Friday, December 21, 2007


(Ok, I lied, one more holiday themed post before I take a break :))

Why do we use the abbreviation Xmas for Christmas?

It originates from the Greek letter chi, which looks similar to an X. Since this letter (X) represented a "k" or "ks" sound in ancient Greek, it was used as an abbreviation for Christ. Though there may be some controversy over the usage of Xmas, it is not meant to be looked at as a way to "remove" Christ from Christmas.

The letter X can also represent "cross" or "trans" as in:

xfer, xlate = transfer, translate
X-out, X-over = cross out, crossover

How do you pronounce Xmas?

Should you try to pronounce the shortened form like "eks-mas" or just say "Christmas"?

Going slightly off topic:

Words that start with vowels usually take "an" as their indefinite article. Of course there are exceptions, like the word university. While it is spelled with a "u", it is actually a "y" sound. Thus, "a" is used and not "an".

We can use this information to find out more about the Xmas pronunciation:

What was mentioned above is a method in determining one's pronunciation of a word based on writing (barring typos). If one writes "an Xmas", they are pronouncing it "eks-mas", even though the written form starts with X, there's a vowel sound initially. Otherwise, for "a Xmas", we can assume "Christmas" is pronounced.

A quick google search reveals the following:
"a xmas" : 455,000 results
"an xmas" : 181,000 results

It seems that the traditional pronunciation for Xmas ("Christmas") is more common.

It would be interesting to know how you pronounce Xmas. Would you say "eks-mas" only in informal settings, or would you not bother with that pronunciation at all?

I'll get back to more topics on phonetics after the holidays :)
In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Putting this on hold for now, apologies for no new posts.
I am quite busy at the moment and won't be able to make any more posts for a while. There will be more topics on phonetics soon to come.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


The study of human speech sounds is called phonetics.

Phonetic alphabets are used to represent the sounds we speak. Words can have more letters than sounds and vice versa. In English, what is written can vary greatly from what is pronounced. The number of sounds and letters in a word are not always equal.

Words that contain the same number of sounds and letters:

Words that contain more letters than sounds:

The need for a phonetic alphabet

An example of a phonetic alphabet which is widely used is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Dictionaries often uses a modified version of this phonetic alphabet in their pronunciation keys, since it easier to read than IPA. By writing in a phonetic alphabet, one can determine the pronunciation of ANY word, no matter the language.

Of course, not every language uses ALL the sounds that are possible.

There exist sounds in other languages which do not occur in English. How this affects borrowed words is that we usually 'approximate' the sounds that don't exist into the closest sound the does exist in English. Example: the final consonant sound in the German word Bach is usually pronounced with a [k] sound in English, but is actually a different (although similar) sound, represented by [x] in IPA.

Conversely, there are sounds that occur in English that do not occur in other languages. Example: French does not have the "th" sound as in thin or the (IPA [θ] and [ð], respectively) so French speakers may perceive such words as having an [s] or [z] sound.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sounds vs. spelling

Pronunciation is not predictable in English. It may be more predictable in other languages, but there are many situations in English where the same sequence of letters can make a different sound altogether. The obvious disadvantage is that it can make the language much more difficult to learn. However, there is an advantage to unpredictable pronunciation. It can improve reading comprehensibility by keeping the spelling stable. Here's an example: note the different sounds of "s" for the words cats and dogs. The former takes an s sound and the latter takes a z sound, but both are spelled with s.

Some more fun with sounds and spelling

Note the bolded letters in the following sentence all make a different sound, despite the identical spelling:

She said you laid the plaid tie on the chair.

In the following word pairs, just one letter is changed but the pronunciation is significantly altered:

encourage -> entourage
revenges -> revenues
karate -> karats
hideous -> hideout
ballets -> bullets
telephone -> telephony

Monday, October 08, 2007

Same word, opposite meaning

There exist many words whose meanings are opposites of themselves.

You may ask, How can a word be an antonym of itself? Through polysemy and homonymy, a word that is pronounced or spelled the same way can have opposite meanings. A word that is an antonym of itself is called a contronym.

A commonly known contronym one is dust (verb). The two opposite meanings of dust are:
1. remove fine particles: Please dust the drawers to keep them clean.
2. cover with fine particles: He dusted the cookies with sugar.

Seed (verb) is another one:
1. remove seeds from: Seed the watermelon before eating.
2. distribute seeds; to sow seeds

To "X" something is a phrase often used colloquially. Here are its opposite meanings:
1. select: X your desired items on the list.
2. cancel/eliminate: Please X out the items you don't want.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Breaking words down in more than one way

There are some cases in which morphemes can be ambiguous.

Take the following word:


The more familiar meaning is "formed into a union". The other, less commonly known meaning comes from chemistry: "not converted into ions"; it's actually the word ionized with the un- prefix. This is an example of a homograph, as the words can have two pronunciations and different meanings altogether but are spelled the same.

The root words are different: in the first case, it's union, and in the second case it's ion. Here's the morpheme breakdown of both meanings of unionized:


union : root word
-ize : changes a noun into a verb (union -> unionize)
-ed : past tense (unionize -> unionized)


ion : root word
-ize : changes a noun into a verb (ion -> ionize)
un- : "not"
(ionize -> unionize)
-ed : past tense (unionize -> unionized)

In the second case, notice that the order matters: the un- prefix is applied after -ize, as there isn't a word such as "un-ion".

