Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2008 January 17

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January 17[edit]

Basic grammar[edit]

When writing the sentence:

"It was a used tool"

Should it be instead "a" or "an"

"It was a used tool" or "It was an used tool"?

Acceptable (talk) 00:50, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

A. Whether to use a or an depends entirely on the pronunciation of the word, not on its spelling. Strad (talk) 00:54, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Correct. Similarly, one would say AN honor ... not A honor. Even though the word "honor" begins with a consonant "h" ... it begins with the vowel sound of "on". (Joseph A. Spadaro (talk) 01:05, 17 January 2008 (UTC))
And, just to state the obvious, "used" starts with the /j/ sound, a consonant. --PalaceGuard008 (Talk) 02:41, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Not to forget those among us who, for some reason or another, prefer to say "an historic" etc. without dropping the aitch.--Rallette (talk) 13:10, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
"An hotel", too. Formerly, it was always correct to use an before an h and an unstressed syllable. A is more widely preferred now, but frankly, "a historian" is much harder to say than "an historian". (if you sound the h correctly). The pronounciation of a vowel sound is what determines its use for acronyms: hence "a UV light", "an NZ citizen". Gwinva (talk) 19:45, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Strictly though, the rule that seemed to be followed was more like this:

A before all consonant sounds, including /h/, /j/, /hj/, and /w/; an in all other cases. Except that an may be substituted before /h/ (and possibly before /hj/) if the first syllable of the word bears a weaker stress than the second syllable.

This successfully accounts for all of these usages (which are quite typical in some traditional styles):
  • a history
  • an historical occasion
  • a hysterectomy [primary stress on 3rd syllable; secondary on 1st]
  • an hysterical response
  • an honest woman
  • a home-made bomb
  • a homiletic monologue
  • an homologous structure
  • a[n] humanity that is respectful of the non-human [an is less likely]
  • a human emotion
  • a[n] humane gesture [an is less likely]
  • a[n] humanitarian gesture
  • a[n] hubristic proposal [with /hj/ pronounced]
  • a unity
  • a "oui" instead of a "non"
Needless to say (but I shall), these forms will be disputed. Of course there has always been great variation. In the KJV Bible you get an hundred, and this occurs even in Jane Austen.
My original research. Don't ask!
– Noetica♬♩Talk 23:40, 17 January 2008 (UTC)[amended]
Ah, Noetica, I could fall in love. What a beautiful collection. (and I love "an hundred"..sounds poncy in most real life situations, but a joy to read in the right context). Gwinva (talk) 02:49, 18 January 2008 (UTC)
Resisting the urge to go all soapbox. It sounds wrong to me to use 'an' before [h]. If I see (for example) "an historic monument" and read it aloud, I will delete the initial [h] and say "an 'istoric monument" most of the time, and occasionally change the "an" to an "a" and retain the [h]. More confusion can occur with words such as "herbs", where the [h] is not prounounced in Standard American, but is in RP, Australian, NZ diaclects, and varies through English dialects. Steewi (talk) 00:16, 18 January 2008 (UTC)
Although there are some British pedants who would still insist on "an hotel", and "an historic monument", most of us on this side of the pond have now adopted the advice given in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "You choose the article that suits your own pronunciation." so we would write "a hotel", and "a historic monument". The Oxford English Dictionary now gives exactly the same advice, adding that, for members of the British Parliament, "an M.P." is correct because the M is pronounced "em". Pronunciation (and therefore use of "an") does vary in the UK by region, class and education! dbfirs 12:21, 18 January 2008 (UTC)
I'm neither British, nor American, I sound my h in "historic" and "hotel" and I use "an", because it sounds better. Guess I'm a pedant?  :-) Gwinva (talk) 01:45, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
Neither British nor American? Nor am I. I could fall in love... . Gwinva, I think the loss of /h/ (an historical) or the original absence of /h/ (an hotel) is quite separate from the question of an with /h/-words. Unfortunately most discussions mix these two matters up. More generally, no treatment of either topic that I have yet seen is as thorough as what I offer above. Let me just add this: loss of /h/ after an is more likely with older, more established words (hotel, historical) than with newer, less familiar words (homologous, hermaphroditic). And it also seems to be less likely with species of /ho/, /ha/, and /hu/ than with /hi/ and /he/. The American way with words like human, often changing /hju/ to /ju/, is yet another separate matter.
– Noetica♬♩Talk 02:31, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
Well, the Americans cannot speak or spell correctly. (Ducks under a storm of protest). You should write your own treatise on the subject. There is, of course, other issues surrounding the use of an, such as the migration of the n in a napron to create the modern version an apron. Gwinva (talk) 03:41, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
There is other issues, eh? Very interesting.  :) JackofOz (talk) 11:42, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
Argh! There are other issues. Sorry. I'm an idiot. :) Gwinva (talk) 18:34, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
Ah, Jacko. How intriguing that you chose to remark upon is, but omitted mention of Gwinva's full stop outside the brackets: ...of protest). . An oversight, or a deliberate choice on your part?
I think we could all do with a cup of tea. Meanwhile, I hereby request indulgence for all merely scribal omissions and errors, past and future.
– Noetica♬♩Talk 22:41, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
Oversight or deliberate choice? - neither one nor the other. I just can't avoid the delicious thrill of noticing errors made by those who notice the errors of others. One error suffices for this purpose, then I stop looking. (Btw, how did you know that people sometimes call me Jacko? And no, my surname is not Foz - and, as I'm of Celtic heritage, I have to also deny that I'm Jack O'Foz). :) JackofOz (talk) 23:38, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
Hides head in shame... The cup of tea is a fine suggestion. Gwinva (talk) 01:52, 20 January 2008 (UTC)
That'll teach you to pick on Americans. Instant Karma got you. --Milkbreath (talk) 14:30, 9 February 2009 (UTC)


