Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Spelling' Category

What’s Wrong with Alright?

Monday, February 11th, 2008

The question is, why do so many people write alright when every English dictionary and style guide say that the only correct spelling for this word is all right? As of this writing, alright occurs 76,400,000 times on Web pages. I know exactly what we need: one more voice in the fray.

At the outset, let me say that my reason for doing this is that none of the dictionaries and style guides I can find give a reason for spelling this lexical item as two words. To be consistent, I will apply the same test that I have applied to all the other issues I’ve weighed in on, e.g. “a historical“, “ain’t“, and ending a sentence with a preposition—consistency of usage. (My say on split infinitives is in the offing)

Alright is as much of a word as already, also and although, adverbs of identical origin: all plus an adverb. My position has always (another one) been that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not suitable terms for settling issues of grammar; instead, we should try to write and speak consistently.

After all, that is what grammar is, a catalog of rules on how to organize language and a rule (from Latin regula, from which we obtained regularity) is an expression of a consistency. To write already, also, always, although as single words, and spell alright as two, would be inconsistent, a rule breaker.

I have another reason though. Alright is used today to mean “OK”, not “all is right”. The haggis is alright = The haggis is OK, not that everything is right with it. “OK” is an expression of mediocrity; “all right” suggests perfection. 

We wouldn’t say, “Is alright” any more than we would say “Is OK?” “Is all right?” is a perfectly good question but it implies perfection: everything is right. If we didn’t recognize this distinction, this old joke wouldn’t work: “Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off?  He’s all right now.”

In A Hard Day’s Night the Beatles sing, “But when I get home to you/ I find the things that you do/ Will make me feel alright.” Doesn’t this strike you a bit odd, John Lennon comes home to someone who only makes him feel OK? Here the phrase all right makes more sense.

Language changes. New words come into language from the outside and new words are created inside language itself. The two words all and right have been combined to form a new word whose meaning, as the meaning of new words is wont to do, drifted off on its own.

woolly bear is not a bear, a ladyfinger is not a finger, and a ladybird is not a bird, as we have noted previously in this blog. By the same token, alright is not the same as all right.  Alright is one word with one meaning, so it is much more consistent to spell it as one word than spelling it as two. 

Conclusion: it is alright to spell alright alright so long as you mean “OK”.

More La-Di-Dahs and La-Di-Da’s

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

Sue Gold, Communications Director of Westtown School, was one of two Good Word readers who asked the question: “Why do you have to put an apostrophe before the s in la-di-da’s?”

ApostropheGood question. The traditional answer is that since “la-di-da” is not a real noun or verb, the apostrophe is appropriate. Words and other things used as major lexical categories have traditionally been marked by using an apostrophe between them and any suffixes that accrue to them, especially if omitting the apostrophe results in a odd-looking form.

Many writers in the US are moving away from this rule, though. I’ve long since given up on writing the decades with apostrophes, e.g. 1980s rather than the traditional 1980’s, since it is a number, not a noun.

In the midst of change like this, when there is no basis for a choice, I sometimes make my choice democratically just to keep the decision from being totally arbitrary: the la-di-da’s outnumber the la-di-das 2 : 1 on the Web (today). This fact probably reflects the fact that the non-noun rule is still in practice in all the other English-speaking regions of the world. Of course, democracy is not the way matters of style are settled so the question remains an unsettled one.

Of course, you can also use an H in this case: la-di-dahs.

Haplology: the Syllable Thief

Monday, August 13th, 2007

Andrew Gillett just sent “a quick question which has been bugging me and my friends. I recently saw an ad in a magazine for mascara by Chanel. It had the word inimitable written on the ad and my friends and I had absolutely no idea why inimitable is spelt that way and not inimitatable or unimitatable, which seems to me to be more obvious since translate becomes translatable.”

Andrew has stumbled on an example of ‘haplology’, which should be ‘haplogy’ since it refers to the deletion of two adjacent identical or near identical syllables. English doesn’t like inimitatable because of the duplicated TATA in the middle—so it drops one TA. The same thing happens in other verbs, e.g. demonstratable becomes demonstrable though, if one of the syllables is accented (as in translatable), haplology will not apply.

