English: the Good, the Bad, and the Spelling

For better or for worse, English currently functions as a lingua franca in many parts of the world. That’s nice for us and really annoying, I’m sure, for everybody else. It could be worse, though. English has its good points and its bad points.

On the one hand English tends to be a pretty open and inclusive language. Speakers of English generally aren’t fussy about how you pronounce it. (We even elect presidents who say nook-yoo-ler for “nuclear”.) Most of us tend to regard foreign accents as colorful or charming, and foreign words are always welcome. No snobbery here; we welcome armada, gestalt, karma, milieu, and tsunami.

We also must believe that brevity is the soul of wit because we shorten everything. Frequently down to an acronym: (TV, CD, DVD). And we’re never happier than when we can reduce some polysyllabic mouthful to a monosyllable: (sync, hype, nuke). This is good for people who happen to be in a hurry, who like their efforts at communication to be short and sweet, and, hopefully, quickly understood. It’s also potentially confusing, however, since the process goes on continually and usually at a break-brain rate of speed. Just blink and people are talking gibberish.

English offers some familiarity in the form of cognates (words of common origin) to folks whose native tongues hail from either of two major branches of the Indo-European language super-family – the Germanic languages and the Latin-based Romance languages. This is a consequence of its having been born out of the forcible collision of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French that occurred as a result of the Normans’ conquest of England in 1066 AD. (At this point a picture of the Bayeux Tapestry would seem in order)

Deutsch: Teppich von Bayeux
Anglo-Saxon collides with Norman French (Battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry) Image via Wikipedia

On the up-side, English’s assortment of language sounds (phones) contains relatively few really rare ones to trip up the tongues of people whose native languages don’t happen to contain them. We have only one major offender: th. (Actually, that’s two major offenders because English contains two distinct sounds represented as “th”, the unvoiced and the voiced forms, exemplified by the words thin and this. We just aren’t aware that the two sounds are different because they never make a difference between words in English.)

On the down-side, English has an unusually large lexicon – that’s the sum-total of all the words it can claim as its own. The linguistic collision resulting from the Norman Conquest may be at least partly to blame, as well as all that free and easy borrowing. It really is an absurdly large lexicon. Pick up any unabridged dictionary and it’s pretty obvious there are more words in there than anyone could ever have any reasonable use for. (Ha! Yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition, and I’m not a bit sorry!)

Then there’s the Seventh Circle of Hell known as English Spelling.

Whenever I meet some poor non-native speaker who is trying to master English I feel a compulsion to apologize for what has to be the least phonetic spelling (orthography) of any language that has ever been committed to a nominally phonetic written form. If English has any serious competition for this dubious honor, I would love to hear about it. It’s not just the stunning illogic of words like could, island and knight, it’s the appalling inconsistency, especially in our spelling of vowel sounds. English spelling is both redundant and degenerate, meaning we have both more than one spelling for the same sound and more than one sound for the same spelling. (I may have gotten those turned around.) It’s bad enough that we have only 26 letters to work with while we have about 40 phonemes (sounds that make a difference between words.) Then we make matters worse by completely wasting three of the letters – C, Q, and X – all of which are used to spell sounds that could be covered by other letters (kow, senter, kwilt, ekstra). We double-up some letters to represent consonants not covered by a single letter, like ch, sh, and th – which is okay. But when it comes to the vowels, for which we have only five letters to work with, we get really creative – to the point of total chaos.

Here’s a little game: Start with a simple little English word and try to think of another English word that has either a different spelling for some sound in the first word or a different sound corresponding to some part of the first word’s spelling. Then try to do the same with the second word, and so on. See how long you can keep the string going. Here are four seven-word strings:

be bee been bin bind pined signed
right rite write isle aisle stile style
fluff tough thought through though throw chow
sew so hoe shoe too to Few

I could go on like this all day.

We try to find rules to help us deal with some of this insanity. Rules like the familiar:

“I before E, except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor and weigh.”

Notice that the “rule” already embodies two exceptions. Unfortunately, these exceptions don’t cover everything, as demonstrated by this mnemonic intended to help us remember how to spell five exceptions to it:

“The weird foreigner seizes leisure at its height.”

