29 August 2018

Orthography for the perfectionist blogger

The orthography of English is intricate and subtle, often encoding semantic and etymological distinctions which are not clearly made by the plain sounds of the spoken language.  If you see the f sound written with ph, for example, it usually means the word is of Greek origin; a silent gh as in right or light almost always indicates a native Germanic word.  The first vowel of national differs from that of nation, but the spelling preserves the connection.  Philistines like to say that English spelling is "illogical" or "difficult"; in reality the deeper logic (well, of some of it) escapes their superficial grasp, but it's true that the system is harder to master than those of languages where the match between spelling and sound is closer.

Nevertheless, the effort repays itself.  For the serious blogger, just a little extra knowledge can prevent common cases of confusion which can undermine an otherwise solid post and distract from its argument.  It goes without saying that such errors are startlingly common on right-wing sites.  This sometimes provides unintended amusement, but that's not an effect anyone should wish to emulate.  Here are some cases of mix-ups I've seen fairly often.

bear / bare (with me):  Besides being referring to the animal, bear is a verb meaning carry or endure.  In the latter sense it gives rise to bear with me, roughly meaning "please keep listening to me until I get to the point."  Bare, of course, means uncovered or naked or to uncover.  A request to bare with me is incorrect, unless it's suggesting something you should really only do with someone you know pretty well.

counsel / councilCounsel means to advise or an adviser, especially a lawyer.  A council is a glorified committee.  They're frequently mixed up, an error that doesn't even have the virtue of being funny.

course / coarse:  A course is a way, path, or direction; of course means certainly or obviouslyCoarse means rough or crude.  Oddly enough, I've seen the error of coarse even though coarse is a much rarer word than course.

effect / affect:  This one is difficult.  In most cases, effect is a noun roughly meaning a result something causes in something else, as in "undercooked meat has the effect of making me nauseous."  Affect is a verb meaning to cause an effect, as in "the sad story affected him deeply."  The common error here is to use effect in place of affect.  Annoyingly enough, though, each word also has a rare different usage which works the other way round.  Effect can be used as a verb meaning put into action:  "Mr. Scott, effect repairs on the warp drive."  And affect can be used as a noun meaning a mood or psychological tendency.  Those usages are very rare, though.

have / of:  Please.  Everybody knows what have means and what of means.  Their unstressed pronunciations in rapid speech are the same, but should of and would of make no sense.  It's should've and would've, if one doesn't want to write out the full word have.

heroin / heroineHeroin is the drug, a heroine is a female hero.  Pretty straightforward, but I've seen these confused many times.

horde / hoard:  A horde is a huge swarm of people, especially a barbarian army.  A hoard is a stockpile of something valuable.  If someone writes "the Mongol hoards", he's unwittingly talking about their accumulated treasures, not their armies.

lode / loadLode is a rarely-used word referring to a rich mass of ore -- hence the expression the mother lode, meaning the most major or outstanding source or core of something.  I have seen this written as "the mother load", and if you figure out what that means, I'm not sure I want to know.

lose / loose:  These actually are not pronounced alike, but the spelling is confusing.  Lose, meaning to be defeated, is pronounced like "looz"; loose, the opposite of tight, is pronounced "looss" with the normal voiceless sound of the S.  Since the single O is rarely pronounced this way in English, lose and loser are commonly written loose and looser by mistake.

poured / poredPour is a verb meaning to dispense liquid; pore as a verb is really used only in the expression to pore over, meaning to examine something intensively, especially a document.  If someone writes "I was pouring over that book", you're entitled to wonder what he was pouring over it, and to assume that the book was thereby ruined.

reign / rein:  A reign is the period of a monarch's rule, or a verb meaning "to rule".  Reins are the cords used by drivers to control horses, hence the expression to rein in, meaning to restrain somebody or something.  However, the word rein is becoming as obsolete as the thing, hence the common error to reign in.  The only case where this would be correct is when saying something like "Queen Elizabeth reigns in the United Kingdom."

sight / site / cite:  A sight is something to see -- "Big Ben is an impressive sight!"  A site is a location, nowadays commonly used as an abbreviation for website.  To cite is to refer to an authoritative source of information for support -- "the judge's ruling cited several Supreme Court decisions."

Finally, Democrat / Democratic:  It's become oddly common in right-wing writing, when referring to the political party, to use Democrat when Democratic would be correct -- "the Democrat party", for example.  Such writers seem to think they are thereby expressing disdain for the party, but all they're really doing is implying that they aren't smart enough to grasp the concept that some words have a different form depending on whether they're being used as nouns or adjectives.

While some may view our language's writing system as difficult or illogical, I have found it poetically inspiring.  And don't forget the fascinating hyper-modern dialect which is evolving online.


Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

When I first started surfing the net many years ago, errors like these used to drive me absolutely nuts. I grew to accept that many, if not most, people do not have a good grasp of the fundamentals of spelling, grammar or proper word usage. Now it just makes me grateful for the excellent English teachers I had in school.

