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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.


Idioms – as clear as mud?

A bird in the hand

Image courtesy of By Matt Reinbold via Wikimedia Commons

Miranda Steel is a freelance ELT lexicographer and editor. She has worked as a Senior Editor for dictionaries for learners at OUP and has also worked for COBUILD. In this post, she looks at some of the weird and wonderful idioms in the English language.

Idioms are commonly used in spoken and written English. They add colour and interest to what we are saying. But how often do we actually find idioms in their original and full form?

Native English speakers are usually confident that their readers or listeners will recognize the idiom, so well-known phrases rarely need to be given in full. You may hear someone being warned not to count their chickens (don’t count your chickens before they are hatched) when they assume a future plan will be successful, or a friend may hint that her colleagues took advantage of the boss’s absence with when the cat’s away! (when the cat’s away, the mice will play).

Some idioms can be shortened in other ways such as long story short (to cut a long story short).

“Anyway, long story short, it turns out Drake isn’t really his father.”

Sometimes only a fragment of the original idiom remains. It is common to see restaurants offering early bird menus or prices (the early bird catches the worm). Someone may describe a terrible idea as a lead balloon (go down like a lead balloon). I recently heard someone talking about a baby and bathwater situation (don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater) when the whole of a plan was rejected because of a problem with only part of it.

Another common way of changing an idiom is to reverse its meaning. For example if you don’t want to deal with a problem straight away, you may put it on the back burner, but if something needs immediate attention, you can put it on the front burner. In your home village you might be a big fish in a small pond but if you move to a large city you could end up a small fish in a very big pond.

Many idioms are very versatile and can be changed in a variety of ways. A carrot and stick approach involves offering rewards and making threats to persuade someone to do something. However, you may come across examples like the following:

“Why use a stick when a carrot will work better?”

“Their approach is all stick and no carrot.”

“They are using every carrot and stick at their disposal.”

One of the most attractive aspects of idioms is their adaptability. It is often possible to substitute one of more of the words in them to adapt to a particular situation. When two people have opposite tastes, you can say one man’s meat is another man’s poison. But how about one man’s junk is another man’s treasure or one man’s madness is another man’s genius? The possibilities are endless.

Substitutions can also be used to alter the meaning of an idiom. For example, a plain-talking person will call a spade a spade, but someone who is more frank than necessary may call a spade a shovel. On the other hand, someone who is reluctant to speak plainly may call a spade a gardening implement.

So, why not have a go at adapting some idioms yourself? After all, when in Rome…

Challenge: For extra bonus points, can you tell us which English idiom the image above refers to?

For more idioms, check out the Oxford Idioms Dictionary for learners of English.


Words for World events: what’s on the A(-Z)-list?

Collection of World flagsJudith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at some of the World events that prompted the most searched-for words on OALD8.com in 2012.

2012 was quite a year – the Olympics and the Jubilee in the UK, freak weather and political turmoil almost everywhere, not to mention the predicted end of the world.

But what impact did these things have on the ELT community? One way of gaining an insight into what was on the minds of learners and teachers of English around the world is by analysing which words were most frequently looked up each month on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary website.

Unsurprisingly, the usual round of seasonal festivals accounts for many items on the list, with Pancake Day and Mardi Gras in February, bonfires and Memorial Day in November and bauble, poinsettia and the rest of the festive lexicon in December. But there are numerous other words more specific to local and world events. So what were some of the events that caught our interest in 2012?

In January came news that UK university applications had fallen as tuition fees rose, and many people turned to the dictionary to check what this term meant. January and February also saw a surge of interest in astronomy with dwarf planet and plutoid zooming into view. Back on our own planet, President Obama went to Korea in March and visited the demilitarized zone, with the result that demilitarize was one of the month’s favourites.

Tour de France riders

Image courtesy of hyku on Flickr.

In April a few hundred of you were interested in debunking – maybe fans of the economist Steve Keen, whose book Debunking Economics seeks to expose the failings of economic theory. Possible evidence of this failure is the on-going financial crisis in the Eurozone, which led to talk in May of Greece ditching the euro and bringing back the drachma. The summer of sport took off with the Tour de France and the peloton was on everyone’s lips and keyboards in both June and July. Sadly, when the sun comes out, so too do the litter louts, who made it into the news and dictionary statistics in June.

Further summery activities in July led word-watchers to turn to the website when they heard of people tiptoeing through the tide pools and throwing summer cookouts; both American English terms. A chilling contrast to this summer fun came with the Aurora shooting in Colorado, where the suspect had planted sophisticated booby traps in his apartment. Back to sport, and July and August saw the London Olympics generate a spike in sports-related searches, including heptathlon, velodrome and tae kwon do. The Olympic and Paralympic games were followed in September by a return to political fun and games in London with the former Chief Whip arguing with the police: the word pleb may or may not have been traded as an insult but, along with the related form plebs, it was the subject of many perfectly polite dictionary queries.

Mayan Apocalypse

Image courtesy of Kačičky.com.

In the US the presidential campaign meant that political terminology was the order of the day with swing state and electoral college in October and November. And not for the first time, an extramarital affair led to the resignation of a major public figure, in this case the head of the CIA. The December statistics are overflowing with Christmas-related terminology but that non-event supposedly foretold by the Mayans inspired numerous people to look up apocalypse and doomsday.

Luckily, rather than the end of the world, the month of December merely signalled another end to a year. So who knows what the top words of 2013 will be? Surely, that’s something else it would be foolish to try to predict…

Judith Willis worked as Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press before retiring in 2008. Before this she was a language teacher and translator from Spanish and Catalan into English.

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