Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, I thought I’d share this delightful bit of language use. Today, I noticed that in one of the bathrooms on campus, somebody had scrawled “(Expletive) this whole joke of a university”. A charming sentiment, to be sure, but the real beauty came when somebody else, with a different writing instrument scrawled a bold and emphasized “N” after the “a”, making it “…joke of aN university”, along with a variety of remarks disparaging the original writer. So, it sounds like somebody else wants to prove the writer of the above to be stupid or inarticulate by emphasizing grammar/spelling mistakes. This would be a bit petty but acceptable, if it weren’t for the fact that the original was, in fact, correct, as the corrector would have realized had he tried to pronounce his correction.

Generally, the “a”->”an” shift occurs when the article “a” bumps up against another vowel, in situations like “an enemy”, “an ooze”, or “an alien”. However, what the corrector failed to realize is that this rule is invoked by spoken vowels, but not always by written ones. So, in the case of “University” or “Uvula”, there’s actually a glide before the “oo” sound, which constitutes enough of a consonant to allow “a university”. Any attempts by a native English speaker to pronounce “an university” or “an youth” requires the use of a palatal “n” (like the spanish “mañana”), a sound that we don’t produce naturally and easily.

This phenomenon is called “overcorrection”, and starts to get into sociolinguistics. It generally occurs when people are self-conscious about their grammar and want to make sure they’re speaking “correctly”, but instead, they overapply the rules, resulting in constructions like “and whom is your lovely companion?” at the office christmas party.

This is a sad relic of perscriptivism (the idea that there is one correct way to speak a language) which spills over into everyday life, which could be quickly cured by a dose of descriptivism, the linguist’s ideal that people speak how they speak, it should be described, not changed or criticized.

So, although I disagree with the speaker’s sentiment, his spelling and grammar were largely acceptable. For everybody else, remember, every time you overcorrect on petty grammar points, a sentence-final preposition loses its wings. Please, think of the prepositions.


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