You have the right to remain silent

I’ve often told people that I’m glad I grew up in an English-speaking country, although not out of any kind of chauvinism. Rather, it’s just that if I hadn’t learned English as my first language, I doubt that I ever would have been able to learn it as my second, and a huge part of that is because the spelling and pronunciation of things just seem to make no damn sense. There’s an example right there: we spell it “pronunciation” as a noun, but as a verb it’s “pronounce.” Ta… what? Where’d that extra “o” come from?

The only other language I can think of off the top of my head where the spelling seems to make no sense is Irish Gaelic. Let’s just look at a few names. The example a lot of people probably know is Sinéad, as in Sinéad O’Connor. Now, if you didn’t know, you’d probably think it was “Sineed” or “SinEE-ad,” but it’s not. It’s “shi-NAYD.” A couple of Oscar shows back, we all learned that Saoirse wasn’t “sao-irse” or “sa-oyers,” but “SEER-sha.”

So what would you make of the names Niamh or Caoimhe? Neeam and Cammy, right? Nope. Neev (or NEE-av) and KEE-va.

Now, I’m assured that the rules of pronouncing words in Gaelic are completely consistent and easy to remember, but I’ve tried to learn the language, since it is part of my genetic background, and failed miserably. Then again, looking at the last three names together, it does start to make sense, although it’s still a brain breaker.

No such luck in English. It’s tough enough to plough through without silent letters messing things up. Even if you had read it in your head before you read it out loud, you could still make big mistakes if you’re not completely fluent.

I’m not even going to get into all the multiple ways various vowels and diphthongs can be pronounced — and note that diphthong can either be pronounced as “dipthong” (more common) or “difthong” (rarer.) I’m more interested in one particular culprit for this post, though: The Silent E.

In English, the pronunciation of vowels is not consistent as it is in a lot of other Indo-European languages, particularly the Romance languages. In the latter, whatever their vowels are — typically A, E, I, O, U — each have the same pronunciation. In Spanish, for example, they are ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. To jump to Germanic, they are very similar in Deutsche, too: ah, ay, ih, oh, oo.

Any changes come through putting two vowels together, and they’re also consistent. For example, in German, put “ie” together and you get “ee.” In Spanish, put “ui” together and get “uee” On the other hand, other combos in Spanish just give you two syllables. “AE” in a word like “caer,” for example, gives you “ky-air,” the infinitive form of the verb “to fall.”

There’s another concept Spanish has that English doesn’t: Strong and weak vowels. A, O, and U are strong. E and I are weak. And it plays out like this — by affecting certain consonants that come before the vowels, as well as how the vowels combine. In Spanish, the affected consonants tend to be C and G. When the C comes before a strong vowel, then it has the hard K sound (casa — kah-sa); when it comes before a weak vowel, then it’s an S (ciudad — see-ooh dahd). Likewise, when G comes before a strong vowel, it’s more of a hard G (dame gasolina… that second word is pronounced just like in English) and before a weak vowel, more of an H; general, “HEN-eh-ral.”

Final note: notice that the “CIU” combo in “ciudad” is pronounced “see-ooh. That happens when you put a weak vowel before a strong one. It’s the opposite of the “UI” combo. When the strong vowel comes first, the weak one gets absorbed, more or less.

None of which has anything at all to do with how fucked up English vowels are, except as an example of a language with easy and consistent rules. Know how the vowels and diphthongs in Spanish or German or Italian work? Then you’re good to go, and can read and pronounce any word you run across. Period.

Meanwhile, in English, we have little word pairs like these: cat, Cate; fat, fate; gat, gate; hat, hate; mat, mate; Nat, Nate; pat, pate; rat, rate; sat, sate; bit, bite; kit, kite; sit, site; bon, bone; con, cone; don, done; non, none; ton, tone; dun, dune; run, rune.

There are probably a lot more, but I stuck to single-consonant starts. The interesting thing to notice, though, is that we have examples for every first vowel except for E. The only example I can kind of stretch out of it are “Ben” and “Bene” (bin and baynay), but that only works because the latter word is Latin, and both of its E’s are pronounced.

