One Word

One Word: A (indef. article)

A selects one but implies many, and so casts a pall of anxiety over its noun. "I'm not sure I want a relationship," she says, and immediately I imagine her turning the pages of a gigantic catalog of relationships, debating which, if any, she might want.


A is a wager, a leap of faith, "a joyous shot at how things ought to be," as Philip Larkin wrote in his poem "Home Is So Sad." "Sad" because the shot, Larkin's quick to remind us, so often falls wide. But A doesn't know that. It can't, because at the moment a joyous shot becomes the shot that fell wide, A's already moved on.

's irrepressible. A never looks back.

A opens a restaurant, marries a sweetheart, places a bid, agrees to an experimental treatment. It's true that A never sticks around to see how the roll of the dice comes out, and maybe that makes A irresponsible, but at least A takes a crack at it. Say what you will, but A's an optimist.


After A has seduced, eliminated, burned, and run over them, you try to explain to A that no, those were not a lover, job, house, and dog; they were your lover, job, house, and dog. A affects contrition but really has no idea what you're talking about.


A hypothesizes and speculates, enjoys abstractions, prefers conjecture to conclusion. Nothing perplexes A more than hearing someone say, "We've got to find an answer!" "Find one?" thinks A. "There are billions of them all around you!"


A offers up its noun for our consideration, evaluation, and possible adoption or acquisition. A's an auctioneer.


In T. S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the intensely conflicted title character asks himself a lot of questions, among them "Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" and "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

It seems like disturbing the universe should be a far more daring and difficult challenge than eating a peach. But in fact the first question is easier to answer than the second, because it permits only two possible answers, yes or no. The problem of the peach, because it is burdened with the indefinite article, is more complicated. Before he could begin to solve it, Prufrock would first have to feel confident that he'd chosen--from amongst all the peaches which have existed, presently exist, and will or might exist in the future--the correct peach to dare to eat. From the correct branch, tree, orchard, and planet, on the correct day at the correct hour by the correct hand, and so forth.

We shouldn't be surprised if in the end Prufrock finds it easier to disturb the universe than to eat a peach. The universe has been chosen for him. The universe is a sitting duck. But he'll never have the nerve to pick a peach.


Brisk and efficient, A arrives early, in advance of its master the complacent noun, to throw open a window, light a lamp, prepare the throne where the noun will settle its bulk. A exists to serve. A's meaningless without its master. But they both know who really runs the household.


And how does A's noun regard its article? As a threat. A makes its noun feel dispensable and vulnerable. If a sweater itches you can put on another. The discarded sweater is left to itch itself on the closet floor.


Fantasies can't survive without the indefinite article, and can't survive the definite. W. B. Yeats, in his poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," begins dreaming of leaving the city for an idyllic rural retreat, where he'll build "a small cabin," and keep "a hive for the honey bee." But as soon as he starts trying to pin his whimsy down and muscle it into existence by using the definite article, determining to "live alone in the bee-loud glade," where evening's "full of the linnet's wings," the bubble bursts and he finds himself right back where he started, standing "on the roadway, or on the pavements gray."

To keep a fantasy alive, be sure it remains A fantasy.


A advocated early to put a man on a moon, supported a compromise of putting a man on the moon, and finally withdrew in disgust when the first astronaut climbed down the ladder to take the first steps in the dust.

I mean this very literally.

As we all know, Neil Armstrong, the astronaut in question, surveyed the moon's surface and said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." A sentence which, unfortunately, makes no sense. Armstrong later claimed that he actually said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," which would make sense (and also convey a disarming, if not quite believable, sense of humility), but everyone assumed he was just trying to cover up his mistake.

In 2006, an Australian computer programmer named Peter Shann Ford performed a sophisticated digital analysis of the original recording of Armstrong's lunar one-liner, and concluded that Armstrong had in fact used an A as he claimed, but had voiced the word for only 35 milliseconds, a duration detectable by computer software, but ten times too fast to be audible to his listeners.

I'm sure no one wants Armstrong to suffer over this any more than he has, and I hope Ford's research brings him some peace in his old age. Still, the truth is clear. It was a moment of intense historical specificity, absolutely infested with instances of the definite article, and A wanted nothing to do with it.


At night, A lies out in a meadow, contentedly counting a star, a star, a star . . .


A and "one" can sometimes stand in for each other. They're fraternal, but not identical twins. Whether a genie allows you a wish or one wish, you know you've got one coming. But where the latter suggests you'd better not count on any more, the former teases you with the possibility.