Did you ever hear anyone say probly? This is the result of the same process since the OB and AB are pronounced identically in this word. This word undergoes haplology that is not reflected in its spelling but we find haplology built into the spelling of other words.

Other forms, like inimitable reflect haplogy in their spelling and everyone but Andrew ignores them: emphasis+ize is spelled emphasize and feminine+ize has permanently become feminize, dropping one of the INs.

The British apply haplology to those words with R appearing in two adjacent unaccented syllables: library becomes lib’ry and February becomes Feb’ry. So, haplology is all around us. Why then has haplology itself not undergone haplology? Because one of the LOs is accented.

Web Spell

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Dr. Goodword is going to make a prediction: over the next ten years the spelling of everyone using the Web will improve.

With any luck at all, I’ll still be around ten years from now to find out if I’m right. Given all the misspelling we see on the Web (Google today returns 1.27 million pages containing “equiptment”), how could any reasonable person come to this conclusion.

Google LogoWell, it is the nature of searching itself. You have to spell out a URL perfectly or you don’t get to the page you are looking for. If you misspell the key words you use in a search, you don’t get the search you want. If you come close, say “equiptment”, the search engine will correct your spelling for you: “Do you mean ‘equipment’?”—a free spelling lesson. (We have more.)

Did you ever think of Google as a remedial spelling teacher? When you combine these basic facts with the fact that websites like alphaDictionary are spreading like wild fire, you must concede that all fingers are pointing to improved spelling.

This should warm the hearts of all the teachers out there and make up for my claim that ain’t isn’t a four-letter word.

So what is Reading, Anyway?

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Harvard Visual Cognition LabOne of the truths uncovered by psychological research over the past half century is that language involves four faculties: reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension. While all four faculties are interrelated, they are physically located in different parts of the brain. Our writing skills are located around the memory associate area of whichever hand we use to write with, reading skills center around the memory association area of the visual processing, while speaking and comprehension are associated with areas that have their own names: Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Broca’s area is just behind the left eye and Wernicke’s area is not far away; just over the left ear.

A lot of research has been conducted to test Broca’s and Wernicke’s area—that is probably why they are named. But far less research has looked into reading and writing. Now the Visual Cognition Lab at Harvard is beginning to remedy that omission with a series of studies on learning letters and they need online subjects.

What this means is that not only can you learn the results of this research even before the New York Times, you can be a part of it. It doesn’t hurt and costs only 5 minutes of your time. Dr. Goodword has taken the test and thinks that this is good work and deserves the support of all of us interested in language. Click below (or the Harvard insignia above) to see what it is all about.

Of course, the experiment will only work if you do not know what is going on until you have completed the tests. Any mental preparation would contaminate the results.

PoTAYto, poTAHto…or is it poTAYtoe?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

poTAYto, poTAHto, toMAYto, toMAHtoAnn Neithammer wrote yesterday that she had a teacher back in the 40s who told her class that the correct way to spell the official term for spud is potatoe (and, by extension, tomatoe). Finding it difficult to believe that her teacher would have made such a gaff, she asked whether potatoe had at any time been an acceptable spelling. Here is what I think.

Ooops, Ann! Your teacher must have gone to the same school as VP Dan Quayle, whose misspelling of this word in front of news cameras cost him a lot of respect if not the success of his presidential bid later on. Although the Quayle spelling has been used in the past, the last published example we have comes from 1880.

The spelling potatoe is currently on the Web 1,270,000 times (tomatoe only 497,000 times) but that is no excuse. This spelling is clearly a ‘back-derivation’ from the plural potatoes made by erroneously removing only the S. This is not a grievous error, however, since it is difficult to keep up with which words ending on O editors want us to add the suffix -s to in the plural and which, -es—pianos, dominos, pimentos and many others do not).

