Tag Archives: English spelling

The old “ye olde”

Originally published on BoldFace, the blog of the Toronto branch of Editors Canada

If you want to make something look, y’know, old, and classy and stuff, what’s better than adding an e to the end of it? Think how much extra you pay to stay in a Crowne Plaza hotel than you would in a simple Crown Plaza. Cochrane, Alberta, has a log-and-glass event space called Cochrane RancheHouse. And of course there are all these plain old olde things.

And that’s where we cranky up the antiquity another notch, with the word you have to blow the dust off every time you use it: ye. As in ye olde candy shoppe. And As ye sow, so shall ye reap. And perhaps, at the RancheHouse, ye haw.*

Only those aren’t the same word. And the ye in ye olde isn’t ye at all. The y isn’t y.

English used to have the letters ð and þ, which stood for sounds we now spell as th as in this and thin. They mostly fell out of use during the medieval period, but a few words often kept them, such as þe (the) and þat (that). They would be reduced with the aid of superscripts, like þe and þt. But when we got printing presses, the moveable type that came with them was forged on the continent by speakers of languages that didn’t use those letters.

What was the closest letter? You might think it would be p or b, but the way þ was written in cursive was more open topped and looked like a rakish y with an ascending first line. So y became the substitution, and the was often rendered as ye (often with the e right on top of the y). This became so well established it was done that way even in hand-carved inscriptions such as tombstones, where the carver could have used a proper þ – if he had known to do so.

So. Ye as in ye olde is really just the. But how about hear ye and so shall ye reap? This is part of what causes the confusion. The ye in ye olde might be their problem, but the ye in hear ye is you.

Literally. It’s the old nominative form of you. Just as we have I and me, and she and her, we had ye and you. It happens to have fallen out of standard use over the years, gone from normal discourse by the time Shakespeare died, and gone from formal discourse before Churchill was born, but persisting in regional dialects. It’s as if the formal standard had come to be “Me gave it to her, but her didn’t want it.”

Well, ye can still keep it if ye want to be olde style. And, now, what is up with all those e’s? Well, Old English had a lot of inflectional endings that wore down over time. They included such suffixes as –an, –en, and –um. These ended up reduced to an unstressed vowel during the Middle English period. The spelling of English was in flux at the time, and scribes and, later, typesetters could make decisions about what letter to use to represent this minimal vowel. At times they used y or i, but in the end e, the easiest one, prevailed. And over time it stopped being pronounced, too. So we got all those silent e’s that make e the most common letter in English usage.

And when you’re a scribe paid by the letter, or a typesetter who needs to make the text fit the line, and these e’s are silent and seem to show up in random places, why not toss in extra ones here and there? And so a word that in Old English was eald and came with the changes of the time to be auld and aud and awd and old – and many other forms – could not avoid being olde occasionally.

Between then and now, some advocates of tidying up English spelling have had some minor success, and one of the things they prevailed in was removing most of the unetymological e’s from words. So all those unnecessary oldes became good old olds again. But when we want something to look old (and perhaps therefore classy), we herd towards that little mark of antiquity, the easy e. We see old (but, except for in Scots, not auld or awd) and shoppe (but not schopp) and crowne (but not croun or crowune). And we see ranche, which really was spelled with that e at times in the 1800s in spite of coming from Spanish rancho.

And what about the missing space in RancheHouse? Aw, that’s just branding. You know, as they do to cattle at ranch houses.


*Calgarians, please do not write to me telling me that it should be yahoo, not yeehaw. I know. I was making a funny.

Hello, Ireland!

My latest article for the BBC, on how our messy English spelling is the result of greed, laziness, and snobbery, got me a live interview with an Irish radio talk show this week: the Moncrieff show on Newstalk. It’s on line now, so you can give it a listen. Go to part 2 of the June 10 show and I’m about 1/3 of the way in (there’s a thin red-on-grey progress bar near the top; just click about a third of the way from the left, and drag right or left as necessary). The link, for those who prefer copying and pasting to clicking, is http://www.newstalk.com/listen_back/8/19227/10th_June_2015_-_Moncrieff_Part_2/

Plough through enough dough to make you cough or hiccough

This article was first published on June 9, 2015, on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada (the Editors’ Association of Canada)

You want some tough spelling for an English learner to plough through? Head to ough. There are six different ways it can be said at the end of a word, as in plough, through, dough, enough, cough and (for those who spell it that way) hiccough. (Never mind the versions with another letter after it!)

