A trick for telling “Apart” from “A Part” (and dealing with other tricky words)
"Apart" Versus "A Part"
Test whether you can replace the “a” with “two.” If you can, you probably need a space.
The other two pairs—“apart”/“a part” and “ahold”/“a hold”—are a little tougher, even for native English speakers. The one-worder “apart” is both an adverb and an adjective. You could say, “He stood apart from the group,” meaning he stood separately. In that sentence, “apart” is an adverb that describes where he stood. “Apart” can also be an adjective, as in “It’s a world apart.” As for the two words “a part,” they mean various things, including a portion of a whole, as in “I am a part of this family,” or a piece of equipment, as in “I need to buy a part so I can fix the dishwasher.”
"Ahold" Versus "A Hold"
The one-worder “ahold” often goes with the verb “get” and the preposition “of,” as in “Get ahold of yourself!” You could also say, “I grabbed ahold of his arm” to mean “I grasped his arm.” Dictionary.com (1) calls the word “ahold” informal, but it’s been around since 1600 or 1610. As for the two words “a hold,” you could say, “He’s got a hold on me” or “I put a hold on that library book.”
Check a Dictionary
So how do you know when to put a space and when to leave one out? The short answer is to check the dictionary multiple times per day—er, I mean, whenever you’re in doubt.
A Quick and Dirty Tip
However, I promised you a quick and dirty tip, so here it is: Let’s say you’ve written a word that starts with “a” but you’re unsure whether to use a space. Change “a something” to “two somethings.” If it makes sense, you need a space. So, if your sentence is “I heard a buzz in my ear,” change it to “I heard two buzzes in my ear.” That makes sense, so you need a space in “a buzz.” How about this—“I took apart the toy”? It wouldn’t make sense to write “I took two parts the toy.” Therefore, no space.
If the “two somethings” tip doesn’t seem to work for your sentence, go straight to your dictionary.
In summary, you may be amazed that one little space can trip you up, but now that you’re aware of the potential problem, you’ll be able to hunt down your mistakes and get ahead—one word, “ahead”—in the world.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & Grammar Girl
This article was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
1. ahold. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ahold (accessed: February 18, 2011).