Sunday, April 27, 2014

Exploring spelling and pronunciation, Part 1

Complex, yes. But impossible?

The complexity of English spelling undoubtedly poses problems for both foreign learners and native speakers.
While some languages, like Spanish for example, have a clear relationship between spelling and sound, this is not always the case with English. Where Spanish has more or less one letter for each sound, English can use anywhere between one and four - let's take the sound /u:/, it can be expressed with one letter - who, with two letters - too, with three letters - Hugh, and with four letters - through.
And in English, the same letter can have several different sounds, for example a in - can, cane, car, care.
Because many of the most commonly used words in English have apparently irregular spelling, it can sometimes look as though English has no spelling rules at all. It has been estimated, however, that roughly 80% of words follow regular patterns, and that's what I want to explore in this series of posts, as well as looking at some of the main irregularities.
In this first post, I'll be looking at the sounds represented by one vowel in simple one-syllable words.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A strange example of negative inversion

I've just spotted a rather strange example of negative inversion in today's Guardian. Commenting on the fact that Google Maps Russia now shows Crimea as part of Russia, the writer says:
The bit we're interested in is this:
  • In no uncertain terms is the area marked as a separate country from wider Ukraine.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Modal verbs - an overview

Modal verbs are a type of auxiliary verb that gives 'modality' to the main verb, to express, for example: ability, probability, obligation or permission.
This post is not intended to be a lesson, but a sort of Ready Reference. It consists of three parts:
  1. Introduction to modal verbs and some similar verbal expressions
  2. Modal verbs listed by function
  3. Modals listed by verb
Modals also have special uses which I haven't really gone into here, such as in conditionals, reported speech and future in the past. There are also no doubt some uses I've missed. If you spot any, please leave a comment.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Just how American are the origins of center, scepter and theater, spellingwise?

One of the differences between British and American spelling is between those words that end in -re in British English and -er in American English, such as fibre / fiber. In this post I look at five words ending in -tre / -ter - centre, lustre, mitre, sceptre and theatre.
Talking about the differences between British and American spelling at Oxford Dictionaries, they say:
The differences often come about because British English has tended to keep the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages (e.g. French), while American English has adapted the spelling to reflect the way that the words actually sound when they're spoken.

Oxford Dictionaries

Which I understand to mean that these words entered English with their (for example) French spelling, and were later changed in American English. This change is usually attributed to Noah Webster, and especially to his An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. So I was rather surprised when I came across an instance of theater in a British book from the seventeenth century.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Random thoughts on the early use of apostrophes

Apostrophes in plurals of nouns ending in s.

While looking in Google Books for early use of the spelling fetus (as opposed to foetus) in British books, I came across this, from the Transactions of the Royal Society, London, with its double use of apostrophes in plurals ending in s - species's and fetus's:

Philosophical Transactions (of the Royal Society), 1669

I had known that one of the early uses of the apostrophe was in plurals of certain words ending in vowels (see next section), but this one was new to me.