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More on morphemes, or meaningful word elements

In the previous post we discussed morphemes, which are the meaningful parts of a word. An interesting fact about these word elements is that the number of morphemes contained in a word is completely independent of the number of syllables in the word.

Here are some two or more syllable words with just one morpheme:


The above words are polysyllabic but they cannot be broken down into any more meaningful parts. It can get a bit tricky determining what is and isn't a morpheme, such as the -er in corner not being a suffix.

Here are some one syllable words with more than one morpheme:


The above monosyllabic words contain more than one meaningful element. Some of these form their past tense or plurals irregularly as there is no distinguishable suffix added, even though there is more than one morpheme present.

Examining the number of morphemes in a word

Let's examine the morphemes in the word untruthfully:

true root word
-th changes adjective into noun
-ful changes noun into adjective
-ly changes adjective into adverb
un- 'not'

There are a total of 5 morphemes in untruthfully: 1 for the root word, 3 suffixes, and 1 prefix.

In general, the root word is a free morpheme; it can be used on its own. The prefixes and suffixes are usually bound morphemes as they must be attached to the root word. In colloquial speech, there are some cases in which bound morphemes can be used alone (which will be a topic covered in the future).

Words with the greatest number of morphemes in English

Words with 4 - 5 morphemes can be quite common:

uncontrollably: 4 ( root word + 1 prefix + 2 suffixes)
recolonizations: 5 (root word + 1 prefix + 3 suffixes)

Antidisestablishmentarianism, commonly thought of as the longest English word, only has 6 (root word + 2 prefixes + 3 suffixes). Can you find any English words containing more morphemes in just one word? Remember that it is not necessarily just the longest word in terms of total number of letters.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The meaningful elements of a word

The study of word structure and formation is called morphology, and the meaningful parts of a word are known as morphemes. Most of the time in English they are represented by prefixes and/or suffixes. Other languages have infixes (insertion in the middle of a word) and circumfixes (added surrounding a word).

The word toys has two meaningful parts, toy and -s. The -s in this case denotes "plural", modifying the root word toy.
In contrast, the word orange has just one meaningful element (the word orange itself). It would not make sense to break it down further into, say, o + range.

There are 2 kinds of morphemes: free and bound.

Free morphemes can stand alone and have meaning independently.
Bound morphemes must be attached to a free morpheme, they cannot be used by themselves! For instance, you can't just go around saying "-s" to mean "plural".

What is the purpose of morphemes?

Morphemes can derive other words by changing their part of speech. The suffix -ful turns a noun into an adjective. The suffix -ly changes an adjective into an adverb.

Morphemes can also change the meaning of a word, like the prefix un- to mean not. The suffix -ed often represents the past tense when attached to a verb. Obviously, there are exceptions in the case of irregular verbs. The suffix -s can represent either plural when attached to a noun, or denotes third person singular when attached to a verb.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The internet's most hated words?

As mentioned previously, language is always changing and new words are added to a language's vocabulary. However, is there a such thing as adding unnecessary words to a language?

There has been a survey done recently on the most hated words on the internet. Some argue that adding too many of these words will ruin the English language. Here are the top 10 words that made the list:

* Blog
* Blogosphere
* Vlog
* Blook
* Netiquette
* Webinar
* Folksonomy
* Social Networking
* Cookie
* Wiki

Note the large number of blend words (or portmanteau) on the list, it is quite the prevalent method of forming new words.

The word blog itself is an ugly sounding word, with the hard consonants b and g and the unpleasant vowel sound [ɔ]. Blog is pretty much ubiquitous now, the name has stuck, and it's too late to do anything about it. Newspapers are freely using this word without explaining what it is (i.e. it is no longer considered to be technical term).

Blogosphere is a collective term that describes all bloggers. I've heard this term being used by bloggers even though they hate it, simply "'cause there's no other word for it."

Blook seems like a poor choice simply to describe a web-based book. The pronunciation is ambiguous (does it rhyme with look or Luke?) Similarly, a vlog is simply a video blog (why start with the seldom used consonant cluster vl- ?) and there really isn't a need for a special designation.

Netiquette and webinar would be better off using their offline counterparts. Just plain old etiquette and seminar will do, no need for a new word just because it's "online."

Next, folksonomy (a play on taxonomy) is a way of having your site's visitors categorize web based content by themselves. I haven't heard this term used much, by the way. On the other hand, social networking is a term used relatively often to describe myspace-like sites.

Lastly, cookie (in the online sense at least) and wiki may be too technical to be included as new words that would appear in a dictionary.

Monday, August 20, 2007

How languages increase their vocabulary

There are multiple ways that a language can increase its vocabulary, or acquire new words.

1. Derive a word from existing word(s)

This is commonly done by adding prefixes or suffixes to words, or by changing a word's figure of speech.

Example: The prefix cyber-, as in cyberspace.

