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.