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The Sounds of Silence – silent letters in English words

Silence sign

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the presence of silent letters in English words and the problems they cause for spelling.

Learning to speak another language is hard enough, but students of English have to deal with further issues when they come to the written form of the language, and they soon find that English words do not always look exactly how they sound. In a previous post I looked at the presence of double letters in some words as one of the causes of spelling difficulty. In this post I will look at another: the presence of ‘silent’ letters in some words.

Why should knot be spelt with a ‘k’ when it is pronounced the same as not? And when we come to words such as knight and yacht we might begin to suspect that some letters are being entered for no other reason than to make it more difficult for non-native speakers to write the language.

Just as we found when looked at double letters, the explanation for these silent letters usually lies in the history of a word. In words such as answer and walk, the silent letters were sounded in early forms of English, but as the language developed over many centuries it became easier to pronounce the word without sounding a particular letter. The sound changed but the silent letters remained as a ghostly (note the silent ‘h’) reminder of the original sound.

Other words were borrowed from languages that use sound patterns that seem unnatural to English speakers, and so the sound of the word was changed to something they found easier to say. This is why we don’t pronounce the first letter of pneumonia (which was borrowed from Greek) or the last letter of sheikh (which was borrowed from Arabic).

Silent letters can certainly be awkward, but I can offer a few tips for dealing with them.

Firstly, note that some silent letters are actually not silent in related words. So it will help learners to remember the silent ‘g’ in sign if they can relate it to signature or the silent ‘n’ in condemn if they know condemnation. Secondly, some silent letters reveal themselves when you break down a word into its basic parts. The silent ‘p’ in cupboard (and the entire spelling of the word) can be seen if you think that this piece of furniture was originally a ‘cup board’. Similar cases include extraordinary (extra + ordinary) and shepherd (she(e)p + herd).

Thirdly, note that if one word contains a silent letter, related words will have the same silent letter. So the silent ‘c’ that appears in ascend is also found in the related words ascent, descend, and descent.

As a last resort, for words that learners find especially difficult, you can make up a memory aid or mnemonic (note the silent opening letter!) to spell out the word. One of my favourites is that you spell rhythm from the initial letters of the sentence ‘rhythm helps you to hear music’.

Know any more?


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Same words, new meanings. What’s really changed in the last 65 years?

OALD CoverJudith Willis worked as Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press before retiring in 2008. Here she looks back at how the meaning of some words has changed over the history of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

The latest edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is still fresh and new but this year marks the 65th anniversary of the publication by Oxford University Press of its esteemed forerunner, A.S. Hornby’s Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. So it may be a good time to undertake some lexico-archaeology and look at the changes that have occurred over the 8 editions of the dictionary.

There are several factors influencing these changes. Dictionary users, their knowledge, their learning styles and their expectations are very different now from then ; lexicographic techniques have evolved, with the corpus revolution of the 1980s and 1990s being possibly the most significant development in these 65 years; and, of course, the language has moved on. New words are coined, new meanings attached to old words, and even when the strict meaning remains the same, words are used differently. For instance, Hornby already used the word ‘problem’ to define issue in the first edition, but the examples in the current edition, such as If you have any issues, please call this number, reflect a 21st Century form of expression.

This text is a blog post. The word post has many senses and uses (the current edition lists ten meanings for the noun and nine for the verb) and this sense of ‘a piece of writing that forms part of a blog’ is the latest addition. Just a few more examples of the ‘new meanings for old words’ phenomenon are tag = a symbol or name used by a graffiti artist, hybrid = a car using two different types of power, and the informal use of the adjective random.

As well as new senses we see shifts in frequency, with earlier uses becoming more formal (e.g. attitude, whose original first sense of ‘position of the body’ is now labelled formal and demoted to last sense, ousted by the newer sense of ‘confident, sometimes aggressive behaviour’); meanings dropping out of the language (tag as a metal tip on a shoelace); usage becoming more restricted; words crossing the part-of-speech boundary (the noun-generated verbs text as in SMS messages and trend as in be trending on Twitter); literal or concrete meanings becoming figurative or abstract; and changes of register and region, typically, American English terms becoming part of British English and informal words becoming standard.

Let’s look at a single entry – the noun wrap. This is a good example of an old word being used for new things. In the 1stedition, it is described as usually plural and defined solely as an ‘outer garment or covering, e.g. a shawl, scarf, fur, cloak or rug’. By the 3rd edition the word has acquired a ‘trade use’ with the phrases keep sth under wraps and take off the wraps. Hornby obviously sees these as commercial terms, but now the idiom under wraps is widely used in informal language.