2. Borrow a word from another language

In the past 100 years, English has accepted words from over 100 languages. English has actually borrowed more words from French during the last century than from any other language. Conversely, the French are not as receptive to borrowing words from English. However, one Americanism, the term OK, is acceptable almost everywhere.

Examples: taco (from Spanish), ciao (from Italian), klutz (from Yiddish)

3. Create an entirely new word

This is quite rare, but in some cases an entirely new word is created which is not based on forming words from another familiar word.

Examples: zap, quark, nerd

Monday, August 13, 2007

Mind your P's and Q's?

Mind Your P's and Q's
What is the origin of the phrase Mind your p's and q's?

1. The letters p and q, with the lowercase letters being a mirror image of each others, were often confused by children learning to write (and also by typesetters).

2. Mind your pints and quarts, as used by bartenders when serving.

3. Mind your please's (P's) and thank you's (the last syllable sounds like Q).

Interesting etymology tidbit: The word peas came from the Latin word pisum, and was adopted into English as pease. Since most nouns take an -s ending for their plural, the s sound was dropped and thus pea became the singular. This is an example of a back-formation.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Types of conversation repairs

In the last post on conversation repairs, we mentioned that there are 4 possible ways to resolve them. Here's an explanation and examples of the 4 kinds of repairs. Keep in mind that conversations that are both self-initiated and self-repaired are the most preferable and least disruptive.

The part of the conversation which initiates the repair will be displayed in red, while the part that resolves the repair will be displayed in blue.

1. Self-initiated and self-repaired

Situations used in:
- correcting yourself
- you can't find the right word, and you find it yourself after a small pause

Example 1:
A: I'm heading off to Sue's-- I mean Mary's house tonight.

Example 2:
A: I need to renew my whatchamacallit-- my prescription today.

2. Other-initiated and self-repaired

Situations used in:
- couldn't hear the speaker clearly
- misunderstanding

Example 3:
A: I'm heading off to vacation next week.
B: What?
A: I said I am going on vacation next week.

Example 4:
Students: We want to [unintelligible speech] the books today!
Teacher: You want to count the books?
Students: No, we want to color the books!

3. Self-initiated and other-repaired

Situations used in:
- you can't find the right word, and someone else fills it in for you

Example 5:
A: I need more storage space on my computer, so I need to get a new umm....
B: A hard drive?
A: Yeah, that's right, a hard drive.

4. Other-initiated and other-repaired

Situations used in:
- you have your facts incorrect and someone else corrected you

Example 6:
A: With the 6% sales tax, that would add quite a bit to the price.
B: The sales tax is actually 7%. *

Example 7:
A: Aren't you glad that today is payday?
B: Payday is actually tomorrow. *

* indicates that the repair has been both initiated and resolved in the same sentence.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Conversation Repairs

When we have to correct ourselves (or others) while speaking, we make a conversation repair.

Repairs can be initiated and resolved by the speakers themselves or another conversationalist. This makes 4 different kinds of conversation repairs, listed from most to least polite:

1. self-initiated and self-repaired
2. other-initiated and self-repaired
3. self-initiated and other-repaired
4. other-initiated and other-repaired

It's pretty obvious that repairs that are initiated and repaired by oneself are more polite than those that are repaired by others. This is because there is an unspoken rule that speakers be given a chance to say what they want to say by themselves.

Conversation repairs happen for a variety of reasons: when we (or someone else) can't find the right word, when we can't hear a speaker clearly, or when we misinterpret an utterance.

The next post will provide examples of the different kinds of converation repairs mentioned above.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Hesitation Particles, hmm...

What is a hesitation particle?

Sometimes known as filled pauses, they often precede a dispreferred response in a conversation. Instead of refusing or declining an offer right away, one usually throws in a filler word and/or a small pause (could be 0.5 seconds or more).

Hesitation particles are common in everyday speech, but often times speakers are not aware that they are using these words themselves.

Be careful of overusing them, as too many hesitation particles can make one sound less powerful or less credible. This is especially true when one is doing a presentation or public speech to a large audience. In normal conversations, these usually cannot be avoided completely and we have gotten accustomed using them often.

Here's a list of hesitation particles in English:
Here's a list of filler words to go along with them:

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Preferred responses

There are 2 kinds of possible responses to speech acts: preferred and dispreferred.

Preferred responses are those that are culturally expected, they are the ones that feel the most 'natural'.

Characteristics of preferred responses:
-delivered promptly
-brief and to the point

A: Want to join us for dinner tomorrow?
B: We'd love to!

Dispreferred responses are those that are not expected, but they are not necessarily rude if phrased properly.

Characteristics of dispreferred responses:
-delayed response
-hesitation particles used
-long-winded explanation

Example (rude):
A: Want to join us for dinner tomorrow?
B: No, your cooking is terrible.

Example (polite):
A: Want to join us for dinner tomorrow?
B: [pause] Well, hmmm... I told Cathy a while ago that I would join her tomorrow for dinner. Maybe some other time, okay?

Since some think that *any* kind of dispreferred response may give off a sense of rudeness, one may try to mask a dispreferred response by lying.
A: So, what did you think of the movie?
B: It was great! [You actually thought it was the worst film you have seen.]

