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In the book The Wealth of Nations, (Adam Smith, 1776), the words an yearly are used. Why was this an exception to the indefinite article rules?

Chapter VI, Book I:

At the rate of ten per cent therefore, the undertaker of the one will expect an yearly profit of about one hundred pounds only...

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At first I thought OP had just found a bad transcription. The copy I just picked up from Pennsylvania State University says a yearly, as you would expect (ditto gutenberg.org).

Thanks to @D Krueger for ferreting out Google Books scanned copy of the 1778 edition, which has an yearly.

A few centuries before Adam Smith, the indefinite article was always an. As Wikipedia says, 'an' and 'a' are modern forms of the Old English 'an', which in Anglian dialects was the number 'one'.

I can't say for sure if Adam Smith himself actually wrote an, or if it was a well-intentioned typesetter preparing the text of those early editions. At that time I suspect neither version would have been universally recognised as "correct", though there's no doubt a was far more common even then. Here's an NGram for an yearly showing a marked increase in frequency of occurrence starting around the time Smith's book was published, and petering out over the next few decades.

I think an yearly [income, etc.] would be likely to occur more often in legal texts, which are always more prone to archaicisms even today. It's possible Smith or someone else involved in the printing process thought that using an archaic/legalese form added a touch of gravitas to the work.

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Google Books has a scanned copy of the 1778 edition. It's "an yearly" in that edition. –  D Krueger Oct 26 '11 at 4:59
    
@D Krueger: Thanks for finding that. I'll amend the answer accordingly. –  FumbleFingers Oct 26 '11 at 12:52
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I think at that time an yearly may have come partly into fashion. In the 1783 version of Johnson's dictionary, annuity is defined as "a yearly rent to be paid for term of life years." But indeciduous is defined as "not liable to an yearly fall of the leaf." –  D Krueger Oct 27 '11 at 14:09
    
Corks! You de man when it comes to corpus searching! I'd really like to know whether Johnson himself was aware that he'd got both usages in one publication. Maybe that indeciduous definition was part of a "job lot" of in-/un- negating prefixes handed over to some scribe with a particular fondness for archaicisms. Or maybe Johnson really thought both forms were okay, and didn't want to see an yearly die out for lack of use. –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 '11 at 15:23
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This may be owing to the notion that 'y' is a vowel, and therefore deserves to have 'an' preceding it.

This phrase has nearly 300,000 hits on Google, many of which are modern in origin and used with a straight face. I would say these are mostly based on the 'y as vowel' misconception. Google's Ngram viewer shows some usage of 'an yearly' in the early 19th century which then peters out:

enter image description here

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Hmm. The copy from gutenberg.org also has a yearly. How are we to establish if OP's version really was ever printed thus? –  FumbleFingers Oct 25 '11 at 22:51
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...having said that, focussing on just "an yearly" does show a real spike starting around 1776 when The Wealth of Nations was published. Perhaps Adam Smith himself was the major cause of that! –  FumbleFingers Oct 25 '11 at 22:58
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I think it makes sense to include a link to the ngram as well as the picture when you include an ngrams graph, so that people can try other combinations, if so inclined. –  jwpat7 Oct 26 '11 at 0:11
    
Wealth of Nations aside, there does seem to be an inclination to use 'an yearly' (300,000 Google hits can't be wrong). My suggestion is that the reason for this is 'y as vowel'. –  Snubian Oct 26 '11 at 0:30
    
@Snubian: Googling their wages gets 7.5M hits, and the obviously-incorrect there wages gets 136K. There are 9.5M for a yearly, and 293K for an yearly - that's about double the error rate. Maybe, as you say, some people think 'y' might be a vowel. But I think the 'legitimate usage' was archaic even before Adam Smith's time, so they're just plain ignorant. –  FumbleFingers Oct 26 '11 at 3:47
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This is highly speculative, but Google Ngrams shows that people were confused as to whether to say "a uniform" or "an uniform" through most of the 18th Century. This is because the Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of "uniform" so that instead of starting with a vowel, it started with a "y" sound.

My speculation is that people kept on saying "an uniform" even after "uniform" was pronounced with a "y" sound, and that this confused them as to whether "an" or "a" should be used before words that began with a "y" sound. The only evidence I have in favor of this is that the dates roughly match.

Robert Nares in his 1792 guide to English pronunciation, says that "long u" starts with the "y" sound; Google Ngrams shows that most people were still writing "an uniform" at this time (I don't know what they were saying).

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The use of "an" before "yearly" is according to the basic rules of grammar (for articles). According to "High School English Grammar and Composition" by Wren and Martin, "The choice between 'a' and 'an' is determined by sound. Before a word beginning with a vowel sound 'an' is used." Examples: an orange, an enemy, an hour, an heir, etc. Please note that 'hour' starts with a consonant (h) but its pronunciation has a vowel sound (our) in the beginning. Therefore, it takes "an" as the article. Same goes with "yearly" pronounced as "eearly".

So, it turns out that Adam Smith knew his grammar unlike the majority of users of Google. There is no "y as a vowel misconception" here.

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but you're assuming that "yearly" can be pronounced "eearly" - do you have any reason for that? –  Chris H Sep 12 '13 at 16:07
    
Which dialects pronounce "yearly" and "eearly"? –  New Alexandria Sep 12 '13 at 16:44
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