Another thing to note: In other Germanic and Romance languages, the final E is always pronounced. For example, in Italian, the words “molto bene” and “calzone” are pronounced “mole-toe bay-nay” and “kal-zo-nay.” (At least they are by modern Italians. Italian-Americans, who came here before the language was codified after WW II get it “wrong.” At least according to modern Italians.) And, in German, a good example is the word “heute,” which means “today.” It’s pronounced “oy-tuh,” with a great diphthong to start and a pronounced E that doesn’t affect the vowels to end it.

Oh, by the way, the Spanish word for “today” is “hoy,” which is pronounced almost the same as the German word without that little extra syllable at the end.

And, honestly, “syllables at the end” is kind of the trick to it because, once upon a time, before the Great Vowel Shift and back in Chaucer’s day, the E on the end of English words was pronounced as its own syllable. In Shakespeare’s day, the E in the last syllable was also pronounced, especially in participles, so that pronounced would have been pronounced pronounce-ed. This is why modern Shakespearean texts will be marked in one of two ways, depending on the meter… you may see the word as markéd writ, or otherwise unstressed, it is just mark’d.

And while grammarians have tried to come up with logical reasons for silent E’s on the end of words, it’s really a stretch because, again, it’s all based on the vagaries of how English is pronounced in the first place. And there’s a particularly heinous example with a word like “lead.”

If it’s a verb, it’s pronounced the same as “lede,” which is a journalistic concept referring to the most important part of the story which usually starts it off — hence, it leads the piece. However, the reason it’s spelled that way is to distinguish it from the noun, lead, which is pronounced the same as “led,” which is the past tense of the verb to lead.

Confused yet? The reason that journalism needed the easy distinction is because lead or leading (short E) refers to the space between lines of type. When type was set by hand, lines were literally separated by one or more thin strips of lead one point or 1/72nd of an inch thick. The term did carry over into the computer world for a long time, though, only eventually giving away to “line spacing” in modern digital publishing. But lede, lead, led, and lead’s friend read all bring up a good point: Vowels in English make no damn sense.

They used to, and that brings us back to Chaucer and English before the great vowel shift — and before Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster independently sat down to decide how words “should” be spelled. (Hint: Johnson was a pedantic putz, and a big part of the reason that English spelling makes no sense. Webster tried to simplify a bit, but not enough.) See, if you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales out loud and pronounce every word exactly how it’s spelled, remembering that every vowel is pronounced, even the last E’s in words like “bathed” and “veyne”, and that every vowel has only one pronunciation, you can recite it and sound exactly like a speaker of Chaucer’s English without even knowing the language.

Good luck for any non-English speaker trying to read a modern English work and getting it right. It would come out about as clear as me trying to read Gaelic. I’d imagine that this is probably a good approximation of what this mutt language called English looks like to a non-speaker. Here are the first lines of Chaucer in Gaelic: “Nuair a chuir cithfholcadáin i mí Aibreáin an triomach i leataobh, is féidir go dtéann sé go dtí an fhréamh …”

Yeah. I have no idea, either. I do know that Ben Franklin tried to reform English by creating a slightly new alphabet — or alfabet — in which each letter had only one pronunciation, but it never caught on. Too bad, because most of the rest of English is actually a lot easier. After all, possible it is to greatly do much manglement to the words and syntax yet thus ensues a sentence over all intelligible still in English speech, it is. There aren’t a lot of languages you can do that to.

So I’m glad I learned this difficult chimera first. It makes it easier to deal with a lot of the others.

Photo credit: Carole Raddato, The Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence

Playwrights write down rites just right

An interesting quartet of heterographs in English are the words rite, right, write, and wright. While the latter three are frequently used with prefixes, the first three also stand alone, and the first one is never prefixed. The second of these has multiple meanings in… well… its own right.

I’ll start with the one I don’t need to go into depth on: Rite. This is the word describing any kind of ritualized ceremony, and you can clearly see that “rite” and “ritual” are related. Rites can be either religious or secular in nature, and they sometimes mix. Weddings and funerals can be either or sometimes both, while baptisms and confirmations are strictly religious. Graduations tend to be secular except in religious schools, although the only religious elements then tend to be an opening invocation or prayer and, sometimes, an optional Mass afterwards. The pledge of allegiance and national anthem are both secular rites. It’s a toss-up either way whether initiation ceremonies for certain organizations like the Masons are religious or secular, although most fraternity and sorority initiations are certainly the most secular of rituals.