Friday, July 20, 2007

Politeness in conversation

One useful property of indirect speech is that it can convey politeness.

Consider these two statements:

A: "Can you please shut the window?"
B: "Shut the window now!"

Statement A is obviously more polite than statement B. However, B is more direct and to the point. It would seem quite rude to phrase it as such, so we resort to the more polite indirect way (A). Even though statement A is asking a Yes/No question, it is actually a request to perform an action.

Types of politeness

There are two basic kinds of politeness: positive and negative politeness.

Positive politeness: respects a person's right to be understood, showing sympathy

  • Letting people know that we enjoy their presence
  • Liking their personality
  • Becoming interested in their well-being
Example: "Let's get together again sometime!"

Negative politeness:
often involves deferring to others and respects their privacy
  • Avoid intruding on other people's lives
  • Don't be overly inquisitive about their activities
  • Don't impose our presence on others
Example: "Excuse me sir, do you have the time?"

Monday, July 16, 2007

More fun with speaking indirectly

The previous post on indirect speech acts illustrated that one is allowed to violate the Gricean maxims to get your point across. Here are some more examples:

C: I promise to pay you back next week.
D: Sure, and pigs will fly.

Indirect conversation
In this case, the maxims of relevance and quality are violated. D has just uttered a seemingly unrelated response, and it is obviously a falsity. However, the point here is to "match" what D thinks is a falsity uttered by C. This is a bit more polite than responding with "No, you won't."

E: How do you like my new dress?
F: Hmmm, [pause] ... Anything good on TV tonight?

bad dress avoidance
Here, relevance is violated. F probably didn't like E's dress and thus F is attempting to shift the conversation to another topic, rather than give a dispreferred response (which is a topic that will be covered in future posts).

G: So, Sarah thinks you're cute, right?
H: Is Rome in Spain?

Similar to the first example, this illustrates responding to a question with a question. Keep in mind that one of the requirements for indirect speech acts to work is that both participants have shared knowledge about the context of the situation, and of the world in general. G will recognize that H responded indirectly, but whether H can interpret that response will depend on H's knowledge of geography.

One more, I'm sure you've all heard this one:

I: Name 3 things that are important in real estate.
J: Location, location, and location.

The maxim of quantity is violated here. Instead of naming 3 different things, location is repeated to get the point across that it is the most important thing and needs extra emphasis.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Indirect speech acts and violating the maxims

Indirect speech acts are used all the time, they have basically become second nature to us. Here's an example:

A: Has the boss arrived today?
B: The light's on in his office.

Notice that speaker A has asked a yes/no question. However, speaker B did not follow up with such a reply. The point here is that B has just violated one of the aforementioned Gricean maxims (relevance). But is B's response irrelevant?

The short answer is no. We do not take everything literally, so this response makes sense (of course, this assumes the boss doesn't leave the light on when out of office!) This is just one out of many cases of an indirect speech act. These such acts violate at least one of the maxims. Good listeners/speakers notice that the maxim is intentionally being violated, and can identify its intended meaning with the knowledge of the context of the situation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Conversation tips and general conversation rules

conversation tips
Conversation requires that listeners trust speakers to follow certain conventions. To make conversation efficient, both speakers and listeners must cooperate in communicating with each other. Philosopher H. Paul Grice devised a set of maxims (general principles to follow) regarding conversation.

1. Be relevant

Perhaps the most important rule is that your utterances must be relevant to the current topic at hand; this is known as the maxim of relevance. Going off-topic constantly will provoke displeasure with your fellow participants.

Example that violates this rule:

A: How's the weather today?
B: There's a nice film opening at the theater tonight.

A very extreme and obvious example, speaker B's response has absolutely nothing to do with speaker A's question.

Violation of this rule is quite useful in order to force a subject change, as seen below. [caution: don't try this at home! ☺ ]

loaning money
C: Are you ever going to pay back the money I lent you?
D: It's very hot outside, isn't it?

2. Provide enough, but not too much or too little, information

Speakers should give enough information as necessary in order to understand the current conversation, but not provide more information than expected. This is known as the maxim of quantity, giving just the right amount of details so that the conversation flows smoothly.

Example that violates this rule:

selling a TV
Customer: Excuse me, how much is that television?
Salesperson: $600 dollars. The hi-def DVD player is $300, and that MP3 player over there is $200.

As you can see, marketers and salespeople love to violate this rule!

3. Be orderly

Avoid ambiguity by mentioning events in the order they happened; this is known as the maxim of manner.

In English, speakers are accustomed to hearing events in chronological order. (Note that in some other languages, word order isn't as important.) This is why "We got married and had a baby", and "We had a baby and got married" have different meanings altogether.

Example that violates this rule:

On a resume/CV: I received my Ph.D. in 2001, graduated high school in 1990, and received my M.A. in 1996.

4. Be truthful

Pretty much self-explanatory, speakers should always tell the truth; this is the maxim of quality.

Ironically, this rule is the one that makes lying possible, since without this rule, we wouldn't have any reason to believe that the truth is being uttered. This rule is violated on purpose for a lot of reasons, one of which is sarcasm, as seen in the below example.

