Sunday, June 28, 2015

Why We Get Words Wrong, Part 4: Regionalisms

This fourth of a ten-part series on why we get words wrong looks at cultural differences. 

With all due respect to my family and friends across the Atlantic, the deleted words in the image represent the British spelling and the rewrites the American spelling. Regionalisms extend far beyond these examples (e.g., or/our and ize/ise word endings), but we should not consider such preferences as mistakes. Rather, we should just know for which audience we are writing.

Choose the preferred regional spelling on your word processor, but more than anything else, read material from both sides of the Atlantic to know the differences.  

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Why We Get Words Wrong, Part 3: Short Cuts

For this third of a ten-part series on why we get words wrong, think about how you actually speak when you are at your leisure. Do you really pronounce the t's in "We want to go to lunch" or the g's in "We're going swimming"? I know some people who do, but most of us do not. I admit that I don't, although I try harder when speaking in front of a professional group. At my casual best, I probably say, "We wannagoda lunch" and "We're goin swimmin." Linguists have a theory called grammaticalization to account for how some words morph over time as we look for short cuts when speaking.

Of course, we would claim that such pronunciation does not excuse us from misspelling want to, go to, going, and swimming. But this does account for spelling climactic as climaticcould've as could of, formerly as formally, ordinance as ordnance, and supposedly as supposively.

For the third time, I'll say we will get these words right by modeling from what we read, not what we hear.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why We Get Words Wrong, Part 2: Popular Culture

In this ten-part series, we look at why some of us have so much trouble with getting words right in English. Part 1 mentioned the schwa, a vowel in an unaccented syllable which sounds unlike its short or long sounds. We mess up for many other reasons, one of them being popular culture. Here are three examples.

Bring vs. Take - The rule says you bring to a point and you take from a point, meaning you should take your laptop from work and bring it home. Yet we hear the popular fighting challenge, "You wanna take it outside?" Think about it: If Buddy issues that statement to Guy in a bar, he is taking the fight from inside the bar and bringing it outside the bar. The same holds true with the Doobie Brothers' song "Taking It to the Streets"; once again, they are taking it from wherever they are and bringing it to the streets. If everyone else is saying it that way, who are we to change it?

Alright vs. All Right - How many songs in your music collection spell all right as alright? Some might include "It's Gonna Be Alright" by the Gerry and the Pacemakers, the same-title-different-song later by the Ramones, "Well Alright" by Blind Faith, and the triple threat "Alright Alright Alright" by Mungo Jerry. True, Bob Dylan got it right with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" as did the film The Kids Are All Right. But the other evidence remains powerful, so many people are amazed when they learn that alright is not Standard English.

Fewer vs. Less
- The sign in the supermarket usually says, "This aisle is for 10 items or less," although the rule tells us to use fewer with plurals. For this reason, we might understandably but incorrectly say, "I made less mistakes."

Again, how will we get these words right? Not by speaking more but by reading more.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Why We Get Words Wrong, Part 1: The Schwa

So many people often misspell or confuse words in English, as the image here shows. But is it any wonder? Each post of this ten-part series covers a different reason why we get words wrong. Let's start with how we pronounce words. Consider what the red letters in the names below have in common:

  • Adam
  • Evelyn
  • Philip
  • Anthony
  • Ursula 
Have you figured it out? They sound identical. They are unstressed sounds in an unaccented syllable. All the vowels are in the list (a, e, i, o, and u), yet they hardly have a sound, nothing like their accented short sound (appetizer, evidence, incident, community, and understand) or long sound (ace, evil, iron, over, and usurp), as we were taught in elementary school. We call this unstressed sound a schwa.

Latin languages and many others do not use a schwa, but native English speakers do. So words like affect and effect, council and counsel, and principal and principle sound the same. As writers, we will get these words right not by listening but by reading.