Excuse the Intrusion

Damned if sometimes things don’t just look funny.

The other day I ran across an “a vs. an” issue that I can’t recall having even thought about before. As we know, when choosing whether to use a or an, we decide based on whether the word the article precedes begins with a vowel or a consonant sound. Thus, while we would say “a union,” we would alternatively say “an unfair practice.”

What momentarily threw me was a sentence that used the word great and then, to let the reader know that the author was self-consciously repeating the word, used a construction similar to what follows.

The Great Gatsby spends a, uh, great deal of time . . .”

The actual word choice wasn’t that poor, but you get the idea. The point of interest here is that, as a copy editor, I’m so attuned to matching a or an with the correct sound that seeing a before uh set off the ol’ alarm bells. As if acting on reflex, a part of me wanted very badly to change that a to an.

Then I came to my senses.

In the sentence, uh is an interrupting element. The author intended to say “a great”—no problem there—and uh, as an interrupting element, can simply be ignored as though it were surrounded by em dashes or parentheses.

Interrupting elements are also famous for wreaking havoc with subject-verb agreement, but that is a discussion for another day.

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