Episode 273: April 28, 2011
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Do you want to get ahead (one word) or are you cooking an esoteric dish and want to get a head (two words)? That one little space can make a big difference in meaning: Either you are moving past others in business or you are purchasing a skull.
When visiting South Korea years ago, this guest-writer saw a pile of pig heads for sale at the market! That was a most interesting experience. Stay tuned to the end for a most interesting tip on how to remember when to use the space bar.
When it comes to pairs such as “apart” with no space and “a part” with a space, the spelling doesn’t matter when you’re talking; both sound the same. When you write the words, however, you might forget to add a space, or you might add an unnecessary one. This problem crops up with all kinds of words, but in this episode we’re focusing on words beginning with the letter “a.”
Test whether you can replace the “a” with “two.” If you can, you probably need a space.
Words That Start With "A"
Here’s a short list of pairs like “ahead” and “a head”: “alight” and “a light,” “abuzz” and “a buzz,” “apart” and “a part,” and, lastly, “ahold” and “a hold.” As you can see from this list, the one-worders beginning with “a” can be various parts of speech: “ahead” is an adverb, “alight” is a verb,” and “abuzz” is an adjective. The two-worders, on the other hand, consist of an article—the word “a”—and a noun: “light,” “buzz,” “part,” and “hold.” True, these words can sometimes be verbs, but when something follows the article “a,” it’s a noun (unless something such as an adjective comes between the article and the noun, as in “a delicious cake”).
"Alight" Versus "A Light"
Let’s see these four pairs in action. The first two—“alight”/“a light” and “abuzz”/“a buzz”—are the easy ones. You could say, “That annoying bee wants to alight on my nose.” This means the bee wants to land on your nose, and there’s no space in “alight.” If you say, “He turned on a light”—with a space—that means he was no longer enveloped in darkness.
"Abuzz" Versus "A Buzz"
In keeping with the bee theme, here’s our next example: “I heard a buzz.” A quick test for those listening: Is there a space or not? Well, yes, there is! “A buzz” with a space means “a buzzing noise.” “Abuzz” with no space is an adjective that means alive with activity, as in “The room became abuzz when the grammarian entered.”
"Apart" Versus "A Part"
The other two pairs—“apart”/“a part” and “ahold”/“a hold”—are a little tougher, even for native English speakers. The one-worder “apart” is both an adverb and an adjective. You could say, “He stood apart from the group,” meaning he stood separately. In that sentence, “apart” is an adverb that describes where he stood. “Apart” can also be an adjective, as in “It’s a world apart.” As for the two words “a part,” they mean various things, including a portion of a whole, as in “I am a part of this family,” or a piece of equipment, as in “I need to buy a part so I can fix the dishwasher.”
"Ahold" Versus "A Hold"
The one-worder “ahold” often goes with the verb “get” and the preposition “of,” as in “Get ahold of yourself!” You could also say, “I grabbed ahold of his arm” to mean “I grasped his arm.” Dictionary.com (1) calls the word “ahold” informal, but it’s been around since 1600 or 1610. As for the two words “a hold,” you could say, “He’s got a hold on me” or “I put a hold on that library book.”
Check a Dictionary
So how do you know when to put a space and when to leave one out? The short answer is to check the dictionary multiple times per day—er, I mean, whenever you’re in doubt.
A Quick and Dirty Tip
However, I promised you a quick and dirty tip, so here it is: Let’s say you’ve written a word that starts with “a” but you’re unsure whether to use a space. Change “a something” to “two somethings.” If it makes sense, you need a space. So, if your sentence is “I heard a buzz in my ear,” change it to “I heard two buzzes in my ear.” That makes sense, so you need a space in “a buzz.” How about this—“I took apart the toy”? It wouldn’t make sense to write “I took two parts the toy.” Therefore, no space.
If the “two somethings” tip doesn’t seem to work for your sentence, go straight to your dictionary.
In summary, you may be amazed that one little space can trip you up, but now that you’re aware of the potential problem, you’ll be able to hunt down your mistakes and get ahead—one word, “ahead”—in the world.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & Grammar Girl
This article was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.