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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Where oh where has my little -ing gone?

I've been noticing for a while now that verbal nouns (also called gerunds), that is, nouns with an -ing ending formed from verbs, as in "I love swimming", "Spending is out of control", and so on, have been losing their -ing when used as modifiers before another noun.

Here are some examples I've come across where formerly the -ing form would have been normal:

Wait list
This is possibly the oldest example of this phenomenon, dating back to 1960, according to the OED. It is still vastly outnumbered by "waiting list" according to Google Books ngrams(click on this link to see the chart). But I think many of us would feel it rather old-fashioned to ask to be put on a "waiting list" rather than a "wait list" (or even a "waitlist", the fact that many of us write it as a fused compound now showing how very well established it is).

Bake time
Swim class
Spend categories
This one is on my credit card bill, and tells me just how much money I am spending on ballet tickets, as opposed to, say, food.
Quit strategies.
I have seen this on public health advertisements encouraging people to stop smoking. Look for it in early January!
Start gun 

The images above are, I think, quite telling. Only five years ago, Torontonians were being invited to the mayor's 2015 "skating party", but  by 2017 this had suddenly become (and for 2020 still is) a "skate party".

This seems to happen on a word-by-word basis, as I don't think anyone is talking about "sing lessons", for instance, even though "sing" does exist as a noun: "Come to our annual carol sing!" I haven't come across "shop list" or "shop bag" either.

Have you noticed this phenomenon? What examples have you found? In the examples above, where would you use the -ing-less version and where only the -ing-ful version?

If you would be interested in taking my Rollicking Story of English course in January and February, please let me know (wordlady.barber@gmail.com). It would be a weekday morning or afternoon in Toronto (let me know which days and times suit you best). 9 weeks, $280. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Fun with spelling

After my post  a couple of weeks ago about spelling and homophones, I am very grateful to a Wordlady reader for acquainting me with the following brilliant poem by the American publisher Bennett Cerf (1898-1971).

The wind was rough
And cold and blough.
She kept her hands within her mough.
It chilled her through,
Her nose turned blough,
And still the squall the faster flough
And yet, although
There was no snough,
The weather was a cruel fough.
It made her cough,
Please do not scough,
She coughed until her hat blough ough.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Tactical or strategic? Canadianism alert

With the UK election imminent, my Facebook feed is filling up with posts about "tactical voting". 

For those of you who don't live in a first-past-the-post parliamentary system, this is what "tactical voting" is:
tactical voting Politics the practice of transferring electoral allegiance for tactical purposes, esp. in the hope of denying victory to a third party; also tactical vote, tactical voter.
1974   M. Steed in D. Butler & D. Kavanagh Brit. Gen. Election Feb. 1974 317   Some people who would have voted Labour, had they lived in an average constituency with a full choice of parties, voted Liberal or SNP where a Labour candidate had little or no chance of winning. Thus the theory is one of tactical voting. -- Oxford English Dictionary
So, for instance, if you normally vote Liberal but the Liberal candidate doesn't have a hope of winning in your constituency, you might choose to vote (in Canada) NDP to make sure the Conservative candidate doesn't win, so that the Conservatives won't win enough seats to form a government.
BUT! If you're Canadian, by now you're thinking, "Wait a minute, we don't call that tactical voting, we call it strategic voting". 

Indeed we do. The term "strategic voting" (or "vote strategically") is overwhelmingly Canadian, and has been with us since at least the 1970s.

Both these words come ultimately from Greek:
tactic from Greek taktos ‘ordered, arranged’
strategic from Greek, from stratēgos "general" from stratos ‘army’+ agein ‘to lead’
Although military specialists will tell you that there is a difference between strategy and tactics, the first being
The art or practice of planning or directing the larger movements or long-term objectives of a battle, military campaign, etc. Often distinguished from tactics, considered as the art of directing forces engaged in action or in the immediate presence of the enemy. -- Oxford English Dictionary
 in general usage, the two words overlap. 
Or perhaps Canadians are taking a more long-term view at the ballot box whereas the British feel themselves to be "in the immediate presence of the enemy". 

Did you miss last week's post? It's a fun one, about how wacky English spelling is. You can find it here: https://katherinebarber.blogspot.com/2019/12/how-wacky-is-english-spelling.html

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

How wacky is English spelling?

Here's a challenge for you: how many ways can the syllable that sounds like “SEE” be spelled in English? Can you think of an example word to illustrate each of those spellings? Keep thinking! All will be revealed at the end of this article. Don't cheat by looking!

Because English speakers have been such enthusiastic borrowers from other languages throughout our history, our spelling is notoriously non-phonetic. It causes grief to both native speakers and second-language learners. But its sheer quirkiness has contributed to what we can only call a “language as parlour game” phenomenon: English speakers love to test their linguistic mettle (or is that “metal”, or “meddle”, or “medal”?) in games like spelling bees, and our many homophones make the language a fertile source for punsters.