I have some questions of semantics that will assist me to properly edit various Wikipedia articles. (That is, down the road -- if I can first clear up this concept in my mind.)

First Example: Let's say that in 1961, the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Director went to both Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise ... the two men both directed (co-directed) the film West Side Story.

First Question of Semantics: In 1961, was there one Best Director Award and it was shared by two people ... that is, a shared award? Or were there two Best Director Awards awarded that year?

Second Example: Let's say that in 1968, because there was a tie in voting, Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand both received the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Actress. So, we have two different women, in two different films, with two different performances ... one performance had absolutely nothing to do with the other ... (unlike the First Example above). In the First Example, we have two different men working together on one film. That is, the film had great Direction ---- and it just happened to have two directors instead of one.

Second Question of Semantics: In 1968, was there one Best Actress Award and it was shared by two people ... that is, a shared award? Or were there two Best Actress Awards awarded that year?

Finally --- is it in any way relevant as to how many physical trophies were presented? That is, would it matter in any way (in trying to answer the above questions of semantics) ... whether there was one physical trophy that Robbins & Wise had to "take home" and "share" (like when a high school football team of 30 kids brings one championship trophy back home to their school gym) ... or whether there were two physical trophies, with Robbins & Wise each receiving his own to take home?

Thanks. (Joseph A. Spadaro (talk) 01:04, 17 January 2008 (UTC))

In the first case, there was a shared award. Note that Best Picture is shared most years, since sole producers are fairly rare. In the second case, there were two awards. Tesseran (talk) 04:00, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Actually, while the physical Oscars for Best Picture are taken home by the producers, the award goes to the movie itself, so it's not shared. As the producer character says in Wag the Dog, "There is no Oscar for Best Producer". On the other hand, the awards for sound and for art direction and set decoration are usually shared. --Anonymous, 05:44 UTC, January 17, 2008.

