When to use “a” and when to use “an”

We say “an old man” but “a young child”. What is the rule for using “a” and “an”?

The rule is that we use “a” before a consonant sound and “an” before a vowel sound. Note that it’s the sound that matters, not the letter the word begins with.

Examples:

a desk an old desk
a new office an office
a task an impossible task
a year an ear
a holiday an hour
a university an uncle

Words that begin with “h” or “u” can sometimes be confusing, but you should stick to the above rule.

We say “an hour” because we pronounce “hour” without the h-sound. Similarly we say “an honourable person” because “honourable” is pronounced “onrable”.

In British English the word “herb” is pronounced with the h-sound – so we say “a herb”, but Americans tend to pronounce it as “erb”, so they write “an herb”.

One area of debate is how to use the word “historic”. Do we say “an historic achievement” or “a historic achievement”? On Google “an historic achievement” gets over 94,000 results, while “a historic achievement” gets just over 80,000 results – so, on that measure it seems “an historic…” wins – even though we usually pronounce the h-sound.

We use “a” with words like “university”, “utopia” and “unicorn” because, although they start with a vowel, they are pronounced with a consonant sound – “yooniversity”, “yootopia”, “yoonicorn”.

But words like “uncle” and “onion” start with a vowel sound, so we say “an uncle”, “an onion”.

But the word “one” is pronounced “wun”. So it takes “a”. For example, “a one-track mind”.

Abbreviations and acronyms also take “a” or “an” depending on their pronunciation – so we say “a NATO member”, but “an MBA” – where NATO is pronounced “nayto” and MBA is pronounced “em-bee-ay”.

 

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How to translate “nie później niż w ciągu”

I often see the literal translation of this phrase – not later than within. This is always wrong.

Here’s an example:

POLISH
Płatności należy dokonać nie później niż w ciągu pięciu dni od daty otrzymania niniejszego pisma.

WRONG
The payment must be made no later than within five days from the date of receipt of this letter.

RIGHT
1.
The payment must be made no later than five days after the date of receipt of this letter.
2.
The payment must be made within five days of the date of receipt of this letter.

Not / no later than” can only be used to refer to a point in time. So sentence 1 above refers to a day five days after the date of receipt of the letter.

Within” can only be used to refer to a period of time. So sentence 2 refers to the period of five days that starts on the date of receipt of the letter.

You simply cannot say “no later than within” – in English. You cannot mix periods of time with points in time. It is logically incorrect.

And I wonder – is nie później niż w ciągu actually correct in Polish? Isn’t it logically incorrect in Polish too? Why not use the phrase below instead?

Płatności należy dokonać w ciągu pięciu dni od daty otrzymania niniejszego pisma.

Here are some more examples with their correct translations.

Note the patterns “no later than … after” and “within … of”.

Posiedzenie komitetu zostanie zwołane nie później niż w ciągu pierwszego półrocza 2018 roku.
The committee meeting must be held within the first half of 2018.

Zawiadomienia dokonuje się nie później niż w ciągu trzydziestu dni od daty wydania decyzji.
The notification must be made within 30 days of the date of the decision.
The notification must be made no later than 30 days after the date of the decision.

W każdym przypadku, pierwszej odpowiedzi należy udzielić nie później niż w ciągu 15 dni roboczych od otrzymania zapytania.
In any case, the first answer should be provided no later than 15 working days after receipt of the inquiry.
In any case, the first answer should be provided within 15 working days of receipt of the inquiry.

Pierwszy wlew dożylny jest podawany jak najszybciej po zdarzeniu, nie później niż w ciągu 6 godzin.
The first intravenous infusion is given as soon as possible after the incident, and no later than 6 hours after it happened.

Środki na rzecz wycofania z rynku wchodzą w życie bezzwłocznie i są wdrażane jak najszybciej, jednak nie później niż w ciągu dwóch tygodni od stwierdzenia problemu dotyczącego zgodności.
The withdrawal measures come into force without delay and must be implemented as soon as possible, and in any event not later than two weeks after the compliance problem has been identified.

