You want to be understood, don’t you? Of course you do.

Here, you'll find tips on and discussion of marketing copy and communications, plus a lot of tutorials on grammar, punctuation, and usage. Heavy on the latter for the moment (before taking up copywriting, I was a full-time copy editor for years). If the language stuff seems esoteric or picky at times, know that the simple and important goal of it all is clear communication.

Indefinite Articles: A vs. An

It’s definitely all in the ear

The article an is sometimes incorrectly used in place of a before history and other h words because of a strange notion that an is proper for all h words. If I recall (dimly), I myself came under the influence of this notion back in my school days.

The real rule: Use an before a vowel sound. Use a before a consonant sound.

That’s sound. As in when spoken. This is one situation where spelling does not count. Sometimes a consonant sounds like a vowel and therefore takes an; sometimes a vowel sounds likes a consonant and therefore takes a. Practice aloud, and you’ll see that the rule largely reflects what’s easiest to say. A linguist would no doubt have a fancy explanation for why that is. All of these examples are correct:

A . . .
eulogy
euphoric mood
ewe
habit
hairy monster
history
humanitarian
master of business administration (MBA)
nongovernmental organization (NGO)
unit

An . . .
apple
error
exit
FBI agent
heiress
heirloom
herb
honest day’s work
hour
idiom
MBA (master of business administration)
NGO (nongovernmental organization)
umbrella

Simple, right? Makes sense too. Then why do we see “an historic” and the like floating about?

It could be the legacy of America’s British forebears. The Brits tend to not pronounce the h in words like historical and hotel. In addition, there’s an old rule that says that when an h is weakly pronounced—as it sort of is when the accent is on the second syllable—the vowel next to it dictates that you use an. That explains that. But while a charmingly accented “an ’istoric” may rule in the UK, on this side of the Atlantic, it’s history.

Reflexive Pronouns: Let’s Talk About Myself

 

The -self pronouns—myself, herself, yourself, themselves, etc.—are misused all the time. Perhaps the most common mistake is to use myself instead of me or I. Here, you’ll learn how to use reflexive pronouns, how not to use them, and how to avoid the myself pitfall.

How to use a reflexive pronoun

There are just two ways:

1. As the object of a reflexive verb. A reflexive verb is one whose subject and object are the same. The reflexive pronoun, serving as the object, reflects back on the subject.

I flatter myself. (direct object)

I gave myself a gold star. (indirect object)

In both sentences above, the subject I and the object myself are clearly the same thing. Easy. You would never say, “I flatter me.”

2. To give its antecedent special emphasis. The antecedent is the word that the pronoun stands in for. Reflexive pronouns used in this way are often referred to as intensive pronouns. By restating their antecedent, they intensify it—lending force to the whole sentence. In each example below, herself emphasizes its antecedent, Laura.

Laura herself made the same error. (restates the subject)

Laura made the same error herself. (restates the subject)

You can attribute that error to Laura herself. (restates the object)

Two things to ask yourself before you use a reflexive pronoun in this way:

Do you actually need the emphasis? That depends on context. The examples above stress the fact that I, Laura, made the error. If we’re talking about an error of grammar, the emphasis makes sense, because you might not expect a professional writer and copy editor to make such errors. Alas, she does. The emphasis of the reflexive pronoun says, “Even Laura made that error.”

If so, are you emphasizing the right thing? If you put your reflexive pronoun in the wrong place, you might write something you don’t mean.

Wrong: Each of these trials is an interesting study of the judicial system itself.

Right: Each of these trials is itself an interesting study of the judicial system.

See the difference? It’s the trials that we want to emphasize, that we find to be interesting studies, not the judicial system.

Wrong: The dog could easily get over the fence itself.

Wrong: The dog itself could easily get over the fence.

Right: The dog could easily get over the fence by itself.

Here, no emphasis is intended on either the fence or the dog. (BTW, if you go to YouTube looking for dogs jumping fences, as I made the mistake of doing, you will find tons of footage of dogs conquering fences. Even Dachshunds! And then you will become further distracted by all the other dog videos. Just read on!)

How not to use a reflexive pronoun

Do not use it as a stand-in for a regular personal pronoun: I, me, you, she, and so on. It needs to reflect or emphasize an antecedent.

Wrong: Her brother is very different from her sister and herself.

Right: Her brother is very different from her sister and her.

Wrong: The attentions of an editor like herself might do your writing good.

Right: The attentions of an editor like her might do your writing good.

In both examples above, is herself 1) the object of a reflexive verb? No. Does herself 2) emphasize an antecedent? No. The second example is trickier: Do is the verb, and herself is neither its subject nor its object. And the writer is describing the editor, not emphasizing her. An editor like, i.e. similar to, her. There’s no restatement.

Pay special attention to myself

As noted earlier, the most common mistake is to use myself in place of I or me. It seems to show up the most as the second part of a compound subject or object.

Wrong: Mark and myself will harvest six tomatoes this year.

Right: Mark and I will harvest six tomatoes this year.

Above, if you take away the first of the two parts, the problem with myself becomes clear: Would you say, “Myself will harvest six tomatoes”? Of course not. The regular pronoun I is the second part of the subject.

Wrong: He scolded my friend and myself for laughing.

Right: He scolded my friend and me for laughing.

Above, take away the first of the two parts: Would you say, “He scolded myself”? Never. The regular pronoun me is the second part of the object.

P.S. Bonus points if you picked up on that last headline. When a word is used as itself rather than for its meaning, it is italicized to indicate that intention. “Pay special attention to myself” is correct because it’s read as “Pay special attention to the word myself.” (Given the function of the italics, “the word” is redundant.) Without the italics, myself would be actively serving its role as a reflexive pronoun—and the sentence would be incorrect. “Pay special attention to me” would be correct. As I hope you now know!