Of course, if you and a group of friends regularly get together for Game Night, or Game of Thrones Night, or, like me, do Improv, those are also rites by definition, and again of the most secular kind. Note that all theatre is a rite because it’s structured and has its rules and way of doing things. Not surprising, considering that theatre originated as a religious ceremony in the first place and then grew out of it.

Next is the one with multiple meanings: Right. In its first definition, it refers to some action or thing that people are assumed to have the privilege to possess without meeting any special conditions. That is, a right is a thing you can do, a belief you can hold, or a thing you can own. Of course, “without special conditions” is itself a conditional statement, since in most places rights are established via laws or Constitutions. After all, while the American Declaration of Independence says that our unalienable rights include the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, it’s predicated by the statement that it’s a self-evident truth that all men are created equal (emphasis on “men,” naturally), and followed by the idea that governments are created in order to secure these rights.

Note that, at the time, slavery was legal, and in the new country called the United States of America, only white, male, land-owning men over the age of 21 got to vote. No one else needed to apply. So those unalienable rights were relative after all.

Another meaning of the word “right” is the direction — the hand on the gearshift side (if you’re American and drive manual transmission) or the arm on the opposite side of your body from most of your heart (unless you have situs inversus). There’s also the “right hand rule,” which is used in math, physics, and 3D animation, and is basically a way of visualizing how three directional axes move at once. In the 3D animation world, these are X, Y and Z — generally left-right, forward-back, and up-down.

And then there are… well, damn. The dictionary lists 48 different definitions of the word “right,” as adjective, noun, and adverb. I’ll be right back after I read them all…

(See what I did there?)

Okay, are we all right as rain? Good. Let’s move on to the next one. That would be the word write, which is what I’m doing right now (make it stop!). And while this one technically has 17 definitions, they all really boil down to the same thing: to put information into some form that is inscribed onto a surface via abstract characters that represent sounds, syllables, or concepts, whether ink on paper, hieroglyphics on stone, electrons on computer chips, or notes on a musical staff. The act of doing so is the word write as a verb: to write.

The last of the quartet is wright, and he’s a sad little camper because he has only one definition: a worker, especially one that constructs something. He also never appears alone.

Now let’s get to some compounds using the last three and clear up some confusion. For example… you wrote a play. So does that make you:

  1. A playwrite
  2. A playwright

Well, it’s a play and you wrote it, right? Yes, but you also created it, and this is one of the specific uses for… wright. You constructed a play, so you’re a playwright.

Okay, so you’ve written the play and now you want to make sure that everyone knows you own it so they can’t steal it. Time to file it with the Library of Congress. So do you get:

  1. Copywright
  2. Copywrite
  3. Copyright

Hm. Well, you’re a playwright and you don’t want it copied. Oh, wait. Wouldn’t a “copywright” be someone who makes copies? Then maybe… oh yeah. You wrote it, so you’d write the copies, hence you’d copywrite…? Wrong? Of course. Because what this word is really saying is that you have the right to copy the work, since you own it.

Here’s an easy way to remember. When the word “write” is prefixed, it always refers to the style or method of writing, and not really the person. It’s only a person if the word ends with “writer,” but note that “copywrite” is never a verb. You can’t say “I copywrite for XYZ Blog,” but you can say “I’m a copywriter for XYZ Blog.”

As for words that end in “right,” immediately ignore any that actually end in “wright” or in other words that overlap, like “bright,” or “fright.” You’ll find that the few of these that exist really just modify one of the many other meanings of “right.”

And then there’s “wright.” What’s really fascinating about this word is that there are so many occupations, many long forgotten, that not only use this word, but have given names to the English language — and which also remind us of all those other occupational names, and not obvious ones, like Baker.