 

 

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How to write dates

There is a difference between how dates are written in British and American English.

In British English dates are usually written in the day-month-year format, for example:

6 October 2017

In American English dates are usually written in the month-day-year format:

October 6, 2017
(note the comma between the day and the year)

In British English we can also use the abbreviated form as follows:

6/10/17
(different punctuation marks may be used: 6.10.17 or 6-10-17)

Caution is required here, however, as Americans usually put the month first:

10/6/17

As you can imagine, this can lead to ambiguity as the above date might be understood as 10 June 2017 instead of 6 October 2017.

In an attempt to avoid ambiguity resulting from the different ways of writing dates around the world, an ISO standard was adopted in 1988. This uses the year-month-day format as follows: 2017-10-6. However, this format is not widely used in Britain or the US.

 

How to say dates

6 October 2017 is said as follows:

the sixth of October twenty-seventeen (note “the” and “of”)

October 6, 2017 is said as follows:

October sixth, twenty-seventeen

23 April 2005 is said as follows:

the twenty-third of April two thousand and five

The year 2000 is said as “two thousand”.

We tend to say “two thousand and…” up to 2009.

2010 may be said as “two thousand and ten” or “twenty-ten”.

From 2011 onwards we tend to say “twenty-eleven”, “twenty-twelve” etc.

Years before 2000 are said as in these examples:

1984 — nineteen eighty-four
1902 — nineteen oh two
1848 — eighteen forty-eight
1492 — fourteen ninety-two
1066 — ten sixty-six

As we use ordinal numbers (first, second, third, fourth, etc.) when we say dates, sometimes we add the endings of ordinal numbers when we write dates, as follows:

6th October 2017

October 6th, 2017

This style used to be more popular, but it seems to be rather out of fashion now. If you do use it, remember to add the correct ending (st, nd, rd or th):

1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, then use th until 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, etc.

 

Abbreviations of months

All the names of the months have short forms except May and June:

Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, Jul, Aug, Sept, Oct, Nov, Dec

Remember we always capitalise months, whether we write them in full or abbreviate them. Some style guides may add a full stop/period after the abbreviation, but it is generally OK not to use one.

 

Abbreviations of days

All the names of days have short forms:

Mon, Tues/Tue, Wed, Thurs/Thu, Fri, Sat, Sun

For Tuesday and Thursday, Tues and Thurs are common, but for the sake of consistency I advocate the three-letter style – bolded above.

Remember we always capitalise days, whether we write them in full or abbreviate them. Some style guides may add a full stop/period after the abbreviation, but it is generally OK not to use one.

 

 

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How to use “since”

“Since” can be an expression of time, and it can mean “because”.

“Since” as a time expression

When used to express time, the word “since” means:
— from a time in the past until the present
— from a time in the past until another time in the past.

1. From a time in the past until the present

Because of its relationship with time “since” must be used with the correct verb tense. Have a look at these examples of a common mistake:

WRONG
He is out of the office since you last phoned.
As you may recall, the Paris office assists us with this project since it started.
Mr Jones is employed by the Company since September 2016.

In these three sentences the writers have made the mistake of using the Present Simple tense (is / assists / is employed) instead of the Present Perfect tense.

RIGHT
He has been out of the office since you last phoned.
As you may recall, the Paris office has assisted us with this project since it started.
Mr Jones has been employed by the Company since September 2016.

Note that these examples follow this pattern:
Present Perfect tense in the main clause and Past tense (or a date in the past) after “since”.

More examples:
No Public Authority or third party has raised any claims or allegations under Clause 4.1 since the Agreement was signed.

Since he joined the firm as a junior associate in 1998, he has become one of the most highly regarded lawyers in his field.

(Since joining… is an alternative structure that may be used in this type of sentence.)