29 August, 2018 05:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: Having good English teachers is definitely a good start, but I think the main reason some people have a good grasp of these things is that they read a lot. When you've seen the correct usages thousands of times, they become second nature. I know that my own ability to get these kinds of things right has deteriorated greatly since I started reading right-wing websites which are riddled with mistakes.

29 August, 2018 05:50  
Anonymous KanaW said...

I have a friend in Germany who loves to write in English. She says it's so much more flexible and descriptive than her native language.

29 August, 2018 06:50  
Anonymous PsiCop said...

Rein/reign, pore/pour, and hoard/horde are three that really rankle me. But another is "lede" versus "lead." "Lede" is journalistic jargon for the opening of a news article or story. While it's true the "lede" of a story does "lead" it off, it's still the "lede" and not really the "lead." I often see the expression "bury the lead" which should, instead, be "bury the lede." I'm pretty sure, when people say this, they don't mean digging a hole and dropping in an ingot of the element with atomic number 82.

BTW all of this reminds me of the famous "ghoti." Take a guess as to how it's pronounced. If you said "fish," then you got his point: "gh" as in "tough," "o" as in "women," and "ti" as in "motion.

29 August, 2018 07:45  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

This is interesting for me, and educational, because I f*ck up, big time, you name it, punctuation, words of whatever, regardless of me trying to correct my writing more, I still f*ck up, and folks close to me, have told me how I f*ck up, I was even a f*ck up as a kid in school, and sadly will probably continue to f*ck up {:-( I see it time and again throughout my blog, so no doubt others do, so I cant blame them for not wanting to read anything else, it's probably aggravating to them, even though it's not meant to be. Even once, a lady sent me an email that I posted on my blog about how I f*ck up, trying to explain to me, what I should do, learn or whatever. And it was so basic kind of stuff, like shit I should've learned in grade school. Thanx for the read though ....

29 August, 2018 07:46  
Blogger Ami said...

Reading is definitely the key, I think. I learned to read when I was four. It just happened, there were no lessons and there was no pressure.

I was six years old when seeing incorrect spellings and grammatical errors became automatic. Probably the reason those all-important achievement test scores were always high for me.

You left out one that drives me insane. I see it more often on the book of face than on blogs, but it shows up on a few of those as well.

As in, "I saw that movie and was balling halfway through."
Oh my.

29 August, 2018 07:57  
Blogger Ami said...

I am neither left nor right with regards to politics.
I can find things to hate on both sides. ;)

But I have noticed many more mistakes on the right side of the arguments than the left. And if you add ultra religious right wing sites, the errors increase exponentially.
I'm sure one could find humor, or at least a lesson of sorts in that fact.

29 August, 2018 08:26  
Blogger Cyranetta said...

The most amusing incidence of this sort of confusion I saw some years ago, when someone referred to a "taught abdomen" - I was derailed from what I was reading imagining the curriculum . . .

29 August, 2018 09:57  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

That's really interesting. I see people online making grammar/spelling mistakes all the time and sometimes I really have to stop myself from correcting them. Especially my brother, I correct him all the time because it drives him nuts. lol

29 August, 2018 10:51  
Anonymous NickM said...

As to the etymological issue. I agree entirely. An interesting side on this is Richard Feynman once railed against literature profs for doing nothing of use and suggested a useful thing would be to figure out trulyphonetic spelling which just goes to show even geniuses can make asses of themselves outside their field. Apart from the loss of the useful history contined in the spelling it begs the question as to what accent to create phonetic English for? Feynman himself had quite a strong Brooklyn accent. Very different from me and, well, almost all English speakers really.

29 August, 2018 10:53  
Blogger Nan said...

People who recognize they aren't very good spellers often rely on the corrective forces of their phones and tablets. Obviously, since these mechanical devices aren't as smart as we like to give them credit for, the word(s) used don't always fit the occasion. 😉

Great list, BTW. Can't tell you how many times I've cringed when reading some of the things offered for public view!

29 August, 2018 11:40  
Anonymous Sam240 said...

English spelling is very logical. Most words are written exactly the way they sounded 600 years ago.

Using your example of silent "gh," let's look at knight. 600 years ago, the "k" was pronounced, the "i" was short i, and the "gh" was pronounced like the "ch" in loch. In many cases, the letter yogh was used instead of gh; Norman scribes just didn't like writing odd letters like yogh and thorn.

Mental Floss had an old article about letters that dropped out of the English alphabet.

Psicop: Once upon a time, "tough" ended with the letter yogh.

I haven't even mentioned how the great vowel shift made English spelling more difficult. It's worth exploring.

29 August, 2018 23:00  
Blogger Ten Bears said...

We tend to think of moot in the generally accepted vernacular as inconsequential, though a moot could in fact be of considerable consequence.