Playwright I’ve already mentioned. But what would you go to a wainwright for? No… not someone who designs your Batmobile. Although maybe. A wain was a farm wagon or cart, so a wainwright was a cart-maker. And if that cart were going to be a covered wagon, he’d probably need the services of a cooper to make the metal ribs to hold up the canvas. He’d probably also work in close partnership with a wheelwright, who does exactly what you think.

Side note: Ever heard the word “wainscot?” It isn’t related to wagons, but to wood. It’s one of those fun cases of similar sounding words coming from different origins entirely.

Other wrights you might have seen: shipwright and millwright, both of which should be self-evident. And a lot of these wrights would have relied upon the work of smiths, who are people that work with metal. Pretty much it’s a game of “metal+smith” and there’s the occupation. That’s because the word “smith” meant “to hit,” which is what metal works do to form their molten raw materials. Hm. I wonder whether “smith” and “smash” are related.

And then there’s “blacksmith,” which brings up the question, “Hey — why not ironsmith?” The simple answer is that iron used to be called “black metal” because that’s what it looked like in its unoxidized form — ever seeing iron filings? For similar reasons, tinsmiths are also called whitesmiths. Compare the word “tinker,” who was someone who repaired household utensils, most of which had probably been made by smiths. Or maybe potters.

Another fascinating thing about these occupations is how persistent they become as last names. I mean, there’s Rufus Wainwright, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gary Cooper, Will Smith, Josephine Baker, TV producer Grant Tinker, the fictional Harry Potter and the very real creator of the fictional Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter.

But the real point here, as always, is how four words that sound exactly alike but which are spelled so differently and have such different meanings managed to land in the language through very different routes, because that is what makes English so interesting, versatile, and difficult. I’d probably be right to say that it’s a rite of passage for everyone who’s trying to learn how to write English to mess this stuff up until they meet a wordwright to help them. I hope that I can fulfill that occupation and set things right.

Good night!

Words you might be using incorrectly

If you want to communicate effectively, and especially if you want to have credibility whether you’re speaking or writing, it’s important to use words correctly. Yet I hear certain words misused all the time, even by otherwise well-educated people. Note that I’m not talking about often mangled phrases, like “for all intensive purposes” instead of the proper “for all intents and purposes,” or mixing up words like “affect” and “effect.” These are single words that are frequently used improperly.

Cliché

We probably all know that “cliché” means something that has been used in art or literature so often that it has become bland and predictable, and so should be avoided. Movies are full of them — the horror movie villain who isn’t really dead after they seem to have been killed, the henchmen who are terrible shots, the witty comment as the hero dispatches a goon.

We also get these in live theater, though. The so-called “11 o’clock number” comes from the world of Broadway musicals, when the shows used to start at 8:30. This was the “knock ‘em dead before the finale” show-stopper of a song that usually highlighted the vocal talents of the lead, manipulated emotions, and was catchy as hell. Think Memory from Cats, the titular Cabaret, or Rose’s Turn from Gypsy. Also note that nowadays, it’s more likely to be the 10 o’clock number.

Of course, in the latter case, the cliché isn’t so much a specific thing as it is a stylistic conceit.

In literature, clichés can refer to either hackneyed turns of phrase — “I need that like a hole in the head” — or plot elements that have been pounded to death. Young adult literature in particular, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games via Twilight and Maze Runner abound with them, although, to be fair, they’re more forgivable in YA only because their audience may not have met them yet.

All that said, then, how does the word “cliché” itself get misused? Simple. It’s a noun, and never an adjective. So you’re safe if you say “that’s a cliché.” Not so much if you try to describe something as “that’s so cliché.” In that case, you want the word “clichéd.”

Comprise

This is a word that tends to get used backwards. Hint: If you follow it with a preposition and a list, then you’re using it wrong. Nothing is ever “comprised of” anything else. In that case, you’d be looking for “composed of.”

The “mp” combination in English is interesting because it is one of the ways in which the language has a lot in common with Spanish, and it comes from compound words that would otherwise create the consonant combination “np.” Hell, it even shows up in “compound!” A good Spanish example of this is the word “compartir,” which is very common in social media, because it means “to share.” The constituent words are “con” and “partir.” The former is a preposition that means “with.” The latter is a verb that means “to split.” So, when you share, you split something with someone else: con + partir, but that “np” isn’t liked, to we get “compartir.”