In all sentences of this type you must use the Present Perfect tense in the main clause. However, the rule that you use the Past tense after “since” is flexible. Sometimes we can use the Present Perfect here as well. For example:

The department has been extremely busy since we have had an office in Mumbai.
I’ve been feeling much better since I’ve been taking more exercise.

We use the Past tense after “since” when we refer to a point in time in the past, and we use the Present Perfect after “since” when we refer to a period of time from the past until the present. We could rewrite the above two examples to refer to points in time (and use the Past tense after “since”) as follows:

The department has been extremely busy since we opened an office in Mumbai.
I’ve been feeling much better since I started taking more exercise.

2. From a time in the past until another time in the past

“Since” can also be used to express time from a starting point in the past until an end point in the past. Such sentences may follow this pattern:

Past Perfect tense in the main clause and Past tense after “since”.

We were sorry to lose MaxCo when they ceased operations in Poland in 2016. They had been a client of ours since they entered the country in 2003.

In 2013 I was asked to direct the company’s promotional film. I had not done anything like that since I worked in TV advertising in 1993.

When I arrived I realised that they had been in the meeting since 9 am.

It is also possible to use the pattern Past Perfect tense in the main clause and Past Perfect tense after “since”. For example:

It had been 20 years since I had directed any kind of film.

3. “Ever since”

You can add stress to “since” by adding “ever”.

Our two senior partners have known each other ever since they were at primary school.

He moved to London in 1994 and he has been living there ever since.

4. Do NOT use “since” to express present time, future time or general time

Note that in all the above examples, “since” is used to describe past time. When used to express time, “since” can ONLY be used in this way.

WRONG
Present
We want the office to start operating since now, or by the end of June at the latest.

Future
I’ll be in the bar since 7 o’clock this evening.

General time
The licence-granting procedure should not take longer than 90 days since the submission of the application.

Instead use “from”:

RIGHT
Present
We want the office to start operating from now, or by the end of June at the latest.

Future
I’ll be in the bar from 7 o’clock this evening.

General time
The licence-granting procedure should not take longer than 90 days from the submission of the application.

5. Do NOT use “since” to express duration

WRONG
The Landlord may terminate the Agreement with immediate effect if the Tenant is in arrears with payments since three months.

Although we would usually expect a decision within six weeks of making an application, the Claimant has now been waiting since ten weeks.

Instead use “for”:

RIGHT
The Landlord may terminate the Agreement with immediate effect if the Tenant is in arrears with payments for three months.

Although we would usually expect a decision within six weeks of making an application, the Claimant has now been waiting for ten weeks.

Another common mistake

WRONG
He worked at Microsoft since 2003 to 2006.

RIGHT
He worked at Microsoft from 2003 to 2006.

Do not use “since” with “to”. Use “from” and “to” or “from” and “until”. Another example:

He worked at the company from the moment he qualified until his retirement.

WRONG
According to the statement, no accidents at work or on the way to or from work have occurred since 2006 until now.

RIGHT
According to the statement, no accidents at work or on the way to or from work have occurred since 2006.

Because “since” — and the Present Perfect tense — incorporate “until now” into their meanings, including “until now” in the above sentence is not necessary.

“Since” meaning “because”

We do not recommend the course of action you propose since there is a risk that the employee will refer the matter to court.

This usage of “since” is rather formal, and may be ambiguous in some sentences because “since” is more commonly used to express time. Consider this example:

We have analysed the tax aspects of the transaction since we were instructed to do so.

This could mean “We have analysed the tax aspects because we were instructed to do so” or “We have been analysing the tax aspects from the time we were instructed to do so”.

As a result, I recommend using “because” or “as” instead of “since”.

 

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How to use hyphens and dashes

A hyphen is a short line used in compound words and double-barrelled names. There’s one there in “double-barrelled”, which is a compound word. Hyphens don’t usually have spaces before or after them.

