Open your mouth as you read this sentence, and let a sound come out.
I bet you the noise you’re making is an “A”. In fact, if it isn’t, you’re only making things difficult for me and for yourself, because A and its role in crosswords make up the topic for today.
Aye, it’s a’ about the A. It may be only the third most common letter in English – and by implication about the same in crosswords – but it is, without doubt, the best. You need only think of ace, or Alan, or A-number-1 to see that A denotes awesomeness – the letter against which all others are judged and found wanting.
A is a useful letter for setters and solvers alike, as befits its putative origins as the representation of the head of an animal valued both for pulling things and for being tasty – the ox. (You might right at this moment be among those contesting that story, quite reasonably objecting that if you had an ox with a head shaped like an A, you’d take the poor cone-head straight to the vet – but the story goes that the Greeks turned upside-down a Phoenician letter that was originally written ∀, sometimes with curly horns and/or some cute facial features.)
Much of this usefulness comes from the way in which A is a word as well as a letter. So often an “A” in an answer will be indicated by “one“. It’s a smart feature of English: to have such a short, easy way of saying “a”. Pity the Germans, the Dutch and the Greeks with their eines, their eens and their εvαs or whatever they use. A might be just an “an” – that is to say, a “one” – with the “n” left out because you’re about to say a consonant, but it’s short and it’s nifty and I like it a lot. (It’s worth knowing a few of those foreign “a”s, mind, for when a setter uses “A French” at the start of a clue to indicate UN- at the start of an answer.)