m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

M A R C H  1 9 9 7

Word Court
by Barbara Wallraff

Historian I seethe when some pompous fool uses the indefinite article an before historian, historic, or historical. The rule regarding articles appears to be quite simple and straightforward: one uses a before sounded consonants, including the palatalized y, as in a cat, a year, or a urologist, and an before vowel sounds or unvoiced consonants, as in an apple or an hour. So what's with supposedly educated people saying an historian?

Frank Moore III
Columbus, Ga.

You aren't alone if you consider this construction about on a par with inventing a coat of arms to put on one's stationery. Americans at least since Mark Twain have been deriding the use of an before words beginning with an aspirated, or audible, h. Nonetheless, traditional British usage did call for it when the h word's initial syllable was unaccented -- thus a HIStory but an hisTOrian. Even in England the an is now considered an affectation, though R. W. Burchfield's The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, published by Oxford last year, urges readers not to "demur" if others employ the construction.

March 1997 Table of Contents

I am writing to express dismay and bafflement over some terms I have encountered recently in the obituary columns of local newspapers. I do not find them in any of the dictionaries I own. One obituary listed the date of the memorial service and then gave a later date as the time of inurnment. Since this event was to be held in a cemetery, I presume that the body had been cremated and the ashes were to be buried or interred after being placed in an urn. It seems to me the word interment would have been sufficient.

Cremains The next shocker was an obituary that stated that the cremains would be shipped to another state for disposition. I suppose some people find the term ashes distasteful, but whoever dreamed up cremains?

And then the last straw! The paper announced that Mrs. So and So would be funeralized on such and such a date.

What are your thoughts?

Anna D. Shepard
Murphy, N.C.

I think it might be time for you to buy a new dictionary. Each of these words is in at least three of the five dictionaries that I regularly consult, and has been in use for decades. Of course, you don't have to use these words, or like them, no matter what dictionaries say (and you might even consider reducing the offending dictionary to cremains). But your not unreasonable protest is more a matter of what you find to be in good taste than what is acceptable English.

In the town of Cortlandt, New York, a waterfront park on the Hudson River will be opening soon. The central purpose of the park is to provide access to the river for people interested in fishing. The name of the park -- the subject of our dispute -- is intended to reflect this fact.

The first name suggested was Annsville Fishermen's Point. This name was rejected for its sexist connotations, and Fishermen's was changed to Fishers. The question is, should the possessive form be used, making it Annsville Fishers' Point? The park does not belong to fishers, nor will it be used solely by fishers.

Fisher If you respond quickly enough, we will incorporate your decision into the actual name of the park, and the form you prefer will appear on the plaque upon dedication. Please help us out.

Mark Sullivan
Hawthorne, N.Y.

I can't talk you into Annsville Fishing Point, can I? It isn't clear what Fishers means. Fishermen's is clear, and in my opinion a bit too much is being renounced as sexist these days -- but people will object, and it does you credit that you are taking everyone's feelings into account. Fishers, though, could be . . . lustrous dark-brown cousins of the weasel? Persons with that surname? Who knows?

If you must have Fishers: On the one hand, the apostrophe (after the s, as you have it) is appropriate, because the meaning is the same as with Fishermen's. Possessives don't necessarily signal what we'd think of as ownership:think of a day's journey or for pity's sake. The relationship between the people fishing and the park will be possessive in a grammatical sense. On the other hand, the official U.S. entity in charge of geographic names strongly discourages apostrophes in place-names. And here -- where, again, it isn't clear what the word Fishers means -- the apostrophe probably does serve little purpose. I would leave it out.



Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.


Illustrations by Michael Klein
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1997; Word Court; Volume 279, No. 3; page 108.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture