Archives for posts with tag: Spelling

What’s the story, is it free rein or free reign? Something that has confounded me for a good while.

To me, both spellings and implications make sense. To give someone free rein is to loosen the metaphorical reins to the point where they can do as they please.

To give someone free reign is practically the same thing, though it sounds more regal, more majestic if you like, reflecting the meaning of the word spelled that way.

Apparently the former is the correct spelling and use of the phrase. See here from Merriam-Webster, whose US provenance doesn’t negate the conclusion for UK English I don’t think.

Somewhat tangentially, in fact totally tangentially, here’s a question whose answer you should file away for potential pub quiz benefit. What’s the only word in the English language which ends in mt? Answer – dreamt! Compound verbs featuring dream don’t count :-).

A couple of blog posts ago – an English couple, not an Irish couple – I closed what I felt was an important post with these two words – just deserts. That’s deserts with the stress on the second syllable, not the first, which is obviously something else completely.

It’s a tricky one though, isn’t it? Desserts – as in puddings – is pronounced the same way as the non-arid version of deserts. So which one is the right one to use for this particularly arcane phrase?

It’s deserts, of course, with one ‘s’, as it derives from the same family of words as ‘deserve’. Deserts are what you deserve. So are desserts as well, if you’ve a sweet tooth like me, but now I’m digressing.

The only time I suppose you could justifiably write Just Desserts would be if all your business produced or served were puddings.

Probably enough said on this, unless you want to go here for slightly more…

One area that highlights the division between American English and English English, as opposed to other versions of English, is the different pronunciations and accentuations on words.

Take the words laboratory and controversy for example. Our US friends prefer to accent the first syllable and the English prefer to accent the second, and continue to do so, despite the huge influence of American English on our daily European lives.

One difference I can’t get my head around is munging the last syllable of words that end in ‘-ile’. I remember watching an eipsode of the 6 Million Dollar Man back in the mid-seventies and they talked about a dangerous ‘missle’. What the heck’s a missle? In English English we put the accent on the first syllable but still give the second syllable a bit of a dance as well.

Futile is another one. Or Fyewtle as the Americans would say. Now that’s a futile pronunciation if ever there was one.

There are plenty of laudable examples of American English changing the spelling of words for simplicity’s sake. I offer you color, realize, maneuver and celiac for that argument.

But futile, missile, versatile, agile? Why not change the spelling on those too?

In the last of this week’s cluster of posts on the spelling and meaning of a couple of words in this glorious language, I want to touch on the application called Grammarly, about which I profess to know very little.

I often see ads for Grammarly playing before I watch a video on the BBC international website, and by the American accents on the ad and the American base of the company, I assume the application helps with US-English phrasings, spelling, meanings, syntax and so on. There may well be a UK-English version too, though I doubt there’s an Irish-English version, or a Scottish-English, Welsh-English or any other variant that blurs the edges between language and dialect.

Two lads from the Ukraine founded the application, so perhaps its real benefit is for those for whom English is a second language. For many of us, however, we already have a lot of this functionality built into our office productivity applications and our browsing applications. For instance, if you erroneously search for ‘Grammerly’ – presumably an easy mistake to make if you’re the person who might need and want to use the correctly spelled version – on Chrome, you get returned suggestions for Grammarly.

Those of us who already get help from our everyday software and have a decent command of the language are using our skill and judgement on the grammar and phrasing side of things anyway. We use the tools to correct typos and omissions, and we use ourselves to correct the other more subtle areas of the language.

Which possibly explains why the application is probably very successfully catering to the vast numbers of people who need to converse in the dominant language which is not their dominant language.

Hmm, discrete os discreet? Tough one.

Just when you thought there wasn’t a difference – or should I say just when I thought there wasn’t a difference, lo and behold there is. The root Latin word is the same, but the spelling and the meaning has diverged. I’m not sure why.

Discrete spelled this way means separate, as in the map can be split into discrete parts. In that sense, ironically, it’s the opposite of concrete.

Discreet spelled with the double e means careful, circumspect, delicate almost. It means something completely different to discrete. You could say they have discrete meanings :-).

