A few years ago, when I was writing my PhD thesis, I was often confused on whether a particular word should have the indefinite article ‘a’ or ‘an’. We all know the rule of thumb that ‘an’ is for words beginning with vowels, but this rule is just a very crude approximation. In reality, it’s not the spelling of the word but its phonetics the one that determines the correct article.
Not being a native speaker, the phonetics rule was just as confusing, and looking up the information on the web wasn’t always straightforward. What or where are you supposed to search if you’re trying to find the correct article for ‘unifier’. Eventually I came up with this little trick to google for, e.g., "a unifier" and "an unifier" (with the quotes) and use the number of hits to find the most commonly used combination that, I hoped, was also likely to be the correct answer.
However, just eyeballing the number of hits quickly became unpractical. Being the geek I am, I ended up writing a bunch of scripts to extract potentially problematic nouns from my thesis document, and then look them up on the web using this trick to find errors. I always thought it would be nice to have a service like this on the web, but I never found the time (or the motivation) to actually do it.
But today in my spare time, and as some kind of therapy to relax (yes I’m that weird :P), I finally decided to implement a web version of this tool now available at: http://navarroj.com/aoran. For the moment you have a simple input box where you can check individual words. If there is enough interest, I might eventually implement another version with a larger text box to enter whole paragraphs and have them automatically checked for errors.
For the geek bits: I’m using the Yahoo! BOSS API to lookup the words on the web, and even find spelling suggestions. This is actually quite nice! It’s really a shame that Google doesn’t expose an API for their search as Yahoo! does.
By the way, do you know what is the correct article for unifier?