Back-derivation is a common enough process. That is how we got pea. Originally peas was the only form of this word. It was in a class with oats, greens, collards: it had no singular. The final S was simply coincidental but it looked suspiciously like the plural -s and, since peas was (!) made up of small, countable object, the S was removed and the remainder was used as a singular: one pea.

The process is going on very productively today in words that end (or ended) on the suffix -y which changes to -ie before the plural -s: cookies, brownies, biggies, lefties—even hobbies. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The singular of all these words originally ended on -y but massive back-derivation has converted a large number of them to words like cookie and brownie which are only spelled with the -ie ending now. Hobbie is just beginning to rear its ugly head.

So, while there would seem to be nothing to do to curtail the respelling of words on -y as -ie, potato and tomato are thoroughly ensconced orthographies that should survive me, thank heaven. It does leave open, however, the whole [puh-tay-to] ~ [puh-tah-to] pronunciation debate but maybe we can isolate that to the song (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing off”).

More Phish Phat on the Phire

Friday, November 17th, 2006

Cody Brimhal takes exception to my aspersive attitude toward phish and my comment that they are lacking in use or creativity. Cody argues: “The spelling changes in question apply to words with meanings distinct from (albeit derivative of) their common English counterparts. Insofar as they serve to create–rather than confuse–distinctions in meaning, how is this bad?”

The reason that these words stand out is that they violate the rules of English spelling and I am strong advocate of following the rules. I spent the majority of my life searching for those rules and writing them up when I discovered new ones. The rule in English is that F means [f] and we find PH standing for that sound only in words we borrow from Latin and Greek.

I’m not even a prescriptivist who thinks that grammatical rules are hard and fast. I love language change—etymology is based on the conclusion that historical language change is also rule-driven. I think we owe it to each other to be consistent in our creative use of language, so that we don’t lose each other in our conversations. The English spelling system is the worst of the Western European languages (click here if you don’t believe it), misspelling fat and fish makes it even worse.

I love slang. I spent half this year starting my own slang dictionary that allows you to trace slang historically, not to mention my Slang Generation Test that gives you a good idea of where your slang comes from. However, when we encode words in slang (swell, far-out, flaky, awesome) the rule seems to be: don’t mess with the spelling unless you’re making up a new word: dweeb, geezer, hissy, kooky. Just check our daily Good Word to see how much I love writing about these words.

I shudder to think that I may have Bonnie Prince Charles on my side in my effort to keep English honest. He was recently quoted as saying that Americans “. . . invent all sorts of new nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn’t be . . . . We must act now to ensure that English, and that to my way of thinking means British English, maintains its position as the world language.”

Well, to my mind it has nothing to do with right and wrong or the position of English in the world. My issue with these words is their inconsistency and distance by which they miss wittiness.

How Phat is Phishing these Days?

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

PhishingLast October I wrote up fish as a Good Word, referring to the “silly spelling” of this word as phish around the Web. James Kilpatrick has claimed that it is “phutile to phuss” over this spelling because Google shows 622,000 examples of this “phatuous” spelling.

My first reaction was: “Good grief, has Google now become the authority for acceptable English?” Has that authority become a democratic process, like electing politicians to office? Do we do such a splendid job of electing the right people for the right job that we now want to elect correct spelling and usage?

My second reaction though was, “Big deal. Everything on the Web is so transitory 622,000 hits today mean little if anything.” However, while recent Good Words were swirling through my head, it occurred to me that we already have a word for phishing: pretexting.

According to Kilpatrick, the definition of phish that he found on the Web is: “The act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft.” My definition of pretexting is: “Obtaining secret or private information by pretending to be someone eligible to see that information; in other words, giving a fictitious identity (pretext) to obtain restrictive information.” The only difference is that the vehicle of the deception is e-mail. What difference does that make?

So Kilpatrick and I agree on the silliness factor in misspelling words like phish. These are attempts at creativity by the utterly uncreative. They should never have arisen in the first place but their continued survival only deepens the embarrassment.