versus ‘an’ when used in front of a word beginning with a vowel?” I still can’t believe it’s come to this, but then I read things like: “There could be a independent or special prosecutor” and “has allowed it to linger as an mitigating factor.” So my sympathies go out to the e-mailer, who probably has read enough of those illiteracies to doubt his own linguistic sanity.

Compare that with “plans to use a $850 million loan commitment” and “LG showed off a 84-inch monitor.” All you have to do is say those aloud to know it should be “an $850 million loan commitment,” “an 84-inch monitor.” I’m guessing these writers outsmarted themselves: The rule is that an goes before a vowel, and there’s technically no vowel in “$850” or “84.” But this wrongly assumes that when we see words on the page we don’t simultaneously hear them in our heads.

The moral of the story: Know the rules, but use your head. (As we note in our Confusing Words and Homonyms section, “Use an when the first letter of the word following has the sound of a vowel.”)

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