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Last Revised 2007-11-27 (27 Nov 2007)
A copy of this is posted at:
The alt.usage.english Website (Who's computer is this?)

* = recently revised

Intro D: Mini-FAQ on Grammar, Usage and Punctuation
Questions on these topics of grammar, usage, and punctuation are asked
extremely frequently in alt.usage.english. There are longer answers,
with more examples, for most of these items in the full AUE FAQ (see end
of article). Many of these topics cause much argument, and we earnestly
request that you do some research before deciding to post on these.


- "A" or "an"
- Acronyms and other abbreviations using initial letters
- Gender-neutral pronouns: "he/she" -v- "they"
- "Gotten"
- Group nouns: singular or plural? "company is" -v- "company are"
- "If I was" -v- "If I were"
- "It's me" -v- "It is I"
* - Names for &, @, and #
- Quotation marks
- Where to put apostrophes in possessive forms
- Why do we say "30 years old" but "a 30-year-old man"?
- Where to find the big AUE FAQ

"A" or "an"

"A" is used before words beginning with consonants; "an", before
words beginning with vowels. This is determined by sound, not
spelling ("a history", "an hour", "a unit", "a European", "a one").
Formerly, "an" was usual before unaccented syllables beginning with
"h" ("an historian", "an hotel"); these are "now obsolescent" in
British English (Collins English Dictionary), although "an
historian" is retained in more dialects than "an hotel".

Before abbreviations, the choice of "a"/"an" depends on how the
abbreviation is pronounced:
"a NATO spokesman" (because "NATO" is pronounced /'neItoU/ or
"an NBC spokesman" (because "NBC" is pronounced /Enbi:'si:/ or
"a NY spokesman" (because "NY" is read as "New York").

Is it a FAQ or an FAQ? If you say "fack," use "a". If you say
"eff-ay-cue," use "an". Such recent terms do not have a single, standard
pronunciation. For a report on how people say FAQ, URL, and so on, see (Who's computer is this?)

Acronyms and other abbreviations using initial letters

"NATO", "PTA", "BBC" and "radar" are all abbreviations of phrases, made
up of the opening letters of their component words:

"NATO" North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
"PTA" Parent-Teacher Association
"BBC" British Broadcasting Corporation
"radar" RAdio Detection And Ranging

Of these, "NATO" and "radar" are also acronyms, because they can be
pronounced as single words. Abbreviations like "PTA" are not strictly
acronyms, but have been variously designated "alphabetisms" and
"initialisms", although some people do call them acronyms.

See also the previous section, "'A' or 'an'".

Gender-neutral pronouns: "he/she" -v- "they"

Often it is necessary to use a third person singular pronoun when the
sex of the person referred to is unknown. This can be done in one of
several ways, each of which has its critics.

"Each manager must brief his or her staff."
(Correct but cumbersome if it occurs frequently.)

"Each manager must brief his/her staff."
(Shorter but less elegant.)

"Each manager must brief his staff."
(Many people do not accept that masculine includes feminine.)

"Each manager must brief their staff."
(This jars with many people.)

"Singular they" is the name generally given to the use of "they",
"them", "their", or "theirs" with a singular antecedent, as in the
sentence above. Any verb agreeing with a singular "they" is plural:

"Someone killed him, and they are going to pay for it."

Singular "they" has been used in English since the time of Chaucer, but
it still has not been established as the standard. For evidence of its
use in English literature by famous writers, see Henry Churchyard's
site: (Who's computer is this?)

Sometimes, people recommend inventing a totally new word to serve as a
gender-neutral pronoun. These are discussed in our full FAQ: (Who's computer is this?)


Some people ask whether "gotten" is really a word. Yes, in US English,
"gotten" is the past participle of "to get," just as "forgotten" is the
past participle of "to forget." It is absolutely standard in the US,
used in all walks of life; it is not any sort of substandard use
(foreign learners of English are sometimes puzzled by this). It is an
old word that can be found in the King James Version of the Bible

In most of England, "gotten" survives only in the phrase "ill-gotten
gains, and old citations in the OED suggests that it was more used in
southern England as an adjective ("gotten goods") than as a verb.
However, "gotten" as a verb showed up in dialects in the North of
England into the early 20th century, and in Scottish English to the
present day. These groups, both represented among early American
immigrants, might be the source of the US use.

Americans use both "got" and "gotten" depending on
circumstances; there is more about these words at (Who's computer is this?)

Group nouns: singular or plural? "company is" -v- "company are"

Use of a plural verb after a singular noun denoting a group of persons
(known as a noun of multitude) is commoner in the U.K. than in the U.S.

American usage is normally to treat such nouns as singular, unless there
are other influences involved:

"The team plays well."
"The Giants play well."

In the U.K. the context often indicates whether the group or the
individuals within it are being referred to:

"My family is on holiday."
"My family are arguing."

The U.K. assumption is that the group went away on vacation, but that
the individuals are having a heated debate. Where there is no obvious
clue from the context, U.K. English speakers may use either singular or
plural constructions. You may find this discussed in style guides under
"notional agreement."

