Tag Archives: Spelling

The Glorious Chaos of English

Primative Spelling BeesEnglish, in many ways, is one of the simplest languages to learn quickly and in which to converse fluently; but scratching below the surface one rapidly finds incongruities.  As a teacher for English as a foreign language for adults (TEFLA), I was frequently confronted with the challenges of teaching students to spell and pronounce words correctly, but I was also comforted by the fact that English nouns only come with four possible preceding cases, or articles (a, an, the, and none), rather than, say, German, in which each noun has a nominative, genative, dative or accusative, singular or plural form of their case; or Finnish, which has a whopping 15 cases.

The Chaos, a poem written by the Dutch traveller & teacher,  Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870–1946), gives ~800 examples of irregular spelling.  In general one can say that there are spelling “rules”, but English, in all its historic complexities of absorbing, digesting and recycling influences from conquerors, enemies, travelling companions and allies, seems designed to say “rules can and will be broken”.  I would never give his last advice to anyone – but after reading this poem, you’ll understand that English needs tenacity and constant practice to use well!

The Chaos

by G. Nolst Trenite’ a.k.a. “Charivarius” 1870 – 1946

Dearest creature in creation

Studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse

I will keep you, Susy, busy,

Make your head with heat grow dizzy.

Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear,

So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,

Pray, console your loving poet,

Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

Just compare heart, beard and heard,

Dies and diet, lord and word,

Sword and sward, retain and Britain.

(Mind the latter, how it’s written).

Made has not the sound of bade,

Say said, pay-paid, laid, but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you

With such words as vague and ague,

But be careful how you speak,

Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,

Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,

Cloven, oven, how and low,

Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery:

Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles.

Exiles, similes, reviles.

Wholly, holly, signal, signing.

Thames, examining, combining

Scholar, vicar, and cigar,

Solar, mica, war, and far.

From “desire”: desirable–admirable from “admire.”

Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier.

Chatham, brougham, renown, but known.

Knowledge, done, but gone and tone,

One, anemone. Balmoral.

Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel,

Gertrude, German, wind, and mind.

Scene, Melpomene, mankind,

Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,

Reading, reading, heathen, heather.

This phonetic labyrinth

Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

Billet does not end like ballet;

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet is not nearly parquet,

Which is said to rime with “darky.”

Viscous, Viscount, load, and broad.

Toward, to forward, to reward.

And your pronunciation’s O.K.,

When you say correctly: croquet.

Rounded, wounded, grieve, and sieve,

Friend and fiend, alive, and live,

Liberty, library, heave, and heaven,

Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven,

We say hallowed, but allowed,

People, leopard, towed, but vowed.

Mark the difference, moreover,

Between mover, plover, Dover,

Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,

Chalice, but police, and lice.

Camel, constable, unstable,

Principle, disciple, label,

Petal, penal, and canal,

Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal.

Suit, suite, ruin, circuit, conduit,

Rime with “shirk it” and “beyond it.”

But it is not hard to tell,

Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.

Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,

Timber, climber, bullion, lion,

Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, and chair,

Senator, spectator, mayor,

Ivy, privy, famous, clamour

And enamour rime with hammer.

Pussy, hussy, and possess,

Desert, but dessert, address.

Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants.

Hoist, in lieu of flags, left pennants.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,

Doll and roll and some and home.

Stranger does not rime with anger.

Neither does devour with clangour.

Soul, but foul and gaunt but aunt.

Font, front, won’t, want, grand, and grant.

Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger.

And then: singer, ginger, linger,

Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, and gauge,

Marriage, foliage, mirage, age.

Query does not rime with very,

Nor does fury sound like bury.

Dost, lost, post; and doth, cloth, loth;

Job, Job; blossom, bosom, oath.

Though the difference seems little,

We say actual, but victual.

Seat, sweat; chaste, caste.; Leigh, eight, height;

Put, nut; granite, and unite.

Reefer does not rime with deafer,

Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.

Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,

Hint, pint, Senate, but sedate.

Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,

Science, conscience, scientific,

Tour, but our and succour, four,

Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Sea, idea, guinea, area,

Psalm, Maria, but malaria,

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,

Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,

Dandelion with battalion.

Sally with ally, yea, ye,

Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay.

Say aver, but ever, fever.

Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.

Never guess–it is not safe:

We say calves, valves, half, but Ralph.

Heron, granary, canary,

Crevice and device, and eyrie,

Face but preface, but efface,

Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Large, but target, gin, give, verging,

Ought, out, joust, and scour, but scourging,

Ear but earn, and wear and bear

Do not rime with here, but ere.

Seven is right, but so is even,

Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, clerk, and jerk,

Asp, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation–think of psyche–!

Is a paling, stout and spikey,

Won’t it make you lose your wits,

Writing “groats” and saying “grits”?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel,

Strewn with stones, like rowlock, gunwale,

Islington and Isle of Wight,

Housewife, verdict, and indict!

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,

Saying lather, bather, father?

Finally: which rimes with “enough”

Though, through, plough, cough, hough, or tough?

Hiccough has the sound of “cup.”

My advice is–give it up!

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Novel Writing Pyramid

Novel Pyramid

When writing or drafting a new story, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to the trees – in the myriad of ideas that flash up in a brainstorm.  The pyramid above helps remind me of the emphasis each area needs in the overall structure:

If a story is too complex, you’ll lose or confuse your readers; but if it’s too simple, it becomes predictable and therefore no challenge to the mind of the adventurer who’s picked up your book to get lost in another world.  Most of the best stories are, at their heart, quite simple – “boy meets girl”, or “person achieves goal”.

If you don’t know what your settings and themes are, how can you effectively work toward the final outcome?  If you don’t know who your character is, and what your basic plot (goal and how it’s achieved) is, how can you guide the reader through dialogue or prose toward the desired conclusion?  Diction is important because it is central to creating the voice of each character, and sticking to genre-specific vocabulary and expressions (i.e. no proverbial airplanes through the scenes of a historical novel).  As Mark Twain once wrote,

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

And if you have the top four slices of the pyramid in place, but don’t have proper foundations – in other words, know your grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (sentence structures, tense usage, etc.) then no matter how brilliant your plot might be, or your character development, if readers can’t get past your bad diction and grammar, you’ve lost them as present and future readers!

I’d like to encourage you to know your weaknesses, and develop them into strengths!  If grammar or spelling is a weakness, work on it – invest time into reviewing the rules – Wikipedia is an excellent source for articles on how to use punctuation, etc.  Buy a good grammar book, or even a grammar practice book with an answer key at the back (The “English Grammar in Use” series is one I used for years with EFLA students).  If plot or character development is a weakness, then make a list of questions for each, and take the time to think about and answer them.

Good writing is about quality; it’s about solid foundations and constant development, the honing of your skills; it’s about research, thinking outside the box, and being able to convey in words the images born in your mind.  Just as sharpening a pencil makes it easier to write, so does sharpening your mind and skills.

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Anonymously Bad Grammar

The following sentences are taken verbatim from comments on unwitting websites; I’ve collected them as I’ve come across them since Autumn of 2013.  Sometimes I couldn’t help myself and put my comments in parentheses; other comments there are simply reference to the context.  I have dozens more, but certain things in life are better in small doses… Crap

  • “Don’t look like you like didn’t eat it all” (man, late-50s)
  • “I just havta buy some…” (woman, 18)
  • (Headline): “Welfare Check Leads to Homicide Investigation” (Referring to a response of officers to check on a suspicious situation, and not a monetary cheque…)
  • “I love London. Especially the countryside.” (face palm…not strictly bad grammar; just ignorance…)
  • “Now this statement I like – we are Ameica and our language is English – you want6 to live hear learn our language. And go by our rules.” (Concerning a sign that said, “Welcome to America. Press 1 for English; Press 2 to disconnect until you learn English.”  Clearly they missed grammar and spelling lessons.)
  • “Lively up yourself.”
  • “Who’s agree with us?”
  • “Sorry hand finger bad cut bleeding after topaz scared and did it. sorry it not up in the morning. Sorry sorting it I hope” (Whaaat??)
  • “I think it gonna b 2 these 4 me 2nite.” (Clearly.)
  • “That is the days I go shopping even if I don’t buy nothing hoping the family left at home do something.” (Hopefully the family is learning better grammar than this mother did…)