"One" opens the door and then shuts it tight: the movie ticket says, "ADMIT ONE." A opens the door, admits one, and then leaves the door ajar in case your friends want to sneak in later.

If you're pretty sure you're going to have more than one, you say, "Sure, I'll have a drink." If you think you might mean to have only one: "I'll have a drink." If you're certain you mean to have only one: "I'll have one drink." If you're certain, serious, slightly annoyed, don't really want even one, and are already anticipating protest from your good-for-nothing friends: "I'll have one drink."


A suspends and holds in abeyance. A loses track of time. A moment, a year, an appointment, a deadline. There will always be another.


Try, in conversation, saying, "You know, the other day,
a . . . . . .," and then just keep drawing out the A's sound, like an oboe setting the pitch for an orchestra. This will drive your companion insane with impatience. Yes, yes, a what? A hand grenade? A heart attack? A big fat raise? A cricket in the kitchen?

Obviously, the suspense you're generating in your companion is primarily cognitive. Your A has opened a door in her mind, and she is waiting to see what will walk in. But am I just imagining it, or does A's sound spoken aloud also seem to carry a certain purely musical suspense, like the sound of a minor chord left unresolved?


Teams of two A's will sometimes work together to broker an agreement of equivalence, either numerical or metaphorical, between two nouns. One A ushers in the party of the first part; another (sometimes in the guise of "per"), introduces the party of the second part and closes the deal. These arrangements often result in proverbs.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
A night with Venus and a life with mercury.
A friend in need is a friend indeed.
A little learning is a dangerous thing.

This kind of work, with its emphasis on utility and communal values, appears to run contrary to A's generally iconoclastic, dreamy, and solitary personality. Perhaps A considers it charity work. Or slumming.


A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark'd, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark'd how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking
the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form'd—till the ductile
anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere,
O my Soul.

Walt Whitman's short poem "A Noiseless Patient Spider" begins with one of my favorite A's in literature. Like its noun, this A seems packed with possibility and potential, but at the same time—also like its noun—it's pitiable, because it's racked with uncertainty about its place in the world. Like a spider's, A's attachments are always temporary and insubstantial. Whenever A fixes itself to a noun, it knows that one of two things will shortly happen, both of them bad news for A. Either the noun will not be mentioned again, or it will be, but this time preceded by the definite article "the." In either case, A is out of a job, and must find a new noun to attach itself to.

(A's addiction to the new is pathological. Or maybe it's better to say that its dependence on the new is pathetic.)

Whitman, as we might expect, admires the spider's ceaseless explorations. But he worries about the spider, too, fearing that with nothing and nowhere to call its own, to attach to permanently and securely, it might die of disconnection. By the poem's end, Whitman has found a way for both the spider and his soul to anchor themselves, at least provisionally. In order to secure those connections, he has to deploy the definite article four times in the poem's three lines. The destabilizing A is banished. But perhaps not saddened. Afoot and lighthearted, it takes to an open road, healthy and free, a world before it.


A's a languorous and inventive but ultimately frustrating lover, because it lacks any understanding of completion.


A is the fifth most commonly used word in the English language, according to the British National Corpus, a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken
English. Given A's ubiquity, it's strange to contemplate the possibility that it may be entirely unnecessary. After all, it barely exists. When I listen to myself say aloud, "I need a pair of shoes," the A is almost unvoiced, a nearly indiscernible "uh" created by a quick clench in the throat.

I devise an experiment. I enter a shoe store and say distinctly to the clerk, "I need pair of shoes." She understands me perfectly. I go around like this all day, breaking in my new shoes and giving A a break. "Did you have good weekend?" "Cup of coffee, please." "Do you have four quarters for dollar?" "Should we go grab bite to eat and then catch movie?"

I get a few funny looks, but no one fails to understand me. No one seems to miss A at all.


A is fundamentally public and populist. A has nothing to hide, which is lucky, because it couldn't hide anything if it wanted to. It can be attached to anything, but it owns nothing; its greatest power is its ability to grant universal access to its noun.

Martin Luther King, Jr. told the crowd, "I have a dream." "I have" may have suggested personal possession, but the A made abundantly clear to everyone that a dream is ours to share.


I call my wife at work and ask her to pick up A at the supermarket on her way home.

"A what?"
"We need A for dinner."
"A what?"
"Actually, you should probably also get A or two."
"Two WHAT?"
"No, on second thought, just A will be fine."
A pause. My wife is very smart. And more patient with me than I deserve.
"OK, see you soon."
She brought home A and I cooked it with A and A. Everything was delicious.

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