Example that violates this rule:

A: I love working all day in the heat without any breaks!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Under construction for a bit

Working on a new template for this blog, site may be down periodically.

Posting will continue next week.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Conversations and turn taking

Even casual conversation is organized by a set of rules, although we probably don't realize it because we pay more attention to the content of conversation, rather than the specific rules that govern them. We mark the beginning and ends of our turns implicitly. We don't say things like "Okay, you may now speak" or "I asked you a question, please answer it now!", which would render our conversations quite inefficient.

Here are examples of end of turn signaling:

* raise or lower your tone of voice
* draw out the final syllable of the last word you spoke
* make a pause
* use a "filler" word like y'know, um, dunno, or kinda

Multiparty conversations and getting the floor

In conversations that consist of 3 or more people, whoever is the current floor holder usually decides who gets to speak next. This can be accomplished by addressing the next speaker by name ("How are you doing, Alice?") or by turning toward him or her.

However, if the next speaker isn't specifically chosen by the current floor holder, then there may be competition. If 2 or more people attempt to speak at the same time, either the following will happen:

* the current speaker(s) suddenly stops talking and gives up his/her turn, thus letting someone else speak
* one of the current speakers continues to talk, but increases his/her volume, signaling that he/she does not want to be interrupted

In all cases, participants should attempt to resolve these such competitions in a smooth and fast manner.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Speech acts and conversation

The topic of speech acts and conversation is an often overlooked aspect of linguistics. People use language as a tool to do things, such as asking questions, offering greetings, and performing many other verbal actions in everyday life. Mastery of language is not limited to just grammatical competence. If that were the case, then every sentence would have only one interpretation.

Compare the following situations:

Case 1: A police officer stops you, and informs you that you've driven through a stop sign. You reply, "I didn't see the stop sign."

Case 2: A friend is throwing a party and has given you directions to his new house. The directions mention to take a left at the 2nd stop sign. You arrive about an hour late and reply "I didn't see the stop sign."

Notice that the context has a huge role in determining the meaning of the sentence uttered. In case 1, you are uttering an explanation for failing to stop. In case 2, you are making an excuse for your lateness.

Upcoming posts on this blog will cover more on this topic of speech acts and conversation.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Unpaired words: always use a negative prefix?

There are some words that always have a prefix, you don't see their unprefixed form being used much, if at all.

Here are examples:

unkempt: You always hear about a workplace being unkempt, but can something be kempt? Kempt is actually a word, however it is a rarely used antonym of unkempt. The word kempt comes from Old English kemb, meaning "comb". In the 18th century, the negative form unkembed came to mean "uncombed or disheveled".

inert: Derived from the Latin word art meaning "skill". Adding the negative prefix gives us the definition of inert as "inactive, sluggish".

disgruntled: The root word here is gruntle. As in the previous example with kempt, it is a rarely used form. The meaning is "expressing discontent". In this case, the dis- prefix is meant to intensify the root word.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How negative prefixes are determined in English

Ever wonder why certain words use im- and others use in- for their negative prefixes?

This topic requires a bit of knowledge on phonetics and phonology, which was initially discussed in this post about phonetics.

Example words: impractical, imbalance, improper, impressive

Notice how words that take the im- negative prefix start with p and b. The p and b sounds are made with the lips, and this is the same place of articulation as the m sound. This is known as assimilation: the place of articulation of the final sound of the prefix ("m") matches the place of articulation of the initial sound of the root word.

Example words: inaccessible, involuntary, insincere, infamous

In most other cases, the in- negative prefix is used. This is because n is an alveolar consonant, pronounced with the tongue against the area just above the upper teeth. Unlike the p and b sounds, this is a central area, and thus the in- prefix can "handle" many other sounds.

il-, ir-
Example words: illogical, illegal, irrational, irresponsible

The l and r sounds are known as liquids. Just like the im- prefix, assimilation happens here. In this case, the l or r is simply doubled up in forming the prefix.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Negative prefixes adding no meaning?

There are words in English that can take a negative prefix, such as in-, and the meaning of that word will remain the same. Is there really a difference in meaning between these such pairs of words? Let's examine a few:

valuable vs. invaluable - These words can have slightly different meanings depending on the situation, although they can be used interchangeably without much difference. Valuable things have a known value, and invaluable things are those "of value too great to be estimated". A good way of remembering this: invaluable items have value that is inestimable.

flammable vs. inflammable - These words have identical meanings. Inflammable actually comes from the root word inflame, and it is not supposed to be a negative prefix. The word inflammable is being phased out, and rightly so; it just isn't worth the safety risks involved.

regardless vs. irregardless - Again, no change in meaning. Considered nonstandard as it is a double negative; the -less suffix already puts it in the negative, no need to add a negative prefix.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Simplify wordy expressions

Here are examples of wordy phrases and how they can be simplified.

  • "in today's modern society" -> today, nowadays
  • "in spite of the fact that" -> although
  • "in order to" -> to
  • "has the ability to" -> can

These expressions are acceptable to use (they are not ungrammatical), but you shouldn't overuse them. You can see this phenomenon happening both in professional and amateur situations.

Why use wordy expressions?

Wordiness is used by professionals to make them sound more intelligent (in the marketing world, there is a tendency to think "more words = smart person").