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Euphemisms

Euphemism 1Language is a fluid concept, constantly changing, adapting, creating, compensating and inventing itself.  Euphemisms are a prime example of that fluctuation and adaptation; successive generations come to know only the euphemism which in turn ceases to be one by that very definition, and which means that new ones will be invented to skirt the issue once again. For instance, there are hundreds of words for smell or stink, yet only a handful of satisfactory synonyms for words like fragrance, simply because hiding the ugly requires far more creativity than hiding the lovely.  For that reason alone, writers who fall back on expletives like the highly offensive F-word (a euphemism for, well, you know) are simply lazy in my book; they’re missing a great opportunity for creativity!  Interestingly, that word’s meaning has never shifted over time – it’s been in the English language since before the fifteenth century, and even then it was only written in cipher because it was too offensive to record in ink.  In my opinion it still is, and one should consider very carefully before offending unknown numbers of readers from continuing to read your book or blog; more than once have I ended reading a book when they used the word several times in the course of the first few chapters, because honestly it says something about the extent of their language abilities and their spectrum (or lack thereof) of creativity.

As a society’s norms shift, so do the euphemisms that they use to communicate.  In the Renaissance, corpulent women were considered the height of beauty; curvy, curvaceous, and shapely were instances of positive euphemisms; today they might be used by some idiot in the media to insult a Hollywood starlet who (by any other standard would be considered normal if not a little thin) gained a pound or two. Now idiot might be too strong a word; I could say brain cell-deficient, or someone who has delusions of adequacy.  I would like to point out the obvious here:  If you’re going to insult someone, at least spell it right… more often than not, you see people calling someone “dumn” or “dumm”, which smacks of the pot calling the kettle black…

For an extensive list of euphemisms, please click on the image.  That website also has lists of anagrams, clichés, metaphors, oxymorons, palindrome and pleonasms, so it’s worth bookmarking for writers!

For an interesting TED Talk (13:00) on the topic of euphemisms, please click here.

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The 3 Levels of Editing

EditingWriting is not just about stringing words together to express a coherent thought; at that level one might say it’s primary school basics.  The deeper I delve into the written world of words, the more I recognize the shades of colour, light and moods, and the fact that when I am telling a story, I am really painting a picture.  But to get to that depth, besides the fundamental skills of telling a good story, every writer needs to be familiar with what I consider to be three basic levels of editing; there’s a wide palette for discussion, and the order below is not chronological but often simultaneous phases of editing.  Here are a few points to keep in mind:

1:  The Matrix Level

I call this the “Matrix Level” because it really is the foundation – without it, don’t even think about giving up your day job.  This level includes things like spelling, vocabulary (choosing the best word or phrase in a given situation) and punctuation.  At this level you might also include things like formatting (being consistent in usage of fonts; spacing; size and heading styles; margins; indentations; double-or single-spacing after a full stop; capitalizations; abbreviations [e.g. Mr. or Mr {that choice depends on whether or not you’re using American Standard English, or British Standard English}]; and consistent use of italics, bolds and underlines).

2:  The 3-C Level

This is what I call the 3-C level because it’s just that:  Coherency, Consistency, Conciseness.  This is the level you work on things like clear expression; showing, not telling (re-writing those scenes that tell into a scene that shows the action or the purpose of that scene); assessing what your demographic target is (teenagers, women, men, children, intellectual readers, pulp-fiction readers, genre-specific groups, etc.) and writing with them in mind as you make choices of expression and complexity.

