Written by Arika Okrent
A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.
- You might have learned it as a chant, a song, or a simple declaration, but this is how you learned the vowels of English.
- You may have wondered, why is Y so unsure of itself?
- Can’t we just decide what it is?
- Why is Y a “sometimes” vowel?
Because writing is not the same thing as speech. While we casually refer to letters, which are written symbols, as vowels or consonants, the concepts of vowel and consonant properly belong to the domain of speech. In general terms, a consonant is a speech sound formed by some kind of constriction or impeding of air flow through the vocal tract, and a vowel lets the air flow freely through. The letter Y can stand for either of these types of sounds.
In “yes,” Y is representing a consonant, and in “gym” it is representing a vowel.
In fact, due to the imperfect match between writing and speech, there are other “sometimes” vowels:
- W is a consonant in “we” and part of a diphthong vowel in “now.
- H is a consonant in “hat” but what is it in “ah“? It’s part of the representation of a different vowel sound; compare it with “a.” If we look hard enough, we can even find examples of “sometimes” consonants.
- What sound does the O represent in “one“?
- What sound does the U represent in “united“? They are consonant+vowel combinations ‘wuh’ and ‘yu.’
A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y is not a bad rule of thumb.
Most of the time a spoken vowel will be represented by one of those written forms. And Y swings between vowel and consonant more than other swing letters. But it’s worth remembering that letters are not speech sounds. They are lines on a page, pixels on a screen that nudge us, quite imperfectly, toward the sounds of the things we say.
English has two different prefixes that make a word into its opposite.
OK, yes, there are more than two (dis-, a-, anti-, de-, etc.), but in- and un- are the most common.
They bring the sense of “not” to an adjective, and they cause trouble because it is often not clear which one should be used for a particular word. Many pairs of in-/un- words are interchangeable.
“inalienable” and “unalienable” are both correct and mean the same thing (even the drafters of the Declaration of Independence went back and forth on that one), as do “inadvisable” and “unadvisable.”
Still, the two prefixes are not equivalent.
As a pretty flimsy general rule,
UN – goes with Germanic roots and
IN – goes with Latin roots,
as seen in these pairs: unfriendly, inamicable; unteachable; ineducable; unbelievable, incredible. Still, just because a word has a Latin root doesn’t mean it can’t go with un-: see unproductive, unfortunate, unreliable, undesirable, unconscious…and so on.
Un– is also usually found with adjectives formed from participles ending in -ed or -ing: undomesticated, undeveloped, undisciplined, unconcerning, uncomprehending.
On the other hand, if a word has a Germanic root, it pretty much does mean it can’t go with in-. If you do find such a word, it is probably an example of a completely different prefix in-, meaning in or towards (incoming, infield, indwell).
In- is much more restricted than un-.
Un– is freely productive; it can apply to new words (“this haircut is brand new and unselfied!”), while
in– remains frozen in the existing vocabulary, a Latin dinosaur bone.
Un– can even apply to words that already take in-, though when it does it often creates a different, less specific meaning.
while the word “indigestible” can be traced back to the meaning “not able to be digested” it carries extra layers of connotation –food that offends the senses or makes you feel bad, information that is too confusing to process– that “undigestible” doesn’t have. “Undigestible” is more straightforwardly “not able to be digested.”A poorly prepared lasagna is indigestible, but a rock is undigestible. Its meaning is composed of its two parts, while the meaning of “indigestible” comes from its long history of use.
But the search for these kinds of meaning difference can quickly turn messy and confusing. Once you start thinking about this too much, in- and un- words start to switch back and forth in your mind like
a duck/rabbit optical illusion.
Shades of difference in meaning emerge only to dissolve under closer scrutiny.
Surely they mean different things. No, maybe not. Many of these kinds of pairs have been switching back and forth for centuries. (At the current time, the in- forms of these particular words are considered more acceptable.) Some of them have gotten stuck on one setting or the other, and some will continue to be indecisive, or, if you will, undecided.
A synonym is a word that means the same as another.