I don’t think this list of exceptional exceptions is exhaustive, and notice that these five examples include three different vowel pronunciations for a single spelling.

We also have:

“When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.”

If that were really true, what would we need the second one for? It isn’t consistently true, of course. The neighbor/weigh group is an exception, for starters. So is “height.”  So is “believe,” although “believe” does at least follow the “I before E” rule.

Honestly, it’s just about hopeless.  It seems as if the inconsistency of English spelling is its most consistent feature. I grew up with this mess, which puts me ahead of that pitiable soul who is tackling English as a second language. Even so, spelling is my frequent downfall. (If you are similarly frustrated by it, I will gladly join you in a rant any day of the week.)  I was not gifted with total visual recall for the spelling of words – unlike some annoying people, such as my mother. I love my mother dearly, but one of her more annoying habits when I was a growing up was telling me to look up words when I asked her how to spell them rather than just graciously answering my question. I knew how to use a dictionary, for Pete’s sake. Asking her was just a whole lot faster – or it should have been. It can be amazingly difficult to find some English words in the dictionary if you don’t already know how to spell them, and what’s the use of having someone with that kind of talent around if he/she won’t act as a resource?

At this point, fairness compels me to mention that there is one upside to this spelling morass: Having different spellings that correspond to a single pronunciation allows us to distinguish between homonyms in our written language, (“rite,” “write,” and “right;” or “isle,” “aisle,” and “I’ll”). If we had completely consistent spelling, we wouldn’t even be able to have homonyms, though we would still, of course, have homophones, (words that sound alike). (And without those, we couldn’t have puns – and just think how much duller life would be.) Seriously, being able to distinguish homonyms in writing can aid clarity, although usually the context provides adequate clarification. Even here, spelling lets us down sometimes, as in distinguishing between “right” meaning the opposite of “left”, “right” meaning “correct”, and “right” referring to one of those inalienable thingies guaranteed us by the Constitution. (That’s a highly technical term, “thingy”).

How did English spelling get this way? That’s a subject for another day. I do know some of the answers, thanks to having once taken a Linguistics course (Dr. Elizabeth Barber’s class called “Natural and Artificial Languages” at Occidental College, in 1975), but I would like to know more. I recently spotted a book on the subject that I’d like to buy and read before making a further report. It’s called Spellbound: The surprising origins and astonishing secrets of English spelling by James Essinger. Let me check that out, and get back to you. (I’ll give you a hint, though; language change and dictionaries are partially to blame…)

Clarity, Expressiveness, and Artistry




Those are the three dimensions of writing. (I may change my mind about this tomorrow, but for now I’m going with these.

Clarity is about meaning – about saying what you mean in a way that will be understood by your readers. (Most of them, at least. Most of the time.)

I’ve already said that clarity is always important, and I really do believe that it always ought to be. Anyone who is deliberately trying to be obscure should just stop it right now! (This is your mother speaking.)  If you’re trying to impress people – If you think you’re being cleaver or deep – just give it a rest!

Obscure writing is like muddy water; it’s impossible to tell how deep it really is, and the only people you’re likely to fool are the ones even more insecure than you are.

And if you’re deliberately trying to mislead people… well, shame on you!

If you want an example of clear writing, just read anything I’ve written.  (…muffled laughter…)

Cultural transmission, the passing of information from one individual to another and from one generation to the next, is one of the capabilities that has helped make humans successful as a species. Language facilitates cultural transmission, and written language makes it possible for a person to pass on what he has learned to vastly more people than he could ever interact with directly in his lifetime. And it makes it possible for his wisdom to continue to enlighten people long after he is gone.

Writing is important. Don’t abuse it. It’s important to be accurate, and to be honest, and above all to be clear.

Expressiveness is about emotion. Clarity alone will suffice if you are trying to write instructions on how to clear a paper jam, or trying to explain the theory of Special Relativity, but there’s another entire dimension to human experience beyond the transmission of information. It has to do with what we call the heart and what we call the spirit. It has to do with what we feel, and being human means having a need to express what we feel.

