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Archive for the ‘Spelling and grammar’ category

The joy of English spelling

To learn pronunciation from a dictionary, you have to learn a separate alphabet, the IPA. It's not fun.

Since the world we live in is strange and unfathomably difficult to comprehend, it seems proper that English, once confined to a barabric, rain-sodden people of northern climes, should rise to the status of lingua franca and make life infernal for the hundreds of millions of students who attempt to learn it as a foreign or secondary language.

And since language seems to raise the passions of people almost as much as religion or sport, it’s often a subject best left to those who love composing screeching rants to newspaper editors.

English spelling is, at best, laughable

You cannot escape the fact that English spelling is at best, retarded. French spelling is possibly even more so, though as current French politics relegate la langue francaise to the neophytes of religious bigotry and sour grapes, English is set to reign supreme for a while yet. For English speakers who happen to speak another language, one of the most startling revelations about our own language is its almost arbitrary spelling. And while I could wax lyrical about how easy it is to learn Turkish spelling conventions or the almost child-like orthography of Castilian, I’ll attract too much hate mail and virus-laden spam. This will make me tired.

English spelling conventions are an approximate visual representation of the spoken word. And often, of the spoken word as it was uttered several hundred years ago. Even without delving into a dissertation on historical linguistics, it doesn’t take much to conclude that when ‘enough’ was written for the first time, it pretty much didn’t sound like the word as we pronounce if today. Otherwise, common sense would have dictated ‘inuff’, or else something close to it. The ridiculousness of English spelling is easily apparent from a lesson my tortured English teacher once gave in high school, where he scrawled ‘bough’, ‘rough’, ‘through’ and ‘ought’ onto the board to enlighten us a little further on the capriciousness of our orthography. He never did explain how things got that messed up, but he was like that.

How to spell correctly and influence people

So here is a very short list of suggestions for those who really want to discover the path to spell English words ‘correctly’.

Decide on American or English spelling. Your words, your choice. Don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise. Like your football team, make the choice and then stick with it for life.

Secondly, purchase a big, fat dictionary, one that you’ll be proud to own and that you’ll keep as a handy reference book. A big, fat dictionary might be either the Oxford English or the Longmann American. I have both and I worship them equally.

Thirdly, a search on Google cannot help you spell with great certainty. That compound adjective or doubled-up vowel for which you seek clarification online will be spelled with a great deal of variety by a large number of people. One dictionary, one reference. Stick with it.

Next, a word processing spellchecker can facilitate your task but it cannot replace your big, fat dictionary. Not yet, and not for a while longer. When it does, I’m out of a job.

Further, never listen to anyone who states that such-and-such is the only correct spelling. The person is most likely an extremist, and quite frankly, we need to educate these types before the twenty-first century breeds more of them and spells the end of civilisation (love my pun).

Love your English, whatever it may be

Lastly, don’t be too precious about spelling. Just be consistent. My good friend is a talented designer, by nature is an accommodating and sensitive soul. Her online jewellery site contains a post on ‘Jewelry versus Jewellery‘. Since she sells fabulous creations online and across the world, Simone is smart enough to know that people might pass judgement on here site if they visit, say, the British English site from North America. She has it sorted.

It will already be evident if you’ve read this far that I do not use American English anywhere on my website. My choice. And though I suggest you own one big, fat dictionary, I possess 42 of them, in all shapes and sizes, colour and hues. They are my tools and that’s what I spend my day doing. Making sure that the spelling and grammar in a document are consistent and understandable to the greatest number of any given audience.

To finish, I do love the French. I’m just frustrated with the current course of events, where the government is taking a course against a significant portion of it own population. Dismal, really. But that’s for another post.

Compound adjectives (are fun)

Today I came across an advertisement from a national tourism authority that is promoting the azure waters, spectacular mountains and breath taking landscapes of this attractive Balkan getaway.

Unfortunately, though I’m no purist when it coming to language, breathtaking is the most appropriate form to use here. Even breath-taking appears awkward to my eyes, since the adjective has long been in use, perhaps to the point of cliche. The merged form is instantly recognisable to any native English speaker.

Still, compound words can cause everyone to be hesitant periodically, primarily since their form can change over time.

Compound words consist of two or more words that carry a new meaning. Some combinations begin life as two separate words, separated by a space, then move to a hyphenated form and eventually to a single word. Even so, hyphens are sometimes maintained in some compounds, especially where both components are multi-syllabic.

Here are a few guidelines to help you determine whether or not you really need that hyphen.

Compound adjectives formed from two adjectives, or noun plus adjective

Always place a hyphen between the two words, such as in sugar-free, stone-deaf, white-hot and bitter-sweet, regardless of whether the noun it describes precedes or follows the compound adjective.

Compound adjectives that are set phrases

However, a noun plus a noun, or an adjective plus a noun is less likely to be joined, as in the tax office report or an equal opportunity employer. That said, if the expression is modified further, a hyphen can be inserted where the meaning might become ambiguous, such as in annual tax-office report.

Compound adjectives with a participle

Forms such as a gut-wrenching film or school-supported facility usually take a hyphen, though I personally waver between inserting and omitting the hyphen. Depends on the time of day…

A compound adjective consisting of a participle or adjective preceded by an -ly adverb has no hyphenation, as in a fully functioning brain, while a compound adjective preceded by an adverb not ending in -ly takes a hyphen, as in a fast-paced marathon.

Should a compound of this kind be modified further, perhaps by very or extremely, a hyphen is not used, as in an extremely well written play or a particularly well known individual. The absence of a hyphen extend to compounds adjectives consisting of comparative or superlative adjectives or adverbs plus a participle, as in the least understood teacher.

Confused? Such is the work of an editor.

Compound adjectives that are adverbial phrases

These are always hyphenated, though I’ve seen enough in-house style guides to perceive that such usage is on the wane. For example, it is suggested to write up-to-date document and million-year-old fossil, even though my instinct tells me that this may become an obsolete usage as the movement towards minimal punctuation expands.

Personally, I don’t like the hyphens here, and the forms are so ubiquituous as to be recognisable without the hyphen, or italics for that matter.

Compound adjectives involving numbers

Use the hyphen, as in a eight-part documentary and a fifty-storey office building.

Compound adjectives containing capital letters

As with compound adjectives containing italics or quotation marks, omit the hyphen. Otherwise it’s overkill. A Federal Court jurisdiction, an ad hoc presentation and a ‘devil may care’ attitude are busy enough from a punctuation perspective to be understood clearly without a hyphen.

And that, in brief, is the joy of compound adjectives.

Back to the breath taking scenery of eastern Europe. Maybe it doesn’t look odd to you. The guidelines for English usage are just that. They are not rules. Using or omitting the hyphen rarely hinders comprehension. Time will sort that one out. Just as I still prefer to write awe-inspiring today, it’s likely that within years the hyphen will disappear here too.

To avoid the whole issue, avoid breathtaking and awe-inspiring and just go visit spectacular Montenegro. But their tousim authority really ought to have employed a more thorough editor.