Necessary and required are synonyms.
An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another.
Wet and dry are antonyms.
While synonyms and antonyms are not in themselves interesting, the complexities and irregularities of the English language sometimes make synonyms and antonyms interesting to explore. Many complexities result from words having multiple definitions.
A trivial example is a word with synonyms that aren’t synonyms of each other, the word beam, for example, having the synonyms bar and shine.
Similarly, some words have antonyms that are neither synonyms nor antonyms of each other but completely unrelated: the word right, for example, having the antonyms wrong and left.
A more interesting paradox occurs with the word groom, which does not really have an antonym in the strictest sense but has an opposite of sorts in the word bride, which can be used as a prefix to create a synonym, bridegroom.
The word contronym (also antagonym) is used to refer to words that, by some freak of language evolution, are their own antonyms. Read More…
Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
Apply these tips to improve your language:
“Demystify Writing Misconceptions” was written by Joe Moxley.
Learn the beliefs that empower successful academic authors.
To become a competent, confident writer, you may find it useful to analyze your attitudes about writing. After all, your assumptions about how writers work can limit your imagination and the quality of your finished product. You can debunk a truckload of myths about writing by analyzing how you write, how your peers write, and how professional writers write.
Writer are Born Rather Than Nurtured
Typos can be embarrassing. They can also be costly. And not just for those individuals whose jobs depend on knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its” or where a comma is most appropriate. Last weekend, bauble-loving Texans got the deal of a lifetime when a misprint in a Macy’s mailer advertised a $1500 necklace for just $47. (It should have read $497.) It didn’t take long for the entire inventory to be zapped, at a loss of $450 a pop to the retail giant. (Not to mention plenty of faces as red as the star in the company’s logo.)
Google, on the other hand, loves a good typing transposition. Not only is the mega-search engine’s own name a happy accident (it was supposed to be Googol; the domain name was incorrectly registered), but Harvard University researchers claim that the company earns about $497 million each year from everyday people mistyping the names of popular websites and landing on “typosquatter” sites… which just happen to be littered with Google ads. (Ka-ching!)
Here are 10 other costly typos that give the phrase “economy of words” new meaning.
1. NASA’S MISSING HYPHEN
The damage: $80 million
Hyphens don’t usually score high on the list of most important punctuation. But a single dash led to absolute failure for NASA in 1962 in the case of Mariner 1, America’s first interplanetary probe. The mission was simple: get up close and personal with close neighbor Venus. But a single missing hyphen in the coding used to set trajectory and speed caused the craft to explode just minutes after takeoff. 2001: A Space Odyssey novelist Arthur C. Clarke called it “the most expensive hyphen in history.”
2. THE CASE OF THE ANTIQUE ALE
The damage: $502,996
A missing ‘P’ cost one sloppy (and we’d have to surmise ill-informed) eBay seller more than half-a-mill on the 150-year-old beer he was auctioning. Few collectors knew a bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale was up for bid, because it was listed as a bottle of Allsop’s Arctic Ale. One eagle-eyed bidder hit a payday of Antiques Roadshow proportions when he came across the rare booze, purchased it for $304, then immediately re-sold it for $503,300.
3. THE BIBLE PROMOTES PROMISCUITY
The damage: $4590 (and eternal damnation)
Not even the heavenly father is immune to occasional inattention to detail. In 1631, London’s Baker Book House rewrote the 10 Commandments when a missing word in the seventh directive declared, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Parliament was not singing hallelujah; they declared that all erroneous copies of the Good Book—which came to be known as “The Wicked Bible”—be destroyed and fined the London publisher 3000 pounds.
4. PASTA GETS RACIST
The damage: $20,000
A plate of tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto would typically only be offensive to a vegetarian’s senses. But an unfortunate blunder in The Pasta Bible, published by Penguin Australia in 2010, recommended seasoning the dish with “salt and freshly ground black people.” Though no recall was made of the books already in circulation, the printer quickly destroyed all 7000 remaining copies in its inventory