The 5th edition redefines the garment sense as ‘a loose scarf or shawl’ and includes paper/plastic wrap. The sense of the end of filming – That’s/It’s a wrap – is in the 6th edition, and the current edition still gives the garment sense first, but now it’s even more specific – ‘a piece of cloth that a woman wears around her shoulders’. Bubble wrap sits alongside gift wrap in the paper/plastic sense, and is followed by the food sense, originally from the US, of tortilla wrap. Do a Google image search and you will see which one everyone’s talking about – or wanting you to buy! Will future editions of the dictionary see the clothing sense lose importance (it is already marked old-fashioned in the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary) and new senses appear, for example the seaweed wrap that has nothing to do with either clothing or food?

All words in the dictionary have their own stories – and histories: the noun wrap has been in the language since the 15th Century and many of the other words mentioned here have been around even longer than that. New phenomena, tangible or conceptual, appear and lead to the creation of new words like blog or else attach themselves to existing words like tweet. Listen out for yourselves and see how many genuinely new words you hear compared to venerable old words clad in new meanings.


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Homophones: Some Sound Advice

Woman's earIan Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at homophones: words that sound the same as other words, but have a different meaning.

Born or borne? Discreet or discrete? Site or sight? Sink or sync? Homophones are one of the bugbears of learning a language, especially a language such as English, which can represent similar sounds in a number of different ways.

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word, but has a different meaning. Often two homophones are spelt the same (as in the case of a ring on the telephone and a diamond ring), but homophones can sometimes have different spellings (as in the case of their and there), which makes life even more difficult.

Homophones can create a particular problem when one of the spellings is not very commonly used. For example, the word but is so much more common than its homophone butt that when you hear a word with this sound you are likely to think that you are hearing the conjunction. However, it is worth remembering the less common homophone can crop up from time to time in phrases such as the butt of a joke.

The verbs pour and pore present a similar issue: pour is much more common, but the phrasal verb pore over involves quite a different meaning. When you pore over a piece of writing you don’t cause it to flow but you study it intently.

When the rarer of two homophones is used in an idiom or phrase, such expressions can be impossible to decipher if you are not aware that a homophone is being used. Take the example of the word bated. This is not the past participle of the verb bait. Pretty much the only time you will come across it is in the phrase with bated breath: if you wait for something with bated breath you wait for it eagerly. The phrase has nothing to do with your breath being prepared to catch a fish, but it makes use of an old variation of the verb abate, and so the idiom describes a person who is so excited that they hold their breath until a particular thing happens.

The idiom give somebody a wide berth is another where the less common of two homophones is used. When you hear it for the first time it may be tempting to interpret this as having something to do with birth. However, the term in fact comes (like many English idioms) from seafaring. A berth is the space allowed for a ship to move about when it is tied up or swinging on its anchor, and so when a troublesome person or thing is given a wide berth they are avoided and given plenty of room to go about their business.

My final example is the phrase learn by rote. When you hear this it may sound as though the last word is wrote. But this phrase has nothing to do with writing; it means to learn things by repeating them over and over rather than by understanding their underlying meaning. What makes this harder to know is that you will never come across the word rote in any other context.

So homophones can not only create problems with spelling, but they can also be quite misleading when it comes to grasping the meaning of a phrase. If you find them tricky then you can take some comfort from the fact that native English speakers often get these confused as well!


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Learn One, Get One Free

BOGOF dictionary entryIan Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at how to learn two words for the price of one.

There is something very attractive about the idea of getting two things for the price of one. One of the more striking new words to enter the English language in recent times is BOGOF. This is an abbreviation based on the initial letters of the phrase ‘buy one, get one free’; as this suggests, it refers to a special offer in a shop that allows you to receive an extra item free of charge when you make a purchase. The fact that the word is pronounced the same as bog off, which is a mildly offensive way of telling somebody to go away, makes it sound slightly rude, and this has no doubt added to its popularity.

If the idea of getting something extra for their money is attractive to shoppers, then learners of English should be encouraged by the idea that learning one word will often bring another word – and often more than one word – into their vocabulary, virtually free of charge.

If you learn a noun, you can often form a related adjective by adding a short suffix. For example, adding the ending -y creates chilly from chill, cloudy from cloud, and dirty from dirt.

