Grammar Lessons from NYTimes Columnist

Football player emerging from the shadowsNew York Times columnist Gail Collins provided me with fodder for another couple of short grammar lessons: If it was vs. if it were and articles a vs. an. She wrote about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie having attended the Jan. 4, 2014, Dallas Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions football game and his leap to embrace Cowboys owner Jerry Jones when his team won.

She thought it was a bit tacky that Christie showed so much enthusiasm for a team based in and playing in a city 1,500 miles from New Jersey. She also hinted at why that might be so, which of course involves politics.

The politics of the issue is of no concern to me, but the grammar lessons are.

Lesson 1: Collins, in my humble ruthless editor opinion, used the past tense of a verb in error:

Maybe you could give him a pass, if it was not for the fact that this incident involves a football team owner.

Remember the wonderful Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof? Teyve, the leading character, laments his lowly position as a milkman while considering how wealth could change his life. Such musings gave rise to the popular song “If I Were a Rich Man.”

Note that he doesn’t sing, “If I was a rich man.” He would have liked being a rich man, but he wasn’t. He sings, “If I were a rich man.”

Collins said she would have considered giving Gov. Christie a pass for gushing about the Cowboys winning the game if it was not for the Cowboys’ owner’s presence. The conditional / subjunctive verb “if it were not for the fact” would have been a better choice. Optional constructions:

  • Maybe you could give him a pass, were it not for the fact that this incident involves a football team owner.
  • Were a football team owner not involved in the incident, maybe you could give Gov. Christie a pass.

Lesson 2: We generally use the article a before a word that begins with a consonant (consonants are all letters except vowels a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y). Vowels require the article an:

  • a with consonants: a bird, a doughnut, a number, a poppy, a zebra
  • an with vowels: an apple, an elephant, an inch, an orange, an umbrella

When you use an article with a number, the pronunciation of the number determines whether to use a or an:

Then we will move on to the fact that the Dallas Cowboys are part owner of a company that recently won a $875 million contract from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey …

It should be: “… a company that recently won an $875 million contract …” When you pronounce the number 8, it starts with the vowel sound of a, so the appropriate article is an eight, not a eight.

I enjoy the work of many Times’ columnists, and it’s rare to find anything grammatically amiss among them. If fact, it’s so rare that I had to think hard about whether to write about these two issues. My ruthless editor self won.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)