This level includes things like pacing/timing/rhythm of the overall script; logical connections, organic changes, filling in the “holes” in the plot, the building of action or tension (again, in an organic way to the story—don’t just slap in a sex scene or a car chase because you need to pick up the pace in a dragging scene!), and keeping an eye out for things like vocabulary repetition (if it’s there, it needs to be organic, e.g. perhaps a character likes to use a phrase as a “trademark”) or filler words (actually, really, etc.).

3:  The “Cutting Room Floor” Level

This is the level where tough decisions come in; here you need to ask yourself some basic questions:  Does scene XYZ support the plot in more than one way?  [Plot, by the way, applies whether you’re writing a novel, a business case plan, or a newspaper article.]  If not, can I glean the core sentiment or information that needs to be conveyed and splice it in somewhere else?  Does the purpose / goal come through or remain clear in this scene?  If not, how can I change it, trim it, or chop it?  Are paragraphs unified (i.e. one main goal / thought each)?  This process is very similar to film editing, and you can learn a lot from that process by listening to good film commentaries (the best I’ve come across are films with commentaries by Steven Spielberg – he’s a natural teacher in that respect!).

In the current novel I’m writing, a fantasy-history spanning from first century AD Scotland and Norway to modern-day Scotland, an earlier draft had too many characters; there are still enough to warrant a Cast of Characters section at the end (due to the complex structure that will be woven together in the next draft), but the general rule is to not tax the reader with more than four characters in any given scene.  So even though each character was well-developed and interesting, I had to let some heads roll.

The way I write works for me:  If I’ve written a scene that somehow doesn’t sit right with the tone/mood but I know it conveys something necessary to the construct as a whole, I will paste that scene to the end of the document and title it “Scene to Salvage: —” with a brief description.  Later I can go back to the core of that scene and salvage it, or decide that it no longer fits and delete it—it’s nonetheless served the purpose of helping me solidify the plot by hashing out certain elements.  I may really like one key sentence or idea, so I’ll cut it out and drop it in where it works well organically to the story.  I might also add that each of these levels is vital in this story as each section (Pictish; an otherworldly kingdom; Norse settlements; and modern archaeology) has its own colour palette:  Stone, rain and sea; mist, sky and whispers; leather, smoke and wood; and technology, pubs and peat mire.  Each sections’ dialogue and prose need to reflect those palettes, and that’s the secret of showing, not telling!

The more structured you work, and the more confident you become with each level, the better and faster the writing process will become.  I hope this inspires you, and spurs you on to greater writing!

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The Etymology of February and Wednesday

 

February & Wednesday

We can blame both spellings on the Romans!  February is fairly clear:  Februa is thought to be a Sabine word (maybe we could blame them for italics, too), meaning “purifications”; Februarius mensis was the month of purification.  Before 450 BC this was actually the last month in the ancient calendar and referred to the feast of purification celebrated on the ides of that month throughout the Roman Empire.  Ides was the term used for approximately mid-month, being the 13th or 15th, depending on whether that particular month had 29 or 31 days.  Interestingly, in English it replaced the Old English solmonað (“mud month”… very appropriate, that) sometime in the 12th century when they began using the Old French term Feverier.

Wednesday accumulated slightly more pedigree before landing in our agendas:  It started off as the “day of (the god) Mercury,” the Latin dies Mercurii.  It was confiscated by the Scandinavians for their own religious version for Odin, Oðinsdagr (Old Norse) or Onsdag in Swedish.  This came with them over the Channel and was adopted by their English counterparts as wodnesdæg, or “Woden’s day.”  Old Frisian came fairly close to modern English with Wonsdei (I’ve probably seen that spelling on Facebook from people who can’t type with their i-phones properly…).  By the mid- 400 AD period, the Germanic Goths had been converted from Paganism to Christianity by Greek missionaries, and their language began to reflect the changes:  The astrological or religious terms gave way to ecclesiastical (or at least neutral) ones.  This difference is reflected in words like Mittwoch (German for Wednesday, meaning literally “mid-week”), sreda (Russian), or środa (Polish), both meaning literally “middle.”

So there you have it:  Blame it on the Romans, or the Vikings; but whoever you blame, just remember to spell them in correct modern English.

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