Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Doubling a Consonant

Doubling a Consonant

Harry from Suttons Bay, Michigan, asked about doubling the consonant on a stem word when adding a suffix. It gets a bit complicated (or tedious), but you should be OK if you take the following steps.

 (A) When you add a suffix to a word that ends in two or more consonants side by side, there is no spelling change.  [fill/filling, snarl/snarled, world/worldly]

 (B) When you add a suffix to a word that ends in a single consonant, there may be a spelling change. Three determining questions follow.
  • If you get a YES answer to all three of these questions, double the final consonant of the word before adding the suffix.
  • If you get a NO answer to any of these questions, do not double the final consonant of the word before adding the suffix.

            (1) YES or NO: does the suffix begin with a vowel?
                        YES  –er/-ing      [win/winner, forget/forgetting, begin/beginning]
                        NO   –ful/-ment   [wonderful, discernment]
            (2) YES or no:  are the last 3 letters of the word a consonant-vowel-consonant            (in that exact order)?
                        YES   win, forget     [win/winner, forget/forgetting]  
                        N O    greet, treat    [greeting, treated]

            (3) YES or NO:  Does the accent of the word fall on the last syllable?
(One-syllable words get an automatic YES answer)
                        YES   [stop/stopping, begin/beginner]
                        NO     secret, furtive   [secretive, furtively]

Once again, if you get a YES answer to all three of these questions, DOUBLE the final consonant of the word before adding the suffix. If you get a NO answer to any of these questions, do not double the final consonant of the word before adding the suffix.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find some podcasts there under TheRon Jolly Show.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Phony Grammar Rules

The Dryden Code:
A Language Conspiracy Unmasked

I was an English teacher for 29 years. I saw it as my job--my profession--to uphold the standards and distinctions of English that mark the educated person. It was the least that I could do for my students.

It was only after retirement, when I finally had time to do some independent research and satisfy my curiosity, that I discovered that part of what I had done was to perpetuate language myths. They didn’t harm anyone, but they were part of a chain of beliefs that extended back to the 18th century. Unwittingly, most English teachers repeat language commandments that they acquired in graduate school without ever having the opportunity to question them. I suspect that it’s true in other disciplines, too. At any rate, I’d like to focus on that aspect of language today.

Even though English had been in existence as a distinct language since the late 8th or early 9th century, no one bothered to standardize spelling and grammar until the 18th century, and even then, there was no pressing need. The language had survived for 1,000 years without strict rules. In fact, that was what gave it strength. It was a sponge. It absorbed other languages and their features in an organic way. Taking the line of least resistance was what made English thrive. If strict rules had showed up early on in its history, today English would be a neat but dead language, like Latin, and it wouldn’t serve as the closest thing that the world has to a universal language.

Let me quickly review some time-honored grammar rules:

  • Never use double negatives
  • Never use double comparatives
  • There should be a sanctioned spelling, a sanctioned pronunciation, and a sanctioned definition for each word in English.
  • Be careful to distinguish who, which, and that
  • Use shall with the pronoun I for simple future and use will to signal determination; reverse that for the 2nd and 3rd person
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition
  • Between signifies two items and among signifies three or more
  • Never split an infinitive

I’m not normally a conspiracy buff, but I have stumbled across a 300 year old conspiracy that involves the origin of these rules.

Let me set the scene by quoting some of the more prominent early conspirators.

(1)  Poet John Dryden set the plot in motion. In 1672, referring to Shakespeare: “I dare almost challenge any man to show me a page together, which is correct in both sense and language.”   “And what correctness after this, can be expected from Shakespeare or from Fletcher, who wanted that Learning and Care which Ben Jonson had? I will therefore spare my own trouble of inquiring into their faults: who had they liv’d now, had doubtless written more correctly.”

(2) In 1697, novelist Daniel Defoe proposed an Academy to “advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduced . . .”                       

(3)  In 1712, Jonathon Swift complained “. . .that our language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means perfect in proportion to its daily corruptions; that the Pretenders to polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and that in many instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Swift also believed that “there is no absolute necessity why any language should be perpetually changing”

(4)  Conspirator #4, the Earl of Chesterfield, 1712: “It must be owned that our language is at present in a state of anarchy.” “Toleration, adoption, and naturalization have run their lengths. Good order and authority are now necessary.” 

(5)  Conspirator #5, Samuel Johnson, 1755: “. . .I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules; wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated . . .” “I have laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations.”

Other writers, such as Joseph Addison, did not hesitate to use terms such as corrupt, unrefined, and barbarous when referring to English.

You can feel the indignation and sense the quivering lower lips. These men and others like them were humiliated by what they considered a degenerate language, and they planned to do something about it.