(How are you doing on those “SEE” spellings? Are you up to 10 yet? There are more!)

English is a wacky language. Lunatic, even. Consider how many ways we can write the sound “TOE”.

In a sensible language, it would be written “to”. But no, not for us. The digraph “to” is pronounced “TOE” in some words, but when to is a word unto itself, it is pronounced “TOO”, not of course to be confused with two or too, dear me I am feeling faint.

pto ptomaine
tau taupe
teau plateau
teaux Saulteaux
tho Thomism
to potato
toa toad
toe toe
toh butoh
tot Pitot
tow tow
tto ditto
(12 spellings)

Twelve spellings,” you think, “But that's ridiculous!” (By the way, how are those “SEE” spellings coming along? There are more than twelve!)

Okay, then. Or should I say, “Oqué!” Because, for the sound in “okay” we have:

ca caber
cai caiman
cay decay
cca occasion
cei ceilidh
cha chaos
k KO
ka kaolin
kay okay
ke kea
kei keiretsu
key Keynesian
kka Akkadian
qa qadi
qué appliqué
que quesadilla
quet bouquet
(17 spellings)

Seventeen??!! Surely there (not “their” or “they're”) can't be more for “SEE”!

Think again!

And while you're mulling on that, let's talk about homophones some more. Our old confusable friends affect/effect, desert/dessert, and principal/principle are problems for all English speakers. But what are homophones for Canadians are not necessarily homophones in other varieties of English.

For instance, khat (an Arabian shrub the leaves of which are chewed as a stimulant), cot, and caught are all pronounced the same in Canadian English but differently in Southern Standard British English (where, what's more, caught is a homophone of court, and khat is a homophone of cart).

A particularly interesting phenomenon occurs when a vowel precedes the letter “r”. For most Canadians the words harry and hairy are perfect homophones. Dictionaries from other countries would fail to warn you about this.

It's not just the vowels that are a problem, though. In North America we tend to pronounce the letter “t” between two vowels or before a syllabic “l” as “d”; hence it is possible to confuse tutor and Tudor or hurtle and hurdle. I once was very confused by a discussion with a lawyer where he seemed to be referring to the company infringing someone else's trademark as a "traitor". "That's a bit harsh," I thought, till I realized the word he was using was "trader"!

You might think, “Well, really, who would ever confuse tootsie and Tutsi?” But bear in mind that in a spelling bee, a contestant is given the word orally out of context, so they have no way of knowing, when they hear the sound “TOOT see” (there, I've just given you two spellings of “SEE”!), whether piggies going to market or African peoples are meant. There are many more homophones than you probably suspect: we identified 1800 of them in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

To keep you entertained while you're still working on your “SEE” list, here are some other syllables in English with wildly variant spellings:

The choux is on the other foot:

choux choux paste
sciu prosciutto
shoe shoe
shoo shoo
shu Shuswap
su sensual
tu punctual
xu sexual
(8 spellings)

Jai thee to a nunnery:

ha'i Baha'i
hai Haida
hay Haydnesque
hei heinie
heigh height
hi hi
hie hie
high high
hy hyacinth
jai jai alai
(10 spellings, 11 if we also count chai in l'chaim)

Heaving a sci:

ci cite
cy cyan
psi psi
psy psych
sai saiga
say sayonara
sci sciatic
scy scythe
si site
sig sign
sigh sigh
ssai assai
ssi Messiah
sy prophesy
xi xi
(15 spellings)

For a small phoe:

fae faeces
fe febrile
fea feat
fee fee
ffee coffee
ffei caffeine
ffi graffiti
ffy taffy
fi fiasco
fie fief
fil fils
fille fille de joie
filles filles du roi
fit confit
fj fjord
foe foetus
fy salsify
ghie toughie
ghy roughy
phae nymphae
phe phenol
phee biographee
phi morphine
phoe phoebe
phy philosophy
(a whopping 25 spellings)

But “SEE” trumps them all. This is your last chance. Exhausted all the possibilities you can think of?

There are THIRTY-ONE different spellings of SEE” in English!

From cey to coe:

c C-section

cae Caesar
ce cede
cea cease
cee Sadducee
cei receive
cey Ceylonese
ci calcium
cie policies
coe coelom
cy icy
sce scene
sci hyoscine
se sebum
sea sea
see see
sei seize
sey curtsey
si Tutsi
sie siege
sse Tennessean
ssee lessee
ssey odyssey
ssi lassi
ssie lassie
ssy sissy
sy hypocrisy
xe tuxedo
xi taxi
xie pixie
xy boxy

I can only conclude that all of us who have to write English, especially those of us who make our livings in the language industries, deserve a meddle, dammit, I mean medal for putting up with this chaos.

If you would be interested in taking my Rollicking Story of English course in January and February, please let me know (wordlady.barber@gmail.com). It would be a weekday morning or afternoon in Toronto (let me know which days and times suit you best). 9 weeks, $280. 

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.