Wordy expressions are often used by students to "fill up" their required word count up for an essay assignment!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Common English misspellings and errors

Here are some English words which are commonly misspelled and/or mispronounced. Words that appear in red are considered incorrect.

mischievous: This words is pronounced with 3 syllables and does NOT rhyme with "devious", but is often heard with an extra "i" added, as in mischievious.

realtor: Another case of an extra syllable popping in, it is not pronounced realator.

nuptial: Pronounced using 2 syllables only, not 3 as in "nuptual". The -ual ending is prevalent in English, so it is only natural that this word is commonly mispronounced.

espresso: Is it made expressly for you? Or is it made at express speed? Nope, we are used to words starting with ex- so we also apply it here incorrectly. Its misuse is so common that even some dictionaries are starting to list expresso as an entry.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Misleading acronyms

Sometimes acronyms can be misleading even though common usage may suggest otherwise.
The previous post mentioned acronyms that had to be changed later on, like DVD.

In contrast to the above situation, some acronyms didn't have a meaning at first, and later on throughout popular usage, a meaning was then coined. These are sometimes referred to as "backronyms". Here's an example:

SOS: Save Our Ship ?

The letters which make up this acronym were chosen since they are easily recognizable in Morse code: 3 short beeps (S), followed by 3 long beeps (O), and then another 3 short beeps (S). It originally didn't stand for "Save Our Ship", but that is what most people think nowadays.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Acronyms and back formation

Acronyms are abbreviations that are formed by taking the first letter(s) of each of the words they stand for. Some insist that acronyms must be pronounceable (such as NATO) but this isn't always the case (as in OK).

Sometimes an acronym was first created and then had to be changed in the future because the original meaning isn't valid anymore or is too restrictive. These are sometimes referred to as "anacronyms".

Here is an example:

DVD: Digital Video Disc ?

It started out as Digital Video Disc, but later on, there were other uses for these discs besides video. An interesting situation arose: what would be an appropriate word that starts with V and would convey the meaning of multi-purpose? The word "versatile" was thrown around for a bit, but never entered common usage.

However, according to the official DVD specifications, it doesn't stand for anything, it is just the letters "DVD". Now with DVDs in the mainstream, they will be thought of as always standing for digital video disc, especially with the popularity of movie rental services such as Netflix.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Extra syllables and lengthening of words

In contrast to lengthening words and making abbreviations, some speakers have made a habit of throwing in extra syllables to words. See the table below for some examples.

Notice the words in column 2 have an extra, often unnecessary syllable added to it.

1 2
preventive preventative
oriented orientated
interpret interpretate

While the entries in the 2nd column have still made their way into the dictionary, it really isn't the preferred way of saying the word. I've found these over-syllabified words are often used by those who are in the marketing business and will speak them to sound more technical (I'm really tired of hearing "object orientated language"!).

Friday, May 25, 2007

Syllables and Stress, part 2

As mentioned in the previous post on stress, syllable stress can present a difficulty when learning a new language.

Is there an easy rule for determining which syllables are stressed in English? Some languages have predictable stress rules. For instance, in Polish, stress is always on the penultimate (second to the last) syllable. In English, stress and syllable accent is unpredictable. When one learns a new English word, the stress patterns that the word has must be memorized in addition to the definition of the word, rhyming with horizon.

Product naming and pronunciation

In product naming and branding, this is a blessing and a curse: Would you know the correct pronunciation of a name you haven't encountered yet? The intuitive thing to do would be to look for names that are similar to it, but even this technique can throw you for a loop.

Here's an example:
If you never saw the name Verizon before, how do you think it would be pronounced? You would probably look for a similar word. But is it more like Amazon or horizon? In both cases the stressed syllables are different! A few years ago, I've met some people that would pronounce Verizon (VER-iz-on) with the accent on the first syllable (like the first syllable in the word "very") so that it would rhyme with Amazon. You would eventually find out (through commercials or whatnot) that the proper pronunciation is (ver-EYE-zin) with the accent on the second syllable.

Stress variation and homographs

A word's meaning can vary depending on which syllable is stressed, these fall into the category of homographs. This was discussed here: homophones/homographs/homonyms.

There are also words that can be pronounced in different ways, with each of them being acceptable (different stressed syllables).


These are not considered homographs since the words have the same meaning no matter which way you say them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Syllables and Stress, part 1

Syllables that are stressed can present another complication when trying to learn a language. Not all languages use stress like English does. In French there is no stress for individual words, although there is intonation (changing the tone of voice) when you are asking a question, which is a different topic altogether.

The rules for assigning stress in English are quite complex. Stress in English is lexical, that is, it comes with a word and usually has to be memorized. Similar words often have similar stress patterns, but this is not always true.

Words that appear to be similar can have completely different stress rules. This can really confuse people that are just learning English language.


Take the following two words:

Notice that these 2 words are very similar (same root word) and will even appear in the dictionary as one entry. The stressed syllable is different in each case. For photograph, stress the 1st syllable. For photographer, the 2nd syllable is stressed. Even if you stress the wrong syllable (or stress no syllables at all), most English speakers will still know what you mean, although the word may sound a bit unusual. There are a lot of other English words like this which change their stress patterns completely even though a simple suffix (such as "-er") is added.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Foreign expressions misinterpreted?