Nearly all of the ough words trace back to the same final consonant in Old English (what our language was from the seventh to 11th centuries), but to several different vowels — vowels that do not match tidily to modern sounds.

What was the Old English final consonant? It was g, also written as h. In certain places, the Old English g softened to a fricative and, at the end of a word, tended to become voiceless. So, in different texts, you could see g or h both standing for the “h” sound. In Middle English (what we spoke from the 11th through 15th centuries), the fricative version of g was written as ȝ, a letter called yogh (which, by the way, is the only current English word ending in ogh).

Over time we stopped making that sound and replaced it with other sounds or with nothing … but we kept writing it. However, when we got printing presses, the type sets we bought from Europe had no yogh in them. So we got gh instead (just as the lovely letter þ was replaced with th).

What were all those vowels that ended up as ou in ough? Some were o’s, short or long; some were u’s; occasionally there was a long a. In the normal course of things, the modern English descendants of those sounds (after a millennium of mutation) are as follows: long á became “long o,” so hám became home; short o became “short o,” hardly changed in pot and bottom; long ó became “long oo,” so fóda became food; long ú became ow or ou, with mús becoming mouse and dún becoming down; and short u ended up sometimes as in put and sometimes as in putt (which sound the same in certain dialects).

But the ough words are not the normal course of things. There was this velar fricative after the vowel, and in Middle English it gradually weakened and caused rounding of the lips (velar fricatives tend to do this because they make the sound contrast more). So plog became our word plough, and slog became the rhyming slough, because they had the vowel in “pot” plus a “w” sound. For some reason, bóg took this course too and became bough. From dáh, which naturally evolved towards the vowel in home, we got dough. The history of burg to borough and þuruh to thorough is more chaotic — in some modern English dialects, the final vowel is like “uh.” Meanwhile, we got through from þurg because it made it to Middle English with the u before the r, so it kept the “oo” sound, and then the u and r swapped places while the final fricative stopped being said.

And then there are the ones that kept a stronger stressed “wh” sound in Middle English — or that only appeared in the language then — such as the Old English genóg, tóh and ruh and the Middle English slohu and coȝ. The strong “wh” sound at the end was dominant enough that the vowel was shortened to the one we hear in “book” (except in coȝ, which had a short o with no u influence). But then we strengthened the “wh” sound at the end of words to make it “f.” And so we got enough, tough, rough, slough and cough.

Oh, and what about hiccough? That’s due to pseudo-etymological mischief. The word was hicke up or hikup — readily reflected today as hiccup — but some silly fellows decided it must come from cough and so, because they wanted words to show where they came from (that classist obsession with pedigree), they started respelling it. It’s a mere parvenu, a poseur. A hiccup.

English spelling is a mess because people are greedy, lazy snobs

The BBC has commissioned another article from me, and it’s just gone live today. It’s on BBC.com:

How the English language became such a mess

(It’s specifically about spelling, but the headline doesn’t say so.)

I’m told that people in Britain don’t have access to this BBC site because it’s intended for international audiences! But I’ve also been told that if you view it through Google Translate (tell it to translate from, I don’t know, Chinese or Russian or something like that; it will just show you the English as though it’s being quoted by Chinese or Russians), it will let you see it even if you’re in Britain.

Proof that English spelling is an evil trap

My latest article for The Week looks at 10 words that are further evidence of the malicious character of English spelling. They look like they should be easy to pronounce, and many of us pronounce them as they look… but they’re really supposed to be pronounced quite differently:

10 words we’ve forgotten how to pronounce



To say or spell indict
or, even worse, indictment
could lead to much excictment
but not so much insict…
If spelling’s your delict,
you know that dereliction
could lead to interdiction
if you don’t keep it tict.
If out loud you indite,
pay close heed to the diction
lest you pronounce a fiction
due to an eye-tongue fict.
But if you will recict
and wrict as indicated,
you will be vindicated –
not derelict but delict.
Pay heed to my invict
and you’ll be an invictus,
your face a grinning rictus
because you did it rict.