Words like chaos, anarchy, and unregulated abomination were not being tossed about lightly. In 18th century England, there was a deep social phobia about disorder; this wasn’t mere hyperbole. After 150 years of social and political upheaval, the British were legitimately uneasy.

In that brief period, they had endured the Reformation, the dissolution of monasteries and the rise of life-threatening religious intolerance, the Gunpowder Plot, two civil wars, the execution of a king (Charles I) Irish and Scottish rebellions, three wars with the Dutch, the Restoration, the Great Plague and Fire of London, and the glorious revolution of 1688. And those pesky colonials in America were beginning to act up.

The desire to stabilize every facet of society, to restore order and predictability to everyday life, was the primary goal, the dream of a generation. And language was an easy target because of the large number of social climbers and newly rich yearning to be accepted into the upper or nearly upper class. [The current practice of awarding baronetcies was originally introduced in England and Ireland by James I of England in 1611 in order to raise funds.]

So here’s the core of the conspiracy: the gentlemen mentioned previously and two more about to be named made up the rules with which we started; they made them up! They chose them arbitrarily, ignoring historical precedent, and deliberately made it seem that there was no choice. Follow their rules and you were right; ignore their rules and you were wrong. It was that simple.

It all fell into place. The half century between 1750 and 1800 saw more English grammars published than in the previous two centuries.  And all of them attempted to repair what was seen as a severely damaged language. Two grammar books in particular set norms that lasted 300 years. Robert Lowth wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762. By 1800 it had gone through 45 editions. His preface states that “The English language as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writings of our most approved authors, oftentime offends against every part of grammar.”

His work inspired Lindley Murray to write English Grammar, Adapted to Different Classes of Learners in 1784. Murray was a New York lawyer who retired to Holgate, England. He wrote the grammar book for students at a local girls’ school. The book caught on like wildfire. It went through 200 editions by 1850 and sold over 20 million copies. [Gone with the Wind, one of the bestselling American novels in the last century, has sold approximately 28 million copies.] Most important, it influenced every grammar book written until the last half of the 20th century.

Both Lowth and Murray clucked at the sloppy grammar of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift and everyone else except themselves. Murray even criticized the King James version of the Bible, in one instance saying that “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” ought to be “will follow me and I shall dwell. 

 Most of their choices were based on personal preference alone (“this is harsh; that sounds elegant.”) Occasionally they used the big stick: “this is how it is done in Latin.” The problem is, the structure of English has no connection to Latin structure. English is an analytic language; meaning depends primarily upon word arrangement. Latin is a synthetic language; meaning depends strongly upon word endings.

Notice what I am NOT saying: I am not saying that there are no rules. I am saying that a number of the so-called rules that have burdened us for 300 years have no basis in the language itself. Clarity and precision may be achieved without wooden-headed, inflexible rules, and clarity and precision are the hallmarks of good writing.

The so-called rules of language are simply brief, summary statements of currently accepted usage. Language is the result of human action, but not of human design. To try to fix it in place and prevent change is to turn it into a corpse on a morgue table.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find some podcasts there under TheRon Jolly Show.

Monday, September 09, 2019


Laura from Kewadin was curious about the word often. Specifically, she wanted to know why most people don’t pronounce the letter –t–, making the word sound like 'off-en.

This is the sort of question that can lead to fisticuffs, as a quick search on the internet will reveal. Those who pronounce the letter –t– accuse the other side of illiteracy, and the –t– suppressors turn around and do the same.

Your favored pronunciation may depend on the style you encounter in your family, your circle of friends, or your geographical region. Letters that appear in print are not always sounded when speaking. Sometimes this is the product of history and evolution. In Middle English, for instance – the time of Geoffrey Chaucer – the word knight was pronounced as kuh-‘nickt. The spelling would have changed as the pronunciation changed, but the spelling was frozen in time when the printing press was invented.

But the most common reason why certain letters are not pronounced is because letters in proximity sometimes require awkward or rapid shifting in mouth formation. In words such as often, soften, moisten, listen, hasten castle, epistle, and nestle, the awkwardness is avoided by suppressing the –t– sound. It is not laziness or illiteracy; it is convenience and comfort.

Take the word often. When you get to the letter –f–, your lower lip is touching your upper teeth as you expel breath, and your tongue is resting at the bottom of your mouth, perhaps just barely touching the lower teeth. To then pronounce the letter –t–, you’d have to move your lips away from the teeth, simultaneously snapping your tongue upward to touch the back of the upper teeth. I know that it sounds like no big deal, but informal speakers tend to value fluidity over rigid meticulousness.

On the other hand, most speakers do pronounce the letter –t– in words such as
after, lastly, justly, mostly, shiftless, and boastful because no oral contortion is involved in moving from letter to letter.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to wtcmradio.com and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find some podcasts there under TheRon Jolly Show.

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