definite, definitely

This is definately a word that’s going to set a lot of people off. Definetly. Defiantly.

(Nails digging into your palms yet?)

I grew up with video games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Centipede… They all have an important thing in common with English spelling: They’re all games where you will lose eventually. The point is not to win but just to last as long as you can before you make a mistake …and get slaughtered for it.

Some people last longer than others.

But at least people don’t think you’re a moron if you get wiped out quickly at Pac-Man.

It is true that good spelling in English is typically a sign of a decent intellect and a good education. The converse is not as reliably true. There are many people who are very intelligent and very strong in fields such as math or engineering who are not all that great at English spelling. And of course there are many people who simply were not really taught spelling very well in school and did not take it upon themselves to correct the deficiency because it did not appear all that important to them at the time.

The aim of writing is to represent spoken words. Alphabetic writing systems operate on a generally phonetic principle. Some languages are better than others at sticking to that principle. English has become spectacularly awful at it, in part due to borrowing words from other languages (sorry, not borrowing, stealing; we never give them back), in part due to sound changes in English that were not reflected in spelling changes, in part due to prescriptive spelling trends that actually deprecated adherence to phonetics. Read all about it at “What’s up with English spelling?

So we come to today’s word. It’s a very frequently misspelled word. In some contexts (e.g., some online forums) I think I see definately more often than definitely. Spellings also seen include definatly, definantly, definetly, definently, and even defiantly (let’s just grab some letters and put them there in a plausible arrangement, shall we?). It persists defiantly! And almost infinitely.

There is a reason for this obstinate intrusion of this immaculately conceived a into the word. It is analogy. There are so many words ending in an /ət/ (and, by extension, /ətli/) – realized in various contexts as [ɛt] and [ɪt] – including some very popular words (chocolate, anyone?), that the ate(ly) spelling just seems right. And if you see others doing it, it reinforces it.

So why don’t we spell it that way? Other languages spell things as they sound, regardless of where they came from, after all. For instance, the French loan word chauffeur becomes sjofør in Norwegian, which is a perfectly phonetic spelling for them.

Well, we don’t do that in English. We’re more likely to change our pronunciation to match the spelling, in fact. We like to keep words spelled the way they came into the language. Not always always – sometimes we’ve made them even fancier, and sometimes we’ve trimmed them down – but especially lately it’s the thing to do.

So what put the i in definite? It might help to understand if I define it. What does definite mean, anyway? ‘Certain. Precise. Clearly defined.’ Clearly defined? Indeed. Given clear finite boundaries. From Latin definitus, from de plus finire ‘finish, end, bound’. The word that gives us finish and finite and infinite and definition gives us definite.

But the meaning has shifted just enough, and the pronunciation has reduced just enough on that last syllable, that the connection to those other words is not at the front of the mind, and sometimes not at the back of it either. We don’t, after all, say it like “dee finite”; we say it more like “deaf, innit” – or, to be precise, as /dɛf ə nət/, with those /ə/ phonemes varying in actual pronunciation, but the syllable boundaries quite certain. The common abbreviation for definite is def, as in “I would def go there.” It sometimes seems as though our phonology is increasingly deaf, innit?

But as indefinite as the spelling may be in the minds of many, the response by some to the misspelling is very definite. Oh, definitely. D-E-F-I-N-I-T-E-L-Y, as the website says.

Well, so be it. When it rains it pours. And it is definitely raining.

2 responses to “definite, definitely

  1. You’ve definitely picked a good example, which I’ll defiantly remember when I post at Marc Leavitt’s Blog.

  2. Pingback: awesame | Sesquiotica

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