A dash is a long line used as a punctuation symbol. It acts in a similar way to commas or brackets to separate a piece of text — like this. Dashes do usually have spaces before and after them.

Hyphens in compound words

WRONG
The court requested BIG Polska S.A. to deliver the files of the claims — handling proceedings.

RIGHT
The court requested BIG Polska S.A. to deliver the files of the claims-handling proceedings.

WRONG
Her name is Anna Posonby — Smythe

RIGHT
Her name is Anna Posonby-Smythe

In recent decades the hyphen has been going out of fashion. Compound words like “land-owner” or “co-operation”, which always used to require a hyphen, are now commonly written “landowner” and “cooperation”. The idea that “lifesciences”, “knowhow” or “healthcare” are routinely written as one word might still have the power to shock members of the older generation.

However, some compound words will always need hyphens. The example I use above is “claims-handling”. The alternative — “claimshandling” — is unreadable because of how we normally read “sh”. The rule here is that you should use a hyphen when you link two or more words to make a compound modifier. A modifier adds information to another word like an adjective. In the above example the word “proceedings” is modified by “claims-handling”. Here are some other examples:

a business-class ticket
a two-week notice of termination
third-party insurance
a steel-producing plant
a five-year-old boy
a free-of-charge service
a personal-data processor
a light-grey car

Obviously none of these compound modifiers could be written as one word.

The importance of the hyphen is illustrated by the last two examples. While “a light-grey car” only describes the car’s colour, “a light grey car” is a light car (i.e. a small road car as opposed to a larger vehicle), which is grey in colour. Similarly “a personal-data processor” is someone who processes personal data, while “a personal data processor” is a data processor who works only for one particular person.

Hyphens in numbers

When writing numbers like 42, 67 or 99 in words, always use a hyphen:

forty-two
sixty-seven
ninety-nine

Numbers such as 2,456,887 should therefore be written in words as follows:

Two million, four hundred and fifty-six thousand, eight hundred and eighty-seven.

Hyphens and prefixes

Use of hyphens with prefixes is a difficult area. Words like “pre-war”, “re-live”, “non-compete” and “anti-abortion” need them, but words like “prejudge”, “reinsure”, “nonviolent” and “antisocial” do not.

The rule is rather a vague one: if the word looks OK and reads OK without a hyphen, don’t use one. Otherwise put one in.

A good example of where one is necessary is “re-send”. The past tense is “re-sent”. “Resent” means something entirely different. E.g. “I resent your attitude”, i.e. I don’t like/do not accept your attitude.

Dashes

Dashes are mainly used to separate pieces of text called strong interruptions. (Commas are used in the same way to separate weak interruptions.) Here are some examples:

The company has fulfilled all its tax obligations — at least that’s what the CEO says.

We finally completed the transaction yesterday — after six long months of negotiations.

If the strong interruption comes in the middle of the sentence you need a pair of dashes:

The documents — enclosed for your convenience — show that the evidence so far presented is not complete.

Remember to include a space before and after the dash.

How to type them

In Microsoft Word, the hyphen/underscore key (between “0” and “=” on the keyboard) produces a hyphen.

However, it will automatically turn into a dash when you press the space bar after the word that follows it, provided that there is also a space before and after the hyphen.

But you have to write something after the hyphen.

You can also make a dash by using Ctrl “-” (on the number keypad) or Alt + 0150 (also using the number keypad).

PowerPoint or Outlook may behave like Word — depending on the version you’re using. Alternatively you may wish to adopt the American convention of typing two hyphens to denote a dash.

 

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How to translate “ujawnić”

“Ujawnić” seems to have various meanings and can be translated into numerous different words in English. Unfortunately most people regularly choose the wrong word.

Here’s a typical example:

POLISH
W dziale I-Sp księgi wieczystej nr WA4M/00847639/5 ujawnione zostało prawo użytkowania wieczystego o okresie użytkowania do 5 grudnia 2089 roku, a nadto wpisane są uprawnienia wynikające z prawa ujawnionego w dziale III innych ksiąg wieczystych. 