Now to get to the meaning of “comprise,” we have to go back to Middle English via Middle French, where the word “prise” meant to hold or grasp, so the combo basically means “to hold with.” Your preposition is in the phrase, so all you need to add are the nouns.

So… The U.S. comprises fifty states or the U.S. is composed of fifty states.

Further

This word is often confused and misused with “farther.” The two are very similar, but I’ll give you a simple mnemonic to remember the difference, making this a very short entry. “Further” is metaphorical, while “farther” is literal. The latter refers only to physical distance, while the former refers to abstract difference.

“Dallas is farther from Boston than Chicago.”

“He managed to walk farther than his brothers that day.”

“She ran farther in the competition than any other runner.”

Those are the literal versions. As for the abstract or figurative:

“He could extend the metaphor no further.”

“They wouldn’t accept any further questions.”

“Their research proved they had no further to go.”

The way to remember it is this: To create physical distance, you have to go away, and farther has an “a” in it. Yeah, simple and cheesy, but it works.

Ironic

Sorry, but Alanis Morissette is just plain wrong no matter how popular her song is. Irony is not some weird coincidence that happens. For example, slamming the keyboard lid on your hand and breaking it right before your big piano recital is not ironic. Neither is someone saying something during that whole “speak now or forever hold your piece” moment at the wedding.

There are three forms of Irony. First is when what you say is the opposite of what you mean. For example, someone gives you rollerblades for your birthday but you have no legs. That part isn’t ironic, but if you open the gift and announce, “Oh boy, just what I wanted,” then you’re being ironic.

Situational irony is when the intended results of something turn out to be the opposite of what was expected. For example, a husband surprises his wife with an anniversary trip to Paris because she’s always talking about the city, but the real reason she’s seemed so obsessed is because she’s always hated the place, so he’s given her the worst gift ever.

The third form is dramatic irony, and if you’ve ever heard of O. Henry, particularly his short story The Gift of The Magi, then you know this one. A man sells his expensive watch to buy some combs for his wife’s hair. Meanwhile, she cuts off her hair and sells it to by a fob for his watch. Bang! Double irony. This can also happen when the viewers or readers know something that the characters do not.

Less

If you’re a grammar nerd like me, then every time you see that “15 items or less” sign in the store, your butt probably clenches and you have to resist the urge to tell the blameless clerk why it’s wrong. The difference between “less” and “fewer” is really simple.

“Fewer” refers only to countable nouns, while “less” refers to uncountable nouns. And if that seems all super-grammar unintelligible, it’s not, because the words mean what they say. Countable nouns are objects that can actually be counted: one apple, two oranges, three ducks, etc. Uncountable nouns are those that can’t be counted: sugar, coffee, tea, etc.

Note, though, that uncountables can become countable when they are quantized: a cup of coffee, a tablespoon of sugar, a glass of tea, and so on.

But here’s the rule. If you can count them, then you want to say “fewer.” If you can’t, then it’s “less.” “I want fewer apples.” “I want less sugar.”

I don’t have a great mnemonic for this one, although maybe remembering that the “F” in fewer is in “First,” a counting number, might do the trick. And the great compounder to this one is that the term “more” refers to both countable and uncountable nouns: More apples, more tea.

Yeah, I never said that English made any sense.

Whom

This one is not as hard as it might seem, and in order to get it right all you have to do is rephrase the sentence in your head. For example: “To ??? should I send the gift?” Make it not a question, and it becomes “I send the gift to him/her/them.” And the clue comes in the masculine and plural pronouns. They ends in “m” and so does “whom,” so if the rephrase would use him or them, then the other way around would use “whom.”

Most of the time, you’ll use “whom” after a preposition, although not always. For example, a question involving verbs without prepositions get tricky. If someone asked you which person you believed, would it be “who” or “whom?”

Turn it around and you get, “I believe them,” ergo, “Whom do you believe?”

Of course, this also puts the lie to the lyrics of several songs. But no one ever said that lyricists have to be grammarians. Poet do get to slide a bit, after all, no matter the language they write in.