Ah, isn’t English spelling a treasure? Sure, like a treasure-hunt in a sandbox – one that’s in current use as a kitty litter box.

But actually the offending nuggets are not so fresh. Most of the worst booby-traps in English orthography came about during and after the English Renaissance (i.e., the time of Shakespeare and thereafter), when various scholars felt that English words that were descended from Latin ought to wear their fine ancestry on their sleeves. (See “What’s up with English spelling?”) The idea that spelling should simply reflect sound was too plebeian; orthography offers such a panoply of finery, why not come out in full dress, unburdened by quotidian chores? 太好了! 你學吧!

So we had a word endyte or endite coming from Old French enditer, which in turn came from Latin in plus dictare ‘say, declare’, and the scholarly pedants of the time felt that it should therefore claim its nobility and sit on the page as indict. The same fellows gave us the o in people (because of Latin populum) and the b in debt (because of Latin debitum).

I do not think we owe a det of gratitude to these peple. I would rather see them indicted.

But not indited. You see, the unaltered spelling indite also persisted, with a slightly different sense: ‘dictate; enjoin; compose; put in words; recite’. It’s a word of literature now, and a rather high-toned precious one. Meanwhile, indict is a word known to the basest members of society. Oh, the irony.

Thanks to Iva Cheung for reminding me that I wanted to taste this one.

Of ilands, dets, and spelling reforms

My latest article for TheWeek.com is on English spelling reform – a few people who have tried it, some who succeeded, some who failed, some who succeeded but should have failed:

6 quests to fix English’s messed-up spelling

A new way to be a complete loser

I have just read an article in the New York Times, “The Self-Appointed Twitter Scolds,” about a set of people who have taken it on themselves to correct sloppy grammar on Twitter whenever and wherever they find it. Some even have automated programs that will send criticisms to complete strangers.

This is, perhaps, not surprising, but it is nonetheless disappointing. To think that there are people whose lives are so pathetically devoid of any sense of control or significance that they feel the need to dispense wholesale rudeness personally to anyone who fails to match their idea of grammatical perfection! These people need to go out and buy some manners. Even the cheap kind of manners they can get at discount stores will prevent this. This sort of behaviour is like walking down the sidewalk looking for people who are, for instance, wearing stripes with plaid, or even blue with green, and saying rude things to them about it.

I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it: The rules of language are made to serve communication, not the other way around. The rules of grammar that we have are a codification of common practices that arose through actual usage, and the point of them is to give people a clear and consistent means of communicating with each other – so one human mind can reach out and come into contact with another human mind. Grammar is the means. The moment it is taken as the end, we have what is now commonly known as a FAIL. To use a Buddhist analogy, what these people are doing is like focusing on the finger rather than on the moon that it is pointing at.

Or let me use an analogy familiar to concert-goers. How often have you been at a concert, or the opera or ballet, and heard someone across the theatre going “SSSHHHHH!” at someone? Tell me, now, how often have you heard the person they were shushing? The SSSHHHHH is louder and more disruptive than what it aims to correct. It is a form of rudeness pretending to be a form of enforcement of politeness.

Likewise, while it may be bad manners to tweet in all caps, it is much worse manners to send a tweet to someone out of the blue carping on their use of all caps. And while making a lot of typos may be a little distracting and may seem to show imperfect concern for the reader, that’s hardly at the level of rudeness shown by those who tweet back complaining about them.

The truth is that no one is a perfect user of English all the time. It’s not really possible, since there are points of dispute such that some people will think one thing correct and others will think a different thing correct. But, more than that, English is not one language with the same rules and structures all the time. It has a variety of levels of usage appropriate to different contexts. (See “An appreciation of English: A language in motion” for some background.) It is as wrong to use formal locutions in a casual context as vice versa, for instance. And certain grammatical “errors” can be a good way to signal a casual, friendly context – don’t say it ain’t so.

