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A or AN?

An English enquirer asks:


Please could you let me know whether it is grammatically correct to say:
"an hotel" or "a hotel"

I was taught to say "an" (many years ago!).



The New Oxford Dictionary of English explains that there is still a difference of opinion about the form of the indefinite article before words beginning with h with an unstressed first syllable. An was apparently common in the 18th and 19th centuries before words like hotel and historical, because the initial h was not pronounced. Today the initial h is usually pronounced, and so a is used. But there are still those, particularly among the older generation, who keep the h silent and so use an.







CONDITIONAL sentences – see WILL with IF



IF with WILL – see WILL with IF




I have recently been discussing with an Austrian friend the pronunciation of –ng in words such as longer and  singer. Should the –ng be followed by a ‘hard’ g, as in longer (long-ger) or not, as in singer (sing-er)? I am ashamed to say that I had never thought about this problem before, and suggested that one has to know the usage of each word separately. I have thought about the problem since, and now realize that there are some good simple principles for deciding whether or not a ‘hard’ g is pronounced after the –ng, although there are some exceptions.


(1) Where -ng (ŋ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) occurs in the middle of a word, a ‘hard’ g (ɡ)is normally pronounced before the following syllable, including in words that are comparative adjectives. e.g:

hungry [hung-gry], hunger [hung-ger], Hungary [Hung-gary], finger [fing-ger], singular [sing-gular], single [sing-gle] languorous [lang-guorous], longer [long-ger], stronger [strong-ger]


(2) However, where the –ng is followed by er or ing, and the er  means a human, animal or thing that performs the action indicated by the element (most often but not always a verb) before it, and ing means performing the action indicated by the element before it, there is no ‘hard’ g following the –ng:

singer [sing-er], (bell-)ringer [ring-er], winger [wing-er, a footballer who plays on the wing], (clothes)hanger [hang-er], *

singing [sing-ing], ringing [ring-ing], longing [long-ing]


(3) Furthermore, there is no ‘hard’ g pronounced after the –ng in compound words where the element following the –ng is a separate word with a meaning of its own, e.g:

along in singalong [sing-along], over in hangover [hang-over]


There are a few irregularities, such as hangar, banger and clanger, which ‘should’ all, according to principle (1) explained above, be pronounced with a ‘hard’ g. But in fact they are not, although it is hard to think of banger (meaning a sausage) being a thing performing an action in the sense of principle (2), and the same perhaps goes for clanger (in its sense of an embarrassing mistake or blunder).


Finally, there are words in which the –ng is followed by a mute (unpronounced) e, such as range, Stonehenge, hinge, impinge,  plunge. In these the –ng is not pronounced as a single sound ŋ, but as two separate sounds, n ʤ.


I find it interesting that the pronunciation varies between er meaning the comparative and er meaning someone or something that does something. It is yet another example of how meaning is almost always the predominant factor in determining usage.


* Words ending in –monger (e.g. fishmonger, ironmonger) are interesting. One might think that they should be pronounced without the ‘hard’ g, since fishmongers etc. are people who do things, but in fact a ‘hard’ g is pronounced before the er. This is presumably because in modern English there is no such verb as to mong.



A reader asks about the basic rules of word order for adverbs and adverbial clauses in written English. In fact, one cannot really speak of rules in this connection. There are only certain conventions of common usage. See The Position of Adverbs and Adverbial Clauses in English




A French student asks about the use of used to.


Used to has long been a difficulty for learners of English.


Let us first get the transitive verb use out of the way, so that we don't confuse it with used to.

Use (past tense and past participle used) is pronounced with a voiced s, and has nothing to do with used to.

When you use this machine, always use protective glasses.

I used a finger nail to scratch a little piece of paint off.



On the other hand the s in used to is always voiceless.


In the following two sentences the two used to's are completely different.

1 I was used to living alone, so I didn't really mind the lonely life in the Arctic.

2 I used to live alone, but I don't now - my brother has joined me.


In 1,

used to has the sense of familiar with.

This is the pattern:


was................Verb TO BE or TO GET - in any tense



living..............NOUN - Because to is a preposition, and must therefore govern a noun or pronoun, any verb that follows it must be in the noun form, i.e. the -ing form


In 2,

l used to live is a sort of emphatic Past Simple, contrasted with the present. Used to is often said to be habit in the past. It does have something of the meaning of past habit, but just to say it means past habit is rather misleading, as the following examples show:

I used occasionally to visit her in hospital. This is hardly a habit, while

There used to be a church here, but they must have pulled it down. is definitely not habit! The pattern of this sort of used to is as follows:


used...............VERB - ONLY the PAST tense exists

to.....................INFINITIVE PARTICLE



Here are some more examples illustrating these points:


Type 1.

He's used to getting his own way, so it's not surprising he was furious when we opposed his plan. He's not used to having his authority questioned.

She was used to people asking questions during her lectures - in fact she positively encouraged it.