"If I was" -v- "If I were"

The following pair of sentences shows the traditional and useful

"If I was a bully, I apologize."
"If I were a bully, I would never apologize."

The difference lies in whether or not the speaker believes that the "if"
clause is true.

"If I was a bully, I apologize."

"I think I did something I should not have. I apologize"


"If I were a bully, I would never apologize."

"I don't think I am a bully. A bully would never apologize"

The use of "were", rather than "was", is an example of the use of the

"It's me" -v- "It is I"

In colloquial speech, either of these is acceptable, and most people
would prefer "It's me". In writing (other than quoted speech) and in
extremely formal spoken English "It is I" is technically correct
according to traditional grammar.

Names for &, @, and #

The discussion here is deliberately kept brief. For a longer discussion
of formal and informal names, see recommended articles and the "ASCII"
entry in the Jargon File: (Who's computer is this?)

& is called "ampersand."

@ is called "commercial at sign," "at sign," or "commercial at." Yes,
we know it has charming names in other languages. For more on its
history: (Who's computer is this?)

# is called "number sign" or "pound sign" in the US. "Pound" refers here
to weight; "5# bag" means "5-pound bag." This term causes confusion with
the British "pound sign," the crossed-L for UK currency. In the UK, # is
often called "hash" (related to hatch marks and cross-hatch). The name
"octothorpe" was coined in the 1960s by Bell Labs when that key was
included with touch tone phones.

The musical sharp sign differs slightly in shape. Usually:

Sharp sign -- vertical uprights: || and slanted cross lines: //
Hash/pound sign -- slanted uprights: // and horizontal cross lines: ==.
(Depends somewhat on font)

Some British participants report that they occasionally hear "square" for the # symbol on phone keypads. The origin for this term is probably that on some phones in the UK and Europe, the lines of the symbol are at right angles and the corner ends are tiny. A picture is at (Who's computer is this?)

An article about names for the # symbol is found at: (Who's computer is this?)

Accents and other diacritical marks are discussed on Larry Trask's page: (Who's computer is this?)

quotation marks

We frequently receive questions about quotation marks, such as:

-- Do commas and periods (full stops) go inside or outside
of quotation marks?
-- What about other ending punctuation, like semicolons and
question marks?
-- When do I use single quotation marks and when double?
-- What is meant by the "logical" sytem and is it better?

There are major differences in US and UK practice on these matters. If
you want to know what the usual rules are, please consult style guides,
such as these:

Style guide -- see "5.1.1 Punctuation with Quotation Marks" (Who's computer is this?)
Guide to Grammar and Writing, by Dr. Charles Darling (Who's computer is this?)

The Guardian Unlimited Style Guide,5817,184823,00.html (Who's computer is this?)

There are more discussions in other style guides listed in Intro B,
under "Writing and Grammar Guides On Line," located at: (Who's computer is this?)

Where to put apostrophes in possessive forms


The ONLY personal possessive pronoun with an apostrophe is "one's".
"Its" means "of it", whereas "it's" is short for "it is".


1. The standard rule: Use 's for the singular possessive, and a bare
apostrophe after the plural suffix -s or -es for the plural possessive:

Singular Plural
Nominative dog dogs
Possessive dog's dogs'

2. Nouns ending with the sound [s] or [z]: The plural suffix is -es
rather than -s (unless there's already an "e" at the end, as in the
"-ce" words), but otherwise the rule is the same as above:

Singular Plural
Nominative class classes
Possessive class's classes'

3. Plurals not ending in s: Use 's for the possessive plural (men's,
people's, sheep's).

4. Some classical names ending in s, such as Jesus and Moses, take a
bare apostrophe.

Using an apostrophe in a plural which is not a possessive form is almost
never recommended except where visual confusion would otherwise result,
as for example in the sentence "Mind your p's and q's". In forms like
"the 1980s" or "two CPUs", apostrophes are not recommended today, though
they were a few decades ago.

Why do we say "30 years old" but "a 30-year-old man"?

This pattern goes all the way back to Old English (alias Anglo-Saxon).
It's the same reason many of us say that someone is "5 foot 2" rather
than "5 feet 2".

The source of the idiom is the old genitive plural, which did not end in
-s, and did not contain a high front vowel to trigger umlaut ("foot" -v-
"feet"). When the ending was lost because of regular phonetic
developments, the pattern remained the same, and it now seemed that the
singular rather than the plural was in use.

Where to find the big AUE FAQ
Our FAQ is available at (Who's computer is this?)

This series of seven "Intro Documents" is intended to aid newcomers to
the newsgroup. The articles are posted frequently here, and are also on
the Web for your convenience, at: (Who's computer is this?)

Much of this document is taken from the AUE FAQ (edited by Mark Israel)
and the rest was written by Albert Marshall and others. Suggestions for
improvements in clarity, fairness, accuracy, and brevity should be
emailed to me. -- Donna Richoux

Where you can get the newsgroup alt.usage.english