WRONG
In Section I of land and mortgage register no. WA4M/00847639/5 a right of perpetual usufruct has been disclosed for the period until 5 December 2089. Entitlements arising from the right revealed in section III of other land and mortgage registers have also been entered.

“Ujawnić” is commonly used in references to land and mortgage registers (and other public registers) and is usually translated as either “reveal” or “disclose”.

“Reveal” is always incorrect as it means “to make something known that was previously hidden or secret”. So if you were to reveal something in the land and mortgage register you would be uncovering information that was already there. This is not what “ujawnić” means in this context.

“Disclose” can have the same meaning as “reveal”, but is also used in legal contexts to mean “to make public”. A company can be required, for example, to disclose certain financial information. So in some contexts “ujawnić” does mean “disclose”, but not in all contexts.

If you are talking about adding new information to a public register, then use “enter” or “register”.

If you are referring to information that is already in a public register, you can usually also use “enter” or “register”, as well as “list”, “evidence”, “give”, “provide” or simply “is”.

So I would correct the above example as follows:

RIGHT
In Section I of land and mortgage register no. WA4M/00847639/5 a right of perpetual usufruct has been entered for the period until 5 December 2089. Entitlements arising from a right entered in section III of other land and mortgage registers have also been entered.

Using “entered” twice in the second half of the sentence is rather awkward. The example could be entirely rewritten as follows:

EVEN BETTER
Section I of land and mortgage register no. WA4M/00847639/5 evidences a right of perpetual usufruct for the period until 5 December 2089. Entitlements arising from a right entered in section III of other land and mortgage registers are also listed.

Only use “disclose” when you’re talking about adding information to a public register in order to reflect a change of status (e.g. changes in ownership, transfers of title etc.). For example:

If the preliminary sale agreement is concluded with the Seller we recommend registering / disclosing the Company’s claim resulting from the preliminary agreement in the LMRs kept for the Properties. This will be beneficial for the Company, as disclosing such claim in the land and mortgage register will result in the claim’s effectiveness against all parties, including subsequent owners of the property.

More examples:

WRONG
The name of the representative is disclosed in the commercial register of the National Court Register.

RIGHT
The name of the representative is given in the commercial register of the National Court Register.
The name of the representative is provided in the commercial register of the National Court Register.
The name of the representative is in the commercial register of the National Court Register.

WRONG
In Section II of land and mortgage register no. WA4M/00437480/5, the State Treasury is disclosed as the owner of the land, whereas the Company is disclosed as a perpetual usufructuary of the land and the owner of a building constituting separate real property.

RIGHT
In Section II of land and mortgage register no. WA4M/00993564/5, the State Treasury is listed as the owner of the land, whereas the Company is registered as a perpetual usufructuary of the land and the owner of a building constituting separate real property.

 WRONG
All easements must be established within 30 days of signing this agreement and revealed in the relevant land and mortgage registers.

 RIGHT
All easements must be established within 30 days of signing this agreement and disclosed in the relevant land and mortgage registers.

 

 

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The difference between countable and uncountable nouns (unit and mass nouns)

Distinguishing between countable nouns (unit nouns) and uncountable nouns (mass nouns) can be very difficult. This area is the source of many mistakes.

Unit nouns have two forms, singular and plural: e.g. a chair, chairs.

You can say 1 chair, 2 chairs, 3 chairs etc. This is why unit nouns are also called countable nouns.

Mass nouns only have one form: e.g. furniture, clothes.

So you can’t say 1 furniture, 2 furnitures, 3 furnitures etc. This is why mass nouns are also called uncountable nouns.

Mass nouns cannot be used with a/an.

WRONG: a furniture

Mass nouns are fixed as singular or plural.

RIGHT: furniture, clothes

WRONG: furnitures, a clothe

However, it may be possible to use “a piece of / an item of” for singular and “some” for plural.