Two examples:

The first is from a Quaker song and expresses hope and joy and expectation as an underlying current of the world and of a person’s life.

“My life goes on in endless song. Above earth’s lamentation, I hear the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing. It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing.”

The second, as nearly opposite as it could be, is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, unto the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I prefer the first sentiment to the second, but there’s no denying that it’s hard to find a clearer expression of despair and the perception of life’s emptiness and futility than those lines from the Bard of Avon. (And again, you see that clarity is also important when conveying emotion.)

Artistry is about… well, artistry.  It’s about elegance, and eloquence, and grace.  It’s about rhythm, and timing, and the exact choice of words.  It’s about the perfect melding of what the writer is trying to say with how he says it so that it makes you say, “Oh Wow!”

There is artistry in the above two quotations; it’s part of what gives them their power.

Some more examples:

The first is from Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (This is from my memory)

“Bows, and flows of angel hair, ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way. But now they only block the sun. They rain, they snow, on everyone. So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.”

She does such beautiful visual description of cloud formations – “ice cream castles,” “feather canyons” – in the first part, then shifts the tone very skillfully in the second part, still maintaining the cloud theme while hinting that this is about more than clouds. It is: The second verse is built around the word “love” as this one is around “clouds”, and the third and final verse is about “life.” All together, it’s a very well-crafted lyric.

But  eloquence does not have to be so elaborate. It can be as simple as these four lines from a traditional folk song.

“There I sat on Buttermilk Hill. Who could blame me to cry my fill. And every tear would turn a mill. Johnny has gone for a soldier.”

The first two lines build towards that exquisite third line, a minor masterpiece in seven words. And the final line tells you why, in six words: direct, straightforward, unadorned.

(All those in favor of me stowing the analysis and just letting the quotations speak for themselves… just drop me a comment…)

Double Braino

Typographical Error
Typographical Error (Photo credit: futuraprime)

You will find errors in these posts, I’m sure, despite my best efforts. I’ve found some already and corrected them. One was a real doosey.

I found that where I had intended to write “loses sight”, I had written “looses site.”

Ouch!  Right there, staring at me: a double braino. (And here I am blogging about writing. Talk about major, major embarrassment!)

I’m trying for a neologism here with “braino”.  Maybe even an internet meme. (That would be really cool, but of course it assumes that someone actually reads this…)

A braino, you see, is intended to be somewhat similar to a typo. Both are inadvertent errors and not, I repeat, not, misspellings.

A misspelling happens, for example, when a person believes that he/she knows how to spell something and is simply wrong. Or alternatively it could happen when a person simply does not know how to spell a word, and makes a good-faith conscious effort, but unfortunately doesn’t get it right.

In the case of typos and brainos, the person does in fact know how to spell the word, but a glitch occurs somewhere in the process that begins with retrieval of the word from the memory banks and carries on through to the mechanical movements of the fingers that get the word typed onto the page, (or keyboarded onto the screen, or whatever).

Typos, of course, occur in the typing process. The movement of a finger is made inaccurately and the wrong key is struck, or rapid-fire sequences of finger movements are made in the wrong order with a similar result.

Brainos are errors that occur further upstream. Although the person knows what he or she means, the brain retrieves the wrong word and sends incorrect information to the fingers, which accurately type the incorrect information. How exactly does that happen? Well, I’m not sure, but I think that my typing “loose” instead of “lose” may relate to the fact that “lose” ought to be spelled “looze” – phonetically speaking. The sound of the word suggests the double “o.” As for “site” instead of “sight,” well, I had been dealing with a number of web-sites that day and thinking about how this site differed from that site. I think I may have just had site on the brain.

The spelling of “braino,” of course, reminds one of “typo,” and it’s meant to. This neologism is formed by analogy. It’s not a really good analogy, however, since “typo” is short for typographical error and there is no corresponding “brainological error” – nor, in fact, any such word as “brainological.” If braino were to become popular and the usage of “brainological” or “brainological error” were to subsequently appear, that would be an example of the linguistic phenomenon known as back-formation.

(And now I’m sure you know way more about this subject than you ever wanted to.)