30 August, 2018 05:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off I want to say terrific blog! I had a quick question that I'd like to ask if you don't mind.
I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.
I've had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting
my thoughts out there. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first
10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted simply just trying to figure out how
to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Many thanks!

30 August, 2018 07:37  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Kana: He wouldn't be the first German to take that view. "In richness, good sense and convenience, no other of the living languages may be put beside English" -- Jakob Grimm

PsiCop: "Lede" is a good example of how it's the rare words that tend to get mistakenly replaced by common ones with the same pronunciation. The "ghoti" thing is a bit of a canard, though. Special spellings like ti for sh and gh for f occur only in specific environments and can't be used just anywhere. The o for ih in "women" may be the only such case in the language.

Ranch: Everybody makes mistakes sometimes -- the issue with these is that the people who do them often don't even realize they aren't correct, and they show up surprisingly often in semi-professional writing these days.

Ami: "Balling"? Must be a pretty stimulating movie. I can't imagine what that would be a mistaken substitute for, though.

Cyranetta: I once saw a description of a woman wearing a skirt "slit up to her waste". Rather undermined the sexy implications intended.

Mary: Sometimes people appreciate it if you respectfully point out an error which undermines their writing, but yes, in most cases it's best to avoid singling out individuals.

NickM: Feynman is a genius, but like many geniuses, apparently not up to speed on issues completely outside his field. Aside from the dialect problem, a completely phonetic spelling of English would have to encode a great deal of information which isn't useful in conveying meaning (stressed vs. unstressed pronunciations of words like "for", for example), while omitting the etymological information in the existing standard system, which is useful.

Nan: The problem with spell checkers is that they don't actually detect wrong words -- they just detect strings of letters which aren't recognized words. A string of letters can be a real word and still be wrong in that context.

Sam: Some of the spelling is based on old pronunciation, but that doesn't explain things like the ph in Greek-origin words. The spelling preserves history in more than one way.

Thomas: Just so long as no one claims it's a "mute" point (that's common enough that I should have included moot / mute in the list).

Anon: In all honesty I rarely have that problem, so it's hard for me to make suggestions.

31 August, 2018 04:00  
Anonymous NickM said...

Hey sorry guys. I made a right mess of my comment here (ironic in the context) because I was trying out a new/old keyboard. Oh, well.

What really gets me is this. I was born in 1973 so I am a child of the '70s not the 70's. The later comes up everywhere. My nearest shop has a sign saying that lottery tickets are not for sale to under 16's. And that is an official sign from a big chain.

My mother is a recently retired English teacher. It drives her up the wall.

Also (almost on topic)... The UK based utilities company Powergen opened up in Italy. Guess what URL the registered there...

31 August, 2018 06:36  
Anonymous NickM said...

I once dated for 2 1/2 years a US citizen. English degree from Cornell Magna cum Something or whatever. She went on to do a PhD at Stanford. She did the mute/moot thing. And she got a PhD in Victorian literature.

31 August, 2018 06:40  
Anonymous Sam240 said...

Some of the spelling is based on old pronunciation, but that doesn't explain things like the ph in Greek-origin words.

That ph is based on old pronunciation - over 2,000 years old, in fact.

In classical Greek, pi represented the unaspirated p, and phi was an aspirated p. In lay terms, phi was a "p" with a breath coming out, and pi was a "p" without the breath. The ancient Greeks did not have the "f" sound. (Modern Greek does; the aspirated "p" became an "f" over time.)

The Romans had the letter "f" for the sound of our letter "f," the letter "p" for the unaspirated p, and had the letter "h" for the sound of a breath. The Greek pi sounded like the Latin p. However, the Greek phi sounded like the Latin p followed by a breath, so the Romans rationally did not write it as "f." They wrote it as "p" plus the "h" for breath -- in other words, as ph.

Over the centuries, Latin became Italian, French, Spanish, and other languages. Also, in most of those languages, the aspirated p turned into the "f" sound. However, the French kept writing those words with the letters "ph," and, when they came over to England, they brought those words and the "ph" spelling over with them.

There are some words from Greek which are spelled with an f, feta being the most well-known. However, as "feta" was adopted directly from the Greek, it is not spelled "pheta."

31 August, 2018 18:15  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I know about the ancient Greek pronunciation of ph and how the Romans interpreted it, but ph was never pronounced like that in English, not 600 years ago nor at any other time, so that element of the writing system isn't based on an earlier pronunciation of English.

01 September, 2018 07:25  
Blogger Ami said...

Bawling. Balling and bawling sound alike. :)
First time I saw it I was EMBARRASSED!!! :)

01 September, 2018 08:53  
Blogger Unknown said...

Spelling the past tense of 'lead' as 'lead' instead of 'led.' It drives me crazy.

01 September, 2018 15:28  
Blogger rupi capra said...

Howard Owens has an interesting article on "lede vs lead" at http://howardowens.com/lede-vs-lead/. Apparently its lede that is the modern and somewhat pretentious usage.

01 September, 2018 20:36  

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