RIGHT: a piece of furniture, some furniture  /  an item of clothing, some clothes

You can use e.g. the furniture for both singular and plural references.

 

Unit nouns usually refer to one or many separate items or units. E.g. a chair/chairs, an office/offices, a client/clients, etc.

Mass nouns usually refer to:

  • ideas, concepts (e.g. approval, employment)
  • substances (e.g. meat, metal)
  • liquids (e.g. water, beer)
  • powders (e.g. dust, sugar)

Some words may be either a unit noun or a mass noun, e.g. chicken 

  • Unit: My parents keep chickens. (birds)
  • Mass: I don’t usually eat chicken. (meat)

Compare:

  • I found a piece of chicken in my soup.” (mass = a piece of meat)
  • I found a piece of a chicken in my soup.” (unit = a piece of a bird)

 

There are 4 types of mass nouns:

  1. Singular nouns that are always mass nouns
  2. Plural nouns that are always mass nouns
  3. Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns and have the same meaning
  4. Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns but have different meanings

1. Singular nouns that are always mass nouns

These nouns have no plural form.

Examples:

  • furniture
  • equipment
  • advice
  • information

In many languages information is a unit noun, and has both singular and plural forms. This is NOT the case in English.

As a result mistakes with information are very common.

WRONG: The informations that you sent us in your last email are out of date.

RIGHT: The information that you sent us in your last email is out of date.

2. Plural nouns that are always mass nouns

These nouns have no singular form. They take the plural verb form (“are”, not “is”) except for “news” which takes “is”.

Examples:

  • clothes
  • trousers
  • scissors
  • thanks
  • news
  • customs
  • arms (i.e. weapons)
  • remains

3. Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns and have the same meaning

Examples:

coffee

  • Unit: Can I get you a coffee?
  • Mass: I’ve spilt coffee all over my keyboard.

agreement

  • Unit: An agreement was signed on 25 July 2014.
  • Mass: The parties are not in agreement on this matter.

business

  • Unit: He owns three different businesses.
  • Mass: Mumbai is a rapidly growing centre for business.

translation

  • Unit: We will send you an English translation by COB.
  • Mass: Her experience includes legal translation.

improvement

  • Unit: We have made some improvements to the document.
  • Mass: Recently we have seen some improvement in the economic conditions.

experience

  • Unit: My secondment to London was a really valuable experience.
  • Mass: I gained valuable experience from my time in London.

4. Nouns that can be unit nouns or mass nouns but have different meanings

Examples:

notice

  • Unit: The company has put up over 50 notices in various locations on the premises. (informational signs)
  • Mass: In accordance with his contract, the employee was given one month’s notice. (prior warning)

control

  • Unit: The pilot sat down at the controls. (knobs and switches)
  • Mass: Since he retired he has been reluctant to relinquish control of the company. (command, domination)

interest

  • Unit: He has acquired an interest in the company. (a share)
  • Mass: Money deposited in a savings account earns interest.

 

Exceptions

Native English speakers play with the language by using nouns that are normally unit nouns as mass nouns for humorous effect.

E.g. The IT guys are installing a new hard drive. My desk is all covered in computer! => Computer as substance.

Picture1

The opposite – i.e. using mass nouns as unit nouns – is common among businesspeople and lawyers.

E.g. arbitrations, consents, coverages, expenditures, inactions, insurances, litigations, trainings.

 

Quantifiers

Quantifiers are words and phrases used to indicate quantity. Below is a list showing quantifiers that are different for unit and mass nouns.

More, most, some, any, all, a lot of, enough, no are used with both unit and mass nouns.

Quantifiers used with unit nouns

  • a number of coins
  • few seats
  • a few friends
  • fewer rooms
  • many dogs
  • each / every document
  • several desks

Quantifiers used with mass nouns

  • an amount of money
  • little space
  • a little help
  • less accommodation
  • much noise
  • all documentation
  • some furniture

 

 

 

 

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