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May 2nd, 2007

A or an historical? / co-conspirator / splatter and spatter

by Barbara Wallraff

Donna Gigliotti, of Glenville, N.Y., writes: “A colleague and I are in a quandary. Does the word ‘historical’ have an ‘a’ or an ‘an’ in front of it? When we read it, it seems as though there should be an ‘a,’ but when we say it aloud, we feel it could go either way. What are your thoughts?”

Dear Donna: The question turns on whether the “h” is pronounced when the word isn’t preceded by either “a” or “an.” If you read the phrase “historical novels” aloud, I’ll bet you’ll “aspirate,” or sound, that initial “h.” So keep pronouncing the word the same way in “a historical novel.” You need “an” only for words that start with a silent “h,” like “honest” and “hour.” “Historical” confuses people because, historically, not everyone did pronounce its “h.” But sounding the “h” is now standard, so “a historical” is the way to go.

Jose A. Garcia, of Redding, Calif., writes: “Please explain the need for the term ‘co-conspirator.’ One is either a ‘conspirator’ or not.”

Dear Jose: Thirty-some years ago, the word “co-conspirator” had a moment of celebrity when news got out that a grand jury had named President Richard Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in crimes that led to the Watergate scandal. The president’s former aides, most of whom ultimately were found guilty, were charged as “conspirators,” and Nixon, at one remove, was alleged to be a “co-conspirator.” The word is useful in contexts like that one.

Bryan A. Garner, who is a lawyer as well as an authority on usage, explains a bit more in his book “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” He writes: “The term ‘co-conspirator’ (unlike ‘copartner’) is not always redundant. When speaking or writing of conspirator A and referring to conspirator B, it is far easier to use ‘co-conspirator’ than, say, ‘fellow conspirator.’”

Sharon Hutzman, of Westland, Mich., writes: “Please clarify the difference between ‘splatter’ and ‘spatter.’ Isn’t ‘spatter’ popping and crackling, and ‘splatter’ more like an explosion? I see ‘splatter’ erroneously used in ads on TV and in publications of all sorts. Even the gadget used for cooking is labeled ‘splatter screen.’ This irks me, because the two words have totally different meanings!”

Dear Sharon: I almost agree with you, but, unfortunately, dictionaries don’t agree with us. They say that “splatter” can mean “spatter,” and that “spatter” means “to spot, splash, or soil.” However, “splatter” can be used in ways that “spatter” can’t. Whole torrents of water can “splatter” on rocks, for instance, whereas rain that “spatters” is light, not torrential. News that’s “splattered all over the papers” is impossible to miss -- it’s everywhere. But news is never “spattered all over” anything, and a person who was “spattered all over with mud” would be spotted rather than coated.

Because “splatter” has that meaning, and because “spatter” is the older word with the other meaning, I like to distinguish between the two. And I’m glad to have you for company. But I’m afraid it wouldn’t be fair for us to object when other people use “splatter” where we’d use “spatter.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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