Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Top 20 Grammar Errors: Spelling

We have reached (almost) the last of this blog series on the top twenty grammar errors. Today’s grammar error number twenty-five deals with spelling. This is officially the last grammar error I will write on, but my last post in this series will cover links to online resources that you can utilize in your own editing.

Going forward, I’d suggest that at a minimum you should go through your manuscripts twenty-five times, using this blog series, or the resources I’ll post tomorrow, as a guide to your final edits.

The preamble finished, let’s move on to spelling!

Spelling in the English language is inherently difficult. The problem began when the Normans invaded the Saxons, mixing old German with French. The two languages are the reason why we have so many synonyms in the English language, which I always want to spell as cinnamons, because why the heck would we have two different letters for the same sound—the s and y in synonym in comparison to the c and i in cinnamon.

In 1066—the conquest of England by the Normans—the French C had been pronounced like our English S, and this is why cinnamon today is spelled with a c instead of an s and confuses the bejeezers out of me. Latin was also introduced into the English language around this time as well. Approximately 40 years later, extra letters were added to spellings to make our words sound more French.
In the Fifteenth Century, the printing press was invented, and those sneaky printers were normally not English. They spelled a lot of words wrong. Sometimes because they didn’t speak the English language well and other times to make more money—they charged by the letter, so the more letters in a word, the larger their fee. You can imagine some of the “mistakes” such as silent e’s or spelling had as hadd or even worse, hadde. Many of these “mistakes” became accepted. Matters were not helped by The Great Vowel Shift—when English speakers shifted the way they sounded out their vowels, yet the printers continued printing spellings of the old pronunciations. Think about the words blue, shoe, flew, through, to, you, two, too, and gnu—they all have that same sound [yu:], but they are all spelled radically differently.

Fast forward to the 16th Century, and we come to the Bible Wars. People raced to translate the Bible into the English vernacular, but many times were chased out of England for doing so, and some of the spellings within the various bibles adopted foreign spellings.

Finally, in 1755, Samuel Johnson created the first English dictionary assigning different definitions to alternate spellings of the same wordswhich is why we have so many homophones in the English language. When Webster came along in 1806 and published the first American dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, and in 1864 the U.S. Government Printing Office adopted Webster’s standard, the state of affairs for English spelling was a complete and total mess.

Thank God for spell check!
Still, a good dictionary by your side is incredibly helpful. The main two problem areas which English spelling writers run into today deal with homophones and the doubling rule. You can thank Samuel Johnson for the homophones and thank the shady printers for the doubling rule.

A homophone is a word pronounced the same as another word, but differs in meaning. What’s confusing is that the homophone word set can be spelled the same or differently. For example, rose as in the flower and rose as in the past tense of rise, and its versus it’s, or in the Samuel Johnson example: their, there, and they’re. For a fairly complete list of homophones, check this site out.

The doubling rule involves word endings. We’ve talked about the er ending before:

·         Joe is hot.
·         Joe’s brother Steve is hotter.

And we’ve talked about the ing ending as well:

·         I run.
·         I am running.

So when do you double and when do you not double? For the most part, when the word ends in a C-V-C pattern, that is the last three letters of the word are consonant-vowel-consonant, you double that last letter when adding the suffix, but there are a lot of exceptions.

So, really, we’re back to spellcheck and a dictionary!


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