And then, to further confuse, there is the abstract noun discretion, which is not connected to discrete as would make sense, but to the double e version. I must exercise proper discretion with these two words in future…

‘Always learning’, or so they say. Well I am, anyway.

Do you know the difference between cache, caché and cachet? I thought I did. I was quite confident in fact.

Cache – pronounced cash – is a hiding place, most commonly known these days as the place where your cookies, Internet and browsing history files reside until or if you clear it out.

Caché – pronounced cashay – is the past tense of cacher, to hide in French, so it means hidden. OK so far I think. It is not the correct spelling for the next meaning, however.

Cachet has a bunch of different meanings. It originally refers to an official seal or stamp on something, like a document, but lately is most commonly used to denote prestige, as in ‘her job carries a certain cachet’, or ‘this food has a cachet within the fitness community’. In this sense, it is not, as I thought it was, spelled caché. D’oh!

Speaking of which, who decided that d’oh! should have an apostrophe? What’s missing or owned there do denote such a mark?

I wonder if a lot of Americans spell mandatory wrong? They tend to say man-dit-ory and I’m guessing a lot of them try to spell it that way. I must confess that I thought there might be a variant spelling using the ‘i’, as sometimes crops up when the two languages continue to diverge, but no, the ‘i’ version is a non-runner.

It’s easier for us European English speakers to spell it correctly since we sound the word differently to our new world friends. For us the second syllable is the gloriously named ‘schwa‘ vowel, the sound we make on many unaccented syllables that comes from the middle of our mouth, the most economical and efficient place from which to issue a non-stressed syllable. Think of the word ‘sofa’, and the ‘a’ is your classic schwa sound.

This, I would suspect, makes it more natural for us to guess that an ‘a’ is the correct letter, since it feels closer than an ‘i’ and certainly better than an ‘e’, ‘o’ or ‘u’, although they all have schwa representation as well – as in independent, potential and support, respectively.

I guess you can make the argument that since you ‘mandate’ something, it would make sense to see mandatory, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say don’t be surprised if US dictionaries start permitting manditory as an alternative spelling in the next decade or so.

Pore over this, if you too are similarly mistaken.

You learn something new every day. It’s always a pleasure for me when I learn something new about the English language.

I’ve often used the term to ‘pore over’ something, meaning to take in all of the detail of something. Finally, a hundred times after I’d used the term or heard it used in conversation, I saw it written down in a story on the BBC website. My initial reaction, arrogantly, was that the writer had made a mistake and that I was right. 15 seconds later I was proved wrong. How could I have doubted the August BBC?

I had always assumed it was to ‘pour’ over something, as in the example of pouring gravy on my roast potatoes, or pouring our eyes over a document or painting. But no, different root word, different etymology, different spelling.

English is rough. Really rough sometimes, and not just on people who speak it as a second or third language. For us native speakers too.

Take palate, palette and pallet for instances. One is in your mouth, the second is a board for your paints or a family of colours for your product or company identity, and the third is a useful device for stacking, lifting and moving a bunch of items.

All of them sound exactly the same, at least in my accent, to the ear. Yet, they all originate in different root words and consequently are all spelled differently.

I must confess I spelled the second version wrongly the other day. I thought it was double ‘l’ as well as double ‘t’. Thank goodness for autocorrect. And thank goodness too that it wasn’t a fourth spelling variant, at least not to my knowledge.

This kind of thing never fails to remind me of the two different languages we use; the written one and the spoken one.  While you might think that the written one is harder, try explaining to a non-native speaker heteronyms like ‘tear’, words that are spelled the same but mean different things and are pronounced differently. I think I’ll stop there…

I often see the words stationery and stationary mixed up. It’s an easy mistake to make, and is only an issue in the written word, since both words are pronounced identically and the context is usually clear.

Stationery is a noun, meaning office and desk-type stuff. Think millinery, machinery, that kind of thing.

Stationary is an adjective, meaning motionless. Think customary, arbitrary, and so on.

And of course, because this is English, you get nouns like anniversary and adjectives like blustery :-).

So, remember to keep your stationery stationary and you’ll be fine. Good luck!