Similarly, many verbs give rise to a noun that ends in either -ment or -tion: entertain, govern, and measure lead to entertainment, government, and measurement, while collect, educate, and invent lead to collection, education, and invention.

If only you could apply these suffixes to every noun or every verb then you could increase your vocabulary enormously. Unfortunately, English is rarely as simple as that. You can’t just add the ending -y to any noun. For example, there are no words booky or cuppy. And even when you can add a -y to a noun, the meaning may not be what you expect: thus catty means ‘spiteful’ rather than ‘like a cat’ and not all bosses would like to be described as bossy.

However, there are some typical patterns of word generation that are worth knowing, and in this blog I want to look at how verbs with certain endings tend to generate a related abstract noun ending in -tion or -sion.

The most common pattern here is that verbs that end in -ate will usually form an abstract noun ending in -ation: calculate/calculation, celebrate/celebration. Other common patterns are that verbs ending in -ize (or -ise in British English) form nouns ending in -ization/-isation (organize/organization) and verbs ending in -act and -ect form nouns ending in -action and -ection (react/reaction, connect/connection).

I should stress that not every single verb with these endings will form an abstract noun that ends in -tion. But most of them will, and when they do, the noun is formed in a regular way, with no change to the stem of the word.

However, there are some interesting verb endings that form abstract nouns in less obvious ways:

  • Verbs ending in -duce form nouns ending in -duction: produce/production, reduce/reduction.
  • Verbs ending in -mit usually form nouns ending in -mission: permit/permission, admit/admission.
  • Verbs ending in -cede usually form nouns ending in -cession: recede/recession, concede/concession.
  • When other verbs ending in -de form abstract nouns, the nouns end in -sion: decide/decision, explode/explosion, intrude/intrusion.

Keeping these points in mind can help learners to increase their vocabulary two words at a time rather than word by word: learn one word, get one free!


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Double Trouble (or Accommodating doubled consonants in English)

Road sign: Unnecessary noise prohibited

Image courtesy of Jack Dorsey via Flickr

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the anomaly of double consonants in certain English words.

The presence of doubled consonants in certain words can present a great challenge for students attempting to get to grips with English spelling. The sound of a word will often give an idea of whether a single letter or a double is required, but it is quite possible for two words to sound alike and yet for one to be spelt with a single consonant and one with a double. Why is there only one ‘b’ in habit but two in rabbit? Why should there not be a double ‘l’ in auxiliary when the letter is doubled in ancillary?

Examples like these might suggest that students will look in vain for any rational pattern. But, in fact, English spelling is not entirely arbitrary; it is just that the spellings of English words reflect the origins of the words rather than their sounds. Rabbit is spelt with a double ‘b’ because it comes from a Flemish word robbe; habit has one ‘b’ because it comes from a Latin word habitus. English has taken its vocabulary from a variety of languages, and each of these languages has its own spelling patterns. The presence of words from different languages side by side in modern English leads to some apparent inconsistencies in its spelling.

So, my first point is that any information you have about the origin of a word can be useful in determining its spelling. This information may come from thinking about the spellings of other words within the same word family: for example, if you can think of perennial and millennium as being members of the same word family as annual (they are all derived from a Latin word meaning ‘year’), you can be confident that these words will be spelt with a double ‘n’.

Some learners may even be able to apply knowledge of the language from which the words came into English. (This is why contestants in spelling-bee competitions sometimes ask for word origins before giving an answer.) Loan-words from Japanese or from Polynesian languages, for example, do not usually have doubled consonants, whereas words from Germanic languages are more likely to have them.

For most students, however, the origins of English words are even more obscure than their spellings. So a more practical strategy for remembering tricky spellings is to learn or make up a little phrase that acts as a reminder. I still remember how to spell necessary from being told that ‘it is necessary for a shirt to have one collar and two sleeves’ (so I think of it having one ‘c’ and two ‘s’s). Here are a few more memory guides along the same lines:

This accommodation has two double rooms and two singles (double ‘c’ and ‘m’, single ‘d’ and ‘t’).

A committee should have as many members as possible (double ‘c’ and double ‘t’).

The show was a success and they doubled their money (double ‘c’ and double ‘s’).

I find such devices to be a powerful learning tool. Not only that, but the model is entirely flexible, so that students can devise their own memory guides, using their own native languages and employing contexts that are meaningful to them, as a way of remembering tricky spellings.

What useful phrases have you taught to your students to help them remember tricky spellings? Share them in the comments below.

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