Thanks for the input. (Joseph A. Spadaro (talk) 00:02, 19 January 2008 (UTC))

What do you call this?[edit]

A government, school or organisation wants to stop a certain activity, but does not make a rule or law against it because they are concerned that people will engage in more harmful activities. For example, a government does not ban some drugs because if they do, illegal drug trafficking will rise. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 01:45, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

Nothing special; there's no word or phrase describing this situation, other than concern for the consequences of the proposed ban. +ILike2BeAnonymous (talk) 02:55, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
A related concept might be government failure, where the government or regulator, for one reason or another, does not implement a policy that should be implemented for the greater good. --PalaceGuard008 (Talk) 03:13, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Perhaps it is a variation on WP:BEANS. Bielle (talk) 03:18, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Turning a blind eye? —Keenan Pepper 03:26, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

Also see the "harm reduction approach." It's not an exact match but has some features in common with what you're talking about. -- Mwalcoff (talk) 03:29, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

Lesser of two evils. —Nricardo (talk) 03:37, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

In traditional Islamic legal theory there is Makruh... AnonMoos (talk) 12:06, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

If the organisation creates a rule/law banning X, that would alert the outside world that they have a problem with X, which might be a very undesirable perception to put out, particularly if it's a school and X is drugs, for example. (It reminds me of the Simpsons episode that featured a restaurant with the sign "We no longer have any problem with rats".) So, better to tackle the issue quietly and covertly without ever letting the parents know their children might be at risk. Also, they can report (sort of) truthfully that the school has no issue with banned drugs because of the very fact that the school has never officially banned any drugs. All in all, it seems like a way of hoping against hope they can solve the problem before certain interested parties ever find out there was a problem, rather than openly and responsibly acknowledging their existence. If there's a single term for this sort of behaviour, it might be something like "underhand deception", "prevarication", or "failure to provide informed consent". -- JackofOz (talk) 00:43, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
The example with drugs would seem to me to be pragmatism or, as Nricardo says, "lesser of two evils". Sam Korn (smoddy) 01:59, 20 January 2008 (UTC)

one word for "the final destination"[edit]

kindly suggest me one word for "the final destination", or one stop solution for all problems, may be something like moksha or nirvana —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 06:11, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

In a teleological mood, you might either say salvation (in Christianity) or extinction (in Buddhism). --Omidinist (talk) 08:30, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

For buses and trains it's the terminus – but it lacks that certain elevation of feeling. Imagine being a bus that wakes up and says, No schedules today. I must be in terminus! Julia Rossi (talk) 08:50, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Metaphorically, Holy Grail might be an eagerly sought solution to all problems. SaundersW (talk) 10:05, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
I also thought of catholicon and magic bullet. But they lack the spiritual emphasis and finality you seem to be asking for. Your wording "final destination, or one stop solution" reminded of when I once copy-edited someone's paper. From a choice of optional solutions to a design problem, the one the author decided to pick was labeled the final solution. I'm not sure whether this word is detachable from its historical coinage in English, but the paper was written in German and actually used the word Endlösung (several times, including in titles). I pointed this out to the (adult) author, and to my surprise, she had no clue what I was referring to and had never heard it used in that context before. ---Sluzzelin talk 16:56, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Why do you say historical coinage? Hitler was by far not the first person to say "final solution" in English; for example, Google Books comes up with "The Original Garden of Eden Discovered and the Final Solution of the Mystery ..." (1910). It also comes up with "The Final Solution: Neither Communism Nor Capitalism--but a New Concept of ..." (1973) and "Atlantis the Final Solution" (2002), along with many other examples, especially in scientific contexts. However, Hitler's usage does dominate the Google Books search, and I'm sure the "Wanted - a final solution of the Japanese problem", from the American Association for International Conciliation, would get a different title if published today instead of in 1910.--Prosfilaes (talk) 00:44, 18 January 2008 (UTC)
I said it because I'm imprecise. I meant "detached from its historical connotation/meaning" or something like that. I don't find it very surprising that the words "final" and "solution" got coupled long before the 1940s, nor would I be shocked to hear that End and Lösung could be found in German word compounds before World War II either. In fact I would have expected it in both cases. But this digresses more than I ever intended. Ignore my silly anecdote. ---Sluzzelin talk 01:03, 18 January 2008 (UTC)
eschaton? —Tamfang (talk) 19:33, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Utopia? Gwinva (talk) 19:35, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Nostrum, the more cynical alternative to panacea. +ILike2BeAnonymous (talk) 01:13, 18 January 2008 (UTC)
Maybe the reason we're having trouble with this question is that there is no answer. There is no answer because there simply is no single "one stop solution for all problems". If there were such a solution for all problems, we could use it to answer this very question. But since there isn't, we can't. That said, I can't help thinking of Delphic oracle. -- JackofOz (talk) 23:28, 19 January 2008 (UTC)
Maybe it's not a problem, more like there are many terms and many answers for one thing that's more or less universally recognised philosophically or poetically and due to the rich repertoire of answers you can just take your pick, again and again. There's some polarity between nihilism and holism and it's fun to explore the range of them. (What bit in Delphic oracle by the way?) Julia Rossi (talk) 00:55, 23 January 2008 (UTC)

