Two Words: A & Apart

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The word “a” has several notable features.

It’s classified grammatically as an indefinite article. This means it refers to something of which there can be more than one.

A & Apart

For example, we’d speak of “a” tall building because there are lots of tall buildings. But we’d say Burj Khalifa (in Dubai) is currently “the” world’s tallest building. Here we use the definite article (“the”) since there can be only one tallest.

(Incidentally, I didn’t know which was the world’s tallest building until after pausing to look it up. I stopped following the skyscraper Olympics after the Sears Tower beat out the Empire State Building, many years ago.)

It strikes me as quirky that the word “a” is “an” indefinite article, since in English there are two such articles — “a” and “an”. But we have only one definite article — “the” — so for us “the” is “the” definite article.

“A” also is a prefix meaning “not”. That is, if you’re apolitical, you are not political. If you’re atypical, you are not typical.

One interesting wrinkle is the word “apart”. To be “apart” is to be not part of something. Simple enough.

But lately I’ve been seeing people write “apart” to mean that something or someone is a part of something else: “We’re all apart of one big human family!”

This sets my teeth on edge. (The word usage, I mean, not the sentiment about human oneness which I heartily applaud.) In such a case, “apart” is being used to express the exact opposite of what it actually means!

I’ve written before about eggcorns and auto-antonyms. This odd usage of “apart” seems to be both.

I’m tempted to say it’s “wrong”. But nowadays the dictionaries, being mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive, probably will vote me down. (To be honest, I haven’t checked.)

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


Two Words: A & Apart — 6 Comments

    • Thanks so much, France. My weekend is already starting great; here’s hoping the same for you.

      About comments — yes, I always see yours, and usually respond. One tip: Whenever you post a comment on any WordPress site, including mine, be sure always to check the little box that says “Notify me of new comments by email”. It’s at the lower left on the same line as the “Post Comment” button:
      Comments email checkbox

  1. i’M WITH YOU. Someone’s got to stand for correct usage. I pity all the ESL students around the world who are being taught traditional English usages and then find American English allowing all kinds of poor usage–lack of knowledge, actually.

    • While we agree completely, Loree, it’s my fear there’s simply no recourse. Dictionaries and grammar lexicons mostly adopt a “descriptive” approach: They don’t prescribe what anyone “should” say or write (whatever that even might mean). They just describe how people in general actually do speak and write. If enough people repeat a particular usage (particularly if it’s appearing in scholarly journals, mainstream media, and bestselling books), then the authorities tag it as “acceptable”.

      That’s probably exactly how they should operate — and it’s probably the only practical way they can. However, it’s one thing to recognize this reality (as I grudgingly do). It’s quite another to be okay with ridiculous and nonsensical usages like this “apart” business. Here’s hoping that doesn’t make it into Oxford and Merriam-Webster. But don’t be surprised if it does!

      Language evolves, and usage changes. It seems to me that nearly all new usages start out as mistakes that gall careful writers and speakers. This always has been true. But it also seems to me that that process moves much more speedily today, thanks to social media, drive-by texting, talk radio, rushed media dealines, and so much more. I can’t see it getting any better any time soon.

  2. There’s also ‘a while’ and ‘ awhile.’ Probably the vast number of folks studying English around the world and therefore the large number of folks teaching English who perhaps are not all “careful writers and speakers’ and I might add readers. So much of language is traditional usage. Guess it all calls for a spirit of detachment and yet there’s the standard of eloquence…’

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