More to the point, one thing I have never failed to observe is that anyone who is inclined to be hostile about other people’s grammar inevitably makes mistakes and has false beliefs about grammar. Often the very thing they’re ranting about they’re mistaken about (see “When an ‘error’ isn’t”). But beyond that, you can feel sure that they will get other things wrong even by the prescriptive standards they adhere to, be they idioms, points of grammatical agreement, or what have you. And you can feel entirely certain that they are utterly uneducated in linguistics, having false beliefs about, for instance, what is and isn’t a word.

Am I advocating an “anything goes” approach to grammar, whereby we toss out all the rules? Of course not. I’m a professional editor, after all. If you want to deliver a polished message, you want to make sure that it doesn’t have deviations that will distract or annoy people. There is a reason for having standards – we want to make sure we all have a point of reference so we can communicate with each other. But, again, the point of those standards is to serve communication, not the other way around. They are tools. They are not indicators of a person’s quality. An infraction of them causes no one injury.

And breaking grammatical rules is simply nowhere near as bad as being unspeakably rude to people about their use of grammar. Let it go, people. The English language is not being destroyed by people who make typos. The most damage that has been done to English has been done by people who appointed themselves its correctors.

Why “fetuses”?

A colleague asked why it was that dictionaries seemed to prefer fetuses rather than, say, fœtii, to follow the same rule (she said) as octopus, rather than the “stupid sounding” octopuses.

Well, first of all, the plural of an -us ending is -i, not -ii; the Latinate plural of octopus is octopi, not octopii. Only words that end in -ius pluralize to -ii.

Second, octopi is not really any more correct than octopuses. Octopus was a loan word in Latin and is a loan word in English, and in each case the language has applied its own inflection ending for the plural. The original is Greek octopous (“eight” + “foot”) and the plural of that is octopodes, though those who insist on saying octopodes in English conveniently forget that we don’t say octopous for the singular.

In regard to œ versus e, in many words we have gotten from Latin, the digraph has been simplified in North American English, but that’s hardly the first spelling change ever enacted on Latin loans, and efforts to retain Latin etymology (or resurrect it) have had a lot to do with the poor match between spelling and pronunciation in English. In this case, however, fetus is the more etymologically correct spelling; fœtus is an error – a misconjecture. The original Latin is fetus with a long e.

Anyway, feti is used, but rarely. Fetuses is used commonly because, after all, we’re speaking English, and we more often than not conform loan words to English morphological patterns rather than keeping them in the morphology of the source language. (Quick, what’s the plural of sauna? And why do you say that? Also, why does nobody object that the alcohol and the albatross are redundant, since the al in the source means “the”? Answer: they’re ours now [evil laugh].) I suspect that the fact that feti would sound like “feet eye” has some little something to do with the preference in this case – we don’t always like to confuse ourselves. At any rate, dictionaries document usage. They can have some prescriptive effect, but their main function is to tell people what educated people use a word to mean and how they spell and inflect it. So the usage comes first. Even Noah Webster, when he made a number of spelling reforms in his dictionary, used only spellings that had already been used in real life. (And not all of his changes stuck, either.)

Latinate plurals serve nicely as a sign of desire to sound erudite, and they keep the language nice and difficult the way we like it, but they do have practical limits, beyond which they become rather funny. I seem to recall some humorous prose or verse referring to travelling on omnibi and so forth. (-ibus, by the way, is an inflectional ending of its own and not -ib plus -us, so -ibi is no kind of Latin).

What’s up with English spelling?

Presented at the 30th annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Toronto, June 6, 2009

Handout: Why is it spelled that way? A ghotiun expedition (PDF, 156 KB)

Last week, the annual Scripps Spelling Bee was held. Everyone was so impressed at how smart these kids were, at how they could spell all these words.

Remember that song, A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…? So what the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? It gets to be like a bad marriage. Or a boxing match. Continue reading