Is an independant contractor a "subordinate"?[edit]

I am wondering about these two terms in a literal sense; it seems to me that an independant contractor is an "associate" or "peer", but not a "subordinate" employee can be a subordinate because there is an implied hierarchal relationship which is commonly one of the implicit or explicit terms of employment.

"Contracting", however, is not the same as "employment"; when one enters into a contract with a contractor, one is not in a position of hierarchal authority over that person.

I realize there is no one right answer for this, but I'd like to know what others think.

Thanks. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Quorumangelorum (talkcontribs) 09:42, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

Actually, there is indeed a right answer. Which is "No". One with whom you make a contract is a contractor, not an employee. There is no employment relationship and, thus, no hierarchical authority such as superior or subordinate. That being said ... both parties to the contract can expect / require / force / demand / insist that the other party to the contract live up to the terms and conditions of the contract. That is, that the other party comply with the agreement. (Remember that both parties have this right, not just one party over the other.) So, when one party actually does so (expects / insists / demands / etc.) ... this might seem like or look like a superior bossing around a subordinate. But, it is not the same case. So, let me give you an example to make it clearer. Let's say that the officials of Big Fat-Cat Corporation make a contract with Clara's Cleaning Service. Let's say that the contract calls for the people who work for Clara's to go in at the end of the work day and clean, vacuum, dust, empty the garbage, etc., in the Fat-Cat offices. Let's say that one of the Fat-Cat officials says something to one of the Clara's Cleaning Service workers ... something like this: "I want you to go in and clean and scrub the fifth floor bathroom ... I just went in there, and it's a mess!" The Fat-Cat official is not speaking to the Clara's Cleaning crew as a superior boss, addressing and making demands of a subordinate employee. Rather, the Fat-Cat official is saying (in paraphrase): "The work that you did does not meet the standards that we all agreed to in our contract ... and I am requesting that the work you perform meet with those agreed-upon standards ... or else, I will not pay you and I will claim that you broke the contract." Remember -- as I mentioned -- both parties to the contract have the right to insist upon the other party holding up their end of the contract. So, the Clara's Cleaning Service crewmember might say: "Well, Mister Fat-Cat ... I have a copy of the contract right here and you will see on Page 8, Section 5, Paragraph 3, that the office cleaning does not include bathrooms ... but is limited to offices, desks, and hallways". So, as an answer to your question, both parties to a contract are peers on equal footing. In the legal sense. No one is superior or subordinate over the other. Both parties are expected to comply with the agreement ... and the other party can demand or insist upon that. As the example I just gave you illustrates, both parties were demanding of the other that they uphold their end of the bargain. Mister Fat-Cat's demand was in error, as he mistakenly thought that the contract included bathroom cleaning. Miss Clara's demand was not in error ... she was saying, in effect, "Mister Fat-Cat, I expect you to live up to our agreement ... and our agreement specifically excludes bathroom cleaning ... and I expect you to comply with that section of our agreement (by not expecting or demanding me to clean the bathroom)." Thanks. (Joseph A. Spadaro (talk) 03:32, 19 January 2008 (UTC))
"One with whom you make a contract is a contractor, not an employee." Well, you do make contracts with employees too, and there again both parties are expected to live up to their ends of the contract. —Angr If you've written a quality article... 20:34, 20 January 2008 (UTC)
Mr. Spadaro, thanks for your detailed answer above. I am now utterly confused about the talk page system so I will answer your second answer here, where I believe I ought to have posted my previous resonse anyway; and in future I will make sure I know what I'm doing. (heh.) I really appreciate your extensive explanation and I feel a bit guilty for having given the impression that I was after a precise legal definition. What happened was that I was an independent contractor for a company until recently when my contract was terminated, citing my "insubordination". This company has the right to terminate a contract for any reason, or no reason whatsoever. I just wanted to make sure I had semantic niggling rights to say, "I can't be insubordinate, because I wasn't subordinate in the first place. So there." Thanks again for your help. Quorumangelorum (talk) 22:14, 20 January 2008 (UTC)


