"I am a shit" vs. "I am the shit": Why indefinite articles matter.

colored pencilsI am a shit.
I am the shit.
Indefinite articles matter.
As editors, we know that what we say and how we say it makes all the difference in how our words are understood. We are aware that a small thing can be a big game-changer. A pair of tiny commas can mean the difference between a panda having a tasty meal and a panda fleeing a crime scene. (If I lost you, read Eats, Shoots & Leaves.)
Choosing the right indefinite article before a word can change meaning. Choosing the correct indefinite article before an acronym can mean the difference between providing seamless readability for your reader and setting up a stumbling block. Which one, it seems, depends on your audience and the way your reader is geared for reading the particular abbreviation.
Abbreviations have been around since the early days of typesetting. Publishers figured out rather quickly that it costs more to print big words and that shortening often-used phrases saves time and money. This realization gave us such everyday terms as OK and PDQ as long ago as the early 1800s. From childhood, we have learned to pronounce these particular abbreviations one letter at a time. These are called “initialisms.”
Abbreviations are so prolific in our language that we can’t always spot them. Some abbreviations have been so ingrained in our common language that they have formed new words. We may not even recognize that certain terms were originally abbreviations, such as radar, laser, and, my favorite, scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).
And some true acronyms, which are abbreviations that are pronounced as coined words, like HIPAA and NATO and NASA, show up a lot in our daily work. It just sounds wrong to say “en ay ess ay” for NASA. We just say “Nah-suh.” Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell an initialism from an acronym. For example, how do you say SME?
If you cut your teeth on copy meant for the technology sector, you probably say “smee” instead of “ess em ee.” And you’d be right, but you could also be wrong if you’re editing copy for a different sector. And how you pronounce it in your head determines which indefinite article you choose to introduce it. If you say it like “ess em ee,” you’d write “an SME.” If you pronounce it like “smee,” you’d write <visible shudder> “a SME.” The indefinite article matters.
At Dragonfly, we prefer one letter at a time for SME, in the hopes of appealing to the widest audience of readers. And owing to the “ess” sound at the beginning, it takes “an” instead of “a.”
I hope you found this explanation to be the shit. If you found it to be the other, let me know why at editing@dragonflyeditorial.com.
This post was written by Magi Walker, the Editorial Manager at Dragonfly Editorial.

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