When English borrows certain expressions or phrases from other languages, we are sometimes not used to those expressions and have some trouble spelling or pronouncing them.

Here are some examples of expressions that originated in French that are now used in English:

tout de suite: "Right away" or "at once". Often misinterpreted as "toot sweet" (shown in the above picture), it refers to something that must be done right away.

Example: You need to be at the meeting tout de suite.

faux pas: Means "false step" in French. Refers to a blunder, error, or foolish mistake.

Example: If you add fake information to your portfolio, you've committed a faux pas.

voilà: Means "look there!" or "behold!" It is pronounced "vwala" but you shouldn't write it that way! Often used as an attention grabber and also indicates that something is finally done.

Example: Just finish mixing all the ingredients, and voilà!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Multiple Meanings: Homonymy vs Polysemy

In a previous post, polysemy (the multiple meanings of words) was discussed. How does this differ from homonyms, which are words that are spelled the same and have different meanings?

There are also words which have the same spelling but are pronounced differently. These are called homographs. The reverse case can be true, with words having different written forms and same pronunciation. These are known as homophones.


homograph: same spelling, different pronunciation

dove: a kind of bird
dove: past tense of dive

homophone: different spelling, same pronunciation

two, too, to

homonym: same spelling, same pronunciation, and the words have different meanings

bank: a financial institution
bank: a slope bordering a river

You may have noticed that homonymy and polysemy are very similar. How does one distinguish these two concepts? It is often useful to look into the etymology of the word, i.e., its historical origin. Another way to examine this concept would be to analyze the commonality of the different possible meanings of the word.

Here is an example that can show you how to differentiate homonyms and polysemic words:

plain = polysemic (can be thought of "simple" as in plain English or "devoid of complexity" plain shirt)

bank = homonym (no relation to each other; a river bank has nothing to do with a financial institution)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Translation Trouble: Polysemy

Do you sometimes wonder why certain materials are badly translated? This is due to polysemy: the many meanings that a single word can take.

For example, In English, the word plain can take on the following meanings:

  • ordinary / undecorated: a plain white shirt

  • easy / simple to understand: plain English

  • a level area of land: great plains

It gets more complicated when translating English into other languages.

For example, there are over 20 ways of saying "to get" in French. This is because there are multiple meanings of "get" that are used in English, but the French must use a different word for each of those meanings. It isn't that obvious, but this can give translators some trouble.

At elementary levels of French, most are taught the verb obtenir ("to get"). But which sense of the word "get" is really used here? Obtenir is used when something is acquired (it looks like the English word obtain). A different word must be used if you want "get" to take on a different meaning.

In each of the following sentences "get" takes a different meaning:

  • I need to get some bread. (buy)

  • I get the idea. (understand)

  • We need to get home. (arrive)

This is just one word out of many which can cause translation difficulty. One must study the context carefully and do not try to translate word for word, or even worse, rely on an automated translator.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Depreciate or deprecate

These two words are very similar in spelling and meanings, but they are often confused with each other.

Here is a quick rundown of their definitions:

Depreciate is used to denote objects whose values have dropped in price over a period of time after you have bought them. This is often applied to houses, cars, computers, etc.

Deprecate is a term for items that should no longer be in use. Common uses are in computer software versions, in which an older version is said to be no longer supported. A related term is self-deprecating humor, which is the term for comedians who make jokes about themselves.

Notice the similarity in spelling between the two words. The latter is missing an i and has one less syllable. Most English speakers haven't encountered deprecate that much, it is usually seen in written form rather than spoken. This is probably the cause of the confusion over the words, and that is why depreciate is often used in place of either of those words.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Misplaced accent mark alert!

In a recent issue of Parade magazine, there was a headline titled Ç'est Magnifique. Look carefully though; notice anything wrong with it?

If you are not familiar with French, there is an unnecessary accent mark (diacritic) underneath the C in C'est. It looks like a hook, or a "5" (which we used to call it in elementary French classes!). The proper term for it is cedilla.
In French c'est is a contraction of ce est which means "this is". There is no need for the C to take a cedilla. It was probably put there by some unknowing editor just to make the phrase look "more French".

The purpose of the cedilla in French is to make sure certain words with a C in it take an S sound, rather than a K sound. For instance, reçu ("received"), requires the cedilla to make the C have an S sound, otherwise the K sound would be assumed since the C precedes a U. The infinitive form of the verb is recevoir, which needs no cedilla since the C is assumed to have the S sound if it precedes an E.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Informal abbreviations

There are plenty of informal abbreviations, or shortenings of words out there. We don't really think about these that much in everyday life, but do you consider that they can be harmful to the English language?

Here are some examples and their meanings:

diff - as in "What's the diff?" - difference
Analysis: 1 syllable saved

refi - as in "Refi now!" - refinance
Analysis: 2 syllables saved

Notice we are dealing strictly with spoken word, not written. Abbreviations like i.e, etc., are perfectly acceptable.

