“Listen Daphne,” the character Frasier Crane said, in an episode called We Two Kings, episode ten of season ten, “is your mom partial to a traditional Cornwall dressing, you see I’m thinking it would go splendidly with the twelve-pound Hungarian goose that I’m serving,” he adds the latter with a excited survey of the room to encourage joy.
Niles and Daphne counter that they are planning on celebrating Christmas at their apartment to celebrate their first Christmas as a married couple, and they invite Frasier to partake in their celebration. Frasier argued that it’s been a Crane family tradition to have Christmas at his place. To which, Niles responds:
“Frasier you’ve had Christmas for the past nine years.”
“Yes, but we agreed we’d have Christmas here in its traditional setting.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it’s time to start a new tradition,” Niles says.
“But I’ve had new stockings loomed for everyone,” Frasier says. “Now there you see, you made me spoil the surprise, and did no one hear me say that I have ordered an Hungarian goose?”
As is typical of Kelsey Grammer, he delivers a pitch perfect line. He stresses the word (‘an’), and he punctuates the word goose with a pleading tone that asks his audience (Niles and Daphne) to recognize the import of what he’s saying. We don’t know how many takes Grammer used to hit that line that perfect, but the finished product will live on in television history as far as I’m concerned, as one of the best one-liners Grammer ever delivered.
Some proper grammar enthusiasts might argue that Grammer used improper grammar when he issued this historically hysterical line in the situation comedy Frasier. The grammatically correct use of definitive articles states that we use (‘a’) before vowels and an (‘an’) before consonants, but as with everything in the English language, there are exceptions. The letter (‘H’) is just such an exception. When the (‘H’) is silent, as it is in the word hour, we use (‘an’) even though (‘H’) is a consonant. “It will only take me an hour to complete this article.” If the (‘H’) is pronounced, as in “I always wear a hat when I write”, (‘a’) is the proper definite article to use. The exception to the (‘H’) exception occurs when the accent is not on the first syllable of a word, because the pronunciation of the (‘H’) is downplayed in words where the accentuation occurs after the first syllable, and it renders it closer to the silent (‘H’) rule. Unless, they argue, we’re using some words like historian or habitual, in which (‘a’) is the preferred variant.
We also have other exceptions regarding the sound in certain other words. We don’t say “He has a MBA”, for example, because it sounds like a (‘E’) exists before the (‘M’), or (em-bee-ay). It just sounds wrong to say a MBA, even though the initials begin with an (‘M’). So, the rule states that if it sounds like a vowel precedes the consonant, then we use the definitive article (’an’).
One rule of thumb on the use of definitive articles, says June Casagrande, from The Glendale Newspress, “[I]t’s a mistake to choose based on anything but sound.” So, if it sounds wrong, it probably is? Well, (‘an’) Hungarian goose doesn’t sound correct, even if the stress is found on the second syllable, and if we extend Ms. Casagrande’s quote out to other strict to casual rules of usage, so many of them just don’t sound correct.
Anytime I sort through the rules of grammar and spelling as it pertains to the English language, I think of two people: a foreigner I knew well who told me that English might be the hardest language in the world to speak on a casual level. “I did well in my ESL (English as a Second Language) class,” she said, “but talking to English speakers in this country is so confusing. There are so many exceptions and rules, even in casual conversation, that I just want to pull my hair out. Talking to you, a writer who obsesses over rules, is even more nerve-wracking. I don’t think I’ll ever get it,” the woman, who speaks seven other languages to near fluency, told me. The other person I think of is Norm MacDonald who, when confronted with the idea that the English language might be one of the hardest languages to learn, he said, “Really, because I think it’s pretty easy.”
Was Kelsey Grammer grammatically correct when he said the line, “An Hungarian Goose”? The Word check program I’m using to write this article suggests that the definitive article (‘an’) is incorrect in this case. Yet it allows me to write both ‘a historian’ and ‘an historian’ without notification of error. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but the stress on Hungarian falls on the second (gar) syllable, and if that’s the case doesn’t it render the (‘H’) equivalent to silent in the phrase and an (‘an’) is more correct in this case?” signed Confused.
On the surface, it appears that only skilled comedians and comedic actors can explain why some words are funnier than others. They don’t know squat, I suggest, until they try it out. Standup comedians test their material constantly, and comedic actors sort through their numerous takes, with directors and writers, to find the right sentence, the perfect pitch, and everything else that produces a finished product to which we marvel. We can only wonder how many takes it took Grammer to try to hit that line perfect, but when he hit a hard (‘an’) in the line and punctuated the word goose with a distinct plea in his voice, I think it was as close to comedic perfection as the skilled comedic actor ever achieved. Steve Martin suggests that comedy is similar to music in that what works in comedy is often based on rhythms and beats. In this frame, the syllables involved in the words Hungarian goose are funnier than Danish hen ever could be, even if Grammer dropped the line in the exact same manner. So, if anyone who wants to debate whether Grammer should’ve said (‘a’) Hungarian goose, I would introduce them to another exception to the rule, and I regard this an exception to all rules of usage in the English language, “If it works, and it’s that funny, you can go ahead and throw all of your rules of usage right out the window.