And now for something a little different…

Neologism generator
Neologism generator (Photo credit: Peter Forret)

A few days ago, my son introduced me to the word “philosoraptor.” It’s a neologism (a newly-coined word) that refers to a humorous, pseudo-philosophical bit of wordplay such as:

“If pro is the opposite of con, is progress the opposite of congress?”

(Sorry, I don’t know the origin of this example, though it’s unfortunately very apropos at the moment.)

According to my son, “philosoraptor” is an example of an “internet meme“, which is an idea that is propagated on the internet. There is usually an image that accompanies an internet meme and in the case of philosoraptor it’s a charming little picture of a thoughtful-looking Velociraptor. (I had the image here, but when I hit “Publish” I lost the entire post – the second time that’s happened when I tried to include an image in a post. Got to figure that one out.)

I learned all about the origins of the philosoraptor internet meme at:


The image is credited to (and copy-righted by) Sam Smith who designed it to put on T-shirts. The word probably has multiple origins.

I also became interested in the word “meme“, because I was not familiar with it. It turns out to also be a neologism coined about twenty years ago by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He conceived a meme as being somewhat analogous to a gene. The best current working definition of “meme” seems to be “an idea that is passed from person to person through imitation,” although Dawkins usage included the rather bizarre notion that memes were infectious, like viruses. Regardless, “meme” has definitely gone mainstream. There’s a related field called “memetics.”

Neologisms are great examples of a way in which language change happens, in this case through the creation of new words. It’s fun, it’s easy, and best of all, anyone can do it.

You can’t get away from grammar

Grammar police

Lest anyone conclude that I have a general contempt for grammar or grammarians, let me clarify.

Every language has grammar and every speaker/writer uses it.  All the time.  You can’t get away from it.

Grammar is just the structure of a language, as opposed to the words.  It’s a set of patterns you learned before you knew you were learning them, a set of patterns you unconsciously recognize and use. And without them, you would not be able to encode or decode any but the most rudimentary of utterances.

Grammar is all about pattern recognition.  Knowledge of the grammatical patterns of English leads both you and your listener/reader to have certain expectations about where your words are going, and if you violate those expectations too seriously you won’t be understood.  The “rules” of grammar are just an effort on the part of some well-meaning people to save us all from incoherence.

(Actually, I believe that pattern recognition makes up a large part of what we call intelligence.)

Grammar tells us what role a word is playing.  It tells us how the different bits of a sentence are related to each other.  There are two main ways I’m aware of for a language to “do” grammar.  They are:

1) word order

2) word modification

Word order is pretty obvious.  Word modification is all the various forms that are based on a single word-root (such as, write, writes, writer, writing, written, wrote, and so on.)  Most languages, like English, use both approaches.  Latin, I am told, relies so nearly completely on word modification that it virtually doesn’t matter how you order the words.  (Try to wrap your mind around that concept!)

Anyway, I really don’t have a serious quarrel with grammarians in general.  I just get a bit annoyed when I encounter someone who is so fixated on the rules that he or she loses sight of the purpose.

Grammar should be your servant, not your master.

(Grammar Police, photocredit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

My attitude on grammar (and language change)

Not being an expert on English means that I’m not an expert on the official “rules” of, say, grammar – which means that I don’t necessarily always adhere to them. In my view, clarity is what counts and the rules are only useful to the extent that they contribute to clarity. In short, being clear is more important than being correct.

The primary purpose of any language is, after all, communication.

There are times when you have to be as “correct” as possible because you are writing for an audience that expects or demands it, but even then I try not to completely lose sight of the reason for what I am doing.

There’s an important rationale behind my somewhat cavalier attitude. Language changes. The rules therefore also potentially change from time to time, so it doesn’t pay to get too attached to them. A living language – one that has native speakers – is rather like a living organism. No one designed it; it evolved. And English, being very much alive, is continuing to evolve even as we speak. (Literally, as we speak.) English, you see, belongs to its speakers, not to the grammarians. The rule-makers can try to constrain it, to impede the process of language change, but they will ultimately fail.

Language preceded grammarians – by several million years – and it was doing just fine without them.