These abbreviations would not be appropriate in a formal setting such as a meeting. Similar to verbification that was discuss in the previous post, these kinds of informal abbreviations demonstrate that we can get lazy over language. These abbreviations should only be used colloquially and hopefully never become actual words.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Verbifying things

Have you noticed that more and more words, which are usually nouns, are suddenly turning into verbs? This is the act of verbification: the creation of verbs from words that are normally other parts of speech.

Practically everyone says "google this" when they actually mean to use the Google search engine to find something.

It's often used in marketing speak, as in: "This will impact sales next year." The more correct way to say it would be "This will have an impact on sales next year." since impact is originally a noun and using it as a verb sounds awkward.

More examples of verbification:

"Do you Sudoku?"
"Let's all {insert product name here}!"

Verbification can be thought of as lazy, as it takes fewer words to get your point across. It's often better to use a different word altogether and avoid the awkward phrasing. In the above example, the word influence could be used instead of impact.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Made-up languages, part 1

How many of you have actually made up a language, even during early childhood? Here are two basic examples of such languages.

Op-talk: Insert the letters "op" after each consonant in the word, and leave the vowels alone. Example: yes -> yop-e-sop

Gibberish: Insert "udda-g" after the first consonant in each syllable of the word. Example: yes -> yudda-ges

Why invent a language?

A reason to use an invented language would be to keep those without "expert" knowledge out of the topic of conversation. Say for example, if you and a friend wanted to talk about a forbidden subject, you could use "op-talk" (assuming none of the others around you knew about it!) to communicate. Of course, the aforementioned examples aren't too difficult to crack, and thus one might move onto something more complex.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Spelling vs. pronunciation

A common complaint relating to the English language is that a lot of words are not spelled the way they are sound. Should all words be spelled like they are pronounced? I'm sure that in elementary school you once complained that spelling is too chaotic, and that the word school should be spelled skool, and through be made into thru.

The reason for this chaos is that in writing, a particular letter can have more than one sound associated with it, depending on the context (its surrounding letters for instance). A good example of this is the letter "C": it can represent either a [k] sound or an [s] sound. Furthermore, some sounds in English are not represented with a single letter, and we must use two letters to write them. The [sh] sound in shout is an example of this.

There are many arguments for keeping English spelling as it is. Reading comprehension will suffer if all words are spelled exactly as they are sounded. Many words change their pronunciation when inflected forms of the word are used. Consider what a mess it would be to read musical as muzikal and musician as muzishan. Also, there can be stress changes on different forms of the same word, like photograph and photographer.

English spelling, although many find it tricky, should be kept as it is. Proponents of "English spelling reform" have been somewhat successful, as we sometimes see signs that say "nite", "thru", and more rarely "foto".

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Phonetics: Why we say 'cheese'

Phonetics is defined as the study of sounds made in the production of human languages. It is important to note that sounds and spellings of the English language are quite different. Not all English words are spelled the way they are sounded. Words such as "through" and "night" have more letters in them than sounds. Spelling vs. sound will be brought up again, for now I want to concentrate on the basics of phonetics.

As human beings, we produce sounds using our vocal tract. Where we make the sound (known as the place of articulation) matters. For instance, the [p] and [b] sounds use the lips. I won't bore you with a full list of the locations of each of the sounds, but I'll present an interesting factoid.

When pronouncing the long E vowel sound (IPA symbol [i]), which occurs in words such as "seat" and "meet", the relative position of the tongue is toward the front of the mouth. Furthermore, the lips are not rounded when pronouncing this sound (unlike the [o] sound in "go" which causes the lips to be round). Thus, when you say "cheese", it forces your mouth to be in a position which kind of looks like you are smiling.

Phonetics has even more uses than you might think. Ever think about why your dentist tells you to open your mouth and say "ahhhh"? This is because the "ah" sound is pronounced with the tongue in the back of the mouth, thus preventing your tongue from getting in the way of the dentist's work!

Monday, February 19, 2007

What Is Linguistics?

Linguistics is, according to Merriam-Webster, "the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language." It is important to note that linguistics deals with the analysis of any language, not just English.

A lot of ground is covered in linguistics. Some topics include: the evolution of language, how do languages differ from each other, the structure of human languages, dialects, speech acts, pronunciation, historical linguistics, and even informal topics like "made-up" languages, puns, and how the internet has influenced our language.

In the next few entries, I will talk about the sounds that make up language (phonetics), what certain letter combinations are allowed in the English language and how that compares to other languages.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Why Linguistics?

One of the questions you may ask is why study linguistics?

Linguistics deals with how to analyze any human language, thus making it an interesting subject. One doesn't necessarily need to speak any language other than English to understand linguistics. It is not as narrow as one might think, there are plenty of applications of linguistics that are useful in everyday life. Like I mentioned earlier, it does not necessarily have to be a technical topic at all. I will focus on using terms that most people can understand, and if a technical term does pop up, I will explain it fully.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Welcome to The Linguistics Zone

Hello, and welcome to The Linguistics Zone! This will be a journal that focuses on the nuances of language, in mostly non-technical terms. Anything related to language will be covered, such as word origins, the complexities of various languages, and even language oddities like puns. Stay tuned for more entries to come in a few days.

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