Can anyone tell what is the origin and meaning of word ARZHAAN (pronounced as Ar-zh-aaaaaaan) which is often mistaken with arzhan (which is a different word) i think it has a hebrew ,arabic or persian background. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 11:55, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

I recall answering a similar question a while ago - you can read it (and the answers) here - Wikipedia:Reference_desk/Archives/Miscellaneous/2007_July_25#Questions...yet_unanswered. DuncanHill (talk) 11:57, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

I may add that Arzhaan (or Arjaan or Argaan) was an ancient town near Behbahaan in Iran, which was destroyed in the Middle Ages. --Omidinist (talk) 13:24, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

sorting problem[edit]

I've taken the liberty of moving your question to the Computing reference desk, where it is more likely to get a useful reply. --Richardrj talk email 16:15, 17 January 2008 (UTC)


The Secretary of State for Transport, in exercise of the powers conferred on him by section 2(1) ... blah blah blah - does this change to 'her' for a female? If not, Wiktionary's definition of 'him' does not cater to this use. ----Seans Potato Business 16:11, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

You're quoting from a piece of legislation, right? Legislation tends not to be gender neutral. Arguably, when it's drafted, it should say "him or her" in examples like the one above, but at the moment it doesn't. Secretaries of State come and go, but the legislation is fixed, and the wording of it can't be changed every time the SoS changes from a man to a woman or vice versa. --Richardrj talk email 16:19, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Yeah, but since the legislation is talking about a past even, saying what the secretary did in exercise of their power, I wouldn't expect it to change. I might however expect new legislation brought about by a female to contain 'she', unless of course 'him' is a valid way to refer to a woman in such situations (in which case this should probably be reflected on Wiktionary). ----Seans Potato Business 16:25, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
Ah, I see, so you're not talking about an Act of Parliament but some kind of order or something. In that case, yes, it might change to "her" if the SoS is a woman at the time. Wiktionary has a discussion page, maybe you could raise it there. --Richardrj talk email 16:34, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
"Him" includes "her" in legislation, so there would not be any change if the Secretary of State were a female. DuncanHill (talk) 16:36, 17 January 2008 (UTC)
For whicch see Interpretation Act 1850. DuncanHill (talk) 16:37, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

Is this a British or British Empire/Commonwealth legislation? If so, then the Acts Interpretations Act clearly says "every word importing the masculine also includes the feminine and vice versa" (I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it). In other words, any reference to a "he" includes a reference to a "she" as the case may be. --PalaceGuard008 (Talk) 22:08, 17 January 2008 (UTC) Oops - redundant. What DuncanHill said. --PalaceGuard008 (Talk) 01:21, 18 January 2008 (UTC)


What's the difference in writing style of an essay and article? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 17:12, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

The main difference is that an essay is written from the writer's point of view. Have you read our articles on essay and article?--Shantavira|feed me 17:46, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

Gerund or Compound Predicate[edit]

Hello. How are gerunds distinguished from compound predicates? For example, we postponed making any decision. How do I know whether postponed making is a compound predicate or whether making any decision is a gerund? As for a harder example, we are baking cookies. How do I know whether baking cookies is a gerund since baking follows a copula verb or whether are baking is a compound predicate? Thanks in advance. --Mayfare (talk) 22:47, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

A simple parsing of the syntax into SVO, ie subject, verb, object leads to an intuitive understanding:
  • 1 S = we / V = postponed / O-group = making a decision
  • 2 S = we / V = are baking / O = cookies
  • 1 In the first example there is a single verb, "postponed" whilst the object group is the gerund, "making" plus the object "any decision". Making in this construct is a noun, meaning "the making of".
  • 2 In the second example you have two verbs, "are baking" referencing the subject; thus this is a compound predicate.
--Cookatoo.ergo.ZooM (talk) 23:55, 17 January 2008 (UTC)