He'll get used to getting up early. He's very adaptable.

He'll be used to getting up early. After all, he was brought up on a farm.

Notice the difference in meaning of these last two examples. He'll get used has the sense of "He will become used", and the will is a will of future fact. In He'll be used the will is a will of 'assumption', with the same sort of meaning as must in "You must be tired after your long journey." You could express much the same idea by saying "I imagine he is used to getting up early."

I'm not used to this sort of heat, I'm afraid. I'm quite used to the cold, though.


Type 2.

He used to play a lot of tennis, but he's getting a bit old for it now.

There used to be a coal mine here in the seventies, but it was closed down in the Thatcher years. It used to be a thriving community, with a sense of solidarity, but that's all  gone now.



WILL with IF

Hyeon-Woo Cho in Korea writes:


While I was reading Dear Ann Landers, I came across this sentence:

"If you will excuse me, I think I will slip into something more comfortable."

Well, according to grammar books, 'will' is not allowed in if-clauses whatsoever. Then, how is the above sentence possible? As a matter of fact, you native speakers never omit will there, right? I couldn't find any sentence without will in the above context while the auxiliary is normally banned in if-clauses. Can anybody comment on this?"



'Modal' will and would



In the particular sentence quoted above the first will is not a future tense will. We might call it a 'modal' will, because it expresses the idea of 'willingness'. The first clause has the sense of "If you are willing to excuse me..." This 'modal' use of will in if clauses is quite common. (Throughout this explanation I use the phrase "if clause" to represent all Conditional clauses.)

If you'll [you will] just hold the door open for me a moment, I can take this table out to the kitchen.

Would is used in the same way, and many people would consider it rather more polite than will.

If you would just pass me that plate...(In such a request the sentence is often left unfinished.)

If and would are also often used together in conversation such as:

"Shall I turn this light off?" "Yes, if you would."


Obstinate persistence

Modal will  does not only express the willingness idea. It may also, for instance, express obstinate persistence.

If you will keep all the windows shut, of course you'll get headaches. (With this sense will  is stressed, and cannot be contracted to 'll.)



if is also often used with would (but not will) as a polite way of expressing the idea of "if you wish to". With this sense it is usually used with verbs such as like, prefer, or care.

If you would like to come with me, I'll show you.

If you would care to have a copy of your own, I'll send you one.



Future will and Conditional would with if


But the use of will in if clauses also raises a more fundamental issue. It is an interesting example of a mistake that grammarians often make. They confuse something that is common in life with the rules of language. In real life, actions that are dependent  on conditions usually come after the condition. For example:

If it rains we'll have to cancel the match.

Here, cancelling the match will come AFTER the rain starts, and this is the usual time relationship between if actions and the actions dependent on them.  First it rains; then we cancel the match.

If it rains we must take umbrellas.

The picture this sentence produces in the mind's eye is, again, of us waiting (at home or wherever we are) to see whether it rains at the time we want to go out. If it rains, but not before, we take umbrellas. First it rains, then we take umbrellas.

Exactly the same principle applies to unfulfilled conditions.

If we had known it was going to rain, we would have taken umbrellas.

Once again, the time of the main verb, taking umbrellas, comes AFTER the time of the if verb, the knowing. But let us imagine the situation we were in when we made the mistake of not taking umbrellas. What might we have said if our information had been better? One of us might have said:

The weather forecast says it's going to rain.

And somebody else might then say:

Well, if it's going to rain, we must take umbrellas.

Here the times of the two actions have been turned the other way round. The main action (taking umbrellas) must be NOW, BEFORE the if action on which taking umbrellas depends, the raining. But we could also express this sentence by using will instead of going to:

Well, if it will rain, we must take umbrellas.

If aspirins will cure it, I'll [I will] take a couple tonight instead of this horrible medicine.

It works the same way with would.

If it would make Bill happy, I'd [I would] give him the money.

What I am saying here is that I would give Bill the money FIRST, IF AFTERWARDS Bill would become happy because of it.

So we arrive at a very simple principle:


If the if action is BEFORE the main action, will and would are NOT used in the if clause.  This – main action after the condition action - is the normal situation in life. Many languages, though, use a Future or Conditional verb in the Conditional ('if') clause in this situation, which is why speakers of those languages need to be particularly careful not to use will or would in the Conditional clause in such sentences, which are the great majority.


But if the if action is AFTER the main action, will  or would (or an equivalent expression indicating the Future) IS used in the if clause.


Because this second sort of situation is not common in real life, most grammarians have not thought of it when making up their rules for conditional sentences. This is a pity, because it tends to give the impression that languages are governed by arbitrary rules without any logical consistency. In fact this not so. In all languages certain conventions of meaning have been established. To express ourselves clearly and accurately we have to use those conventional meanings logically in a way that says what we mean. So if we want to express an "If...will" situation, we have to say "If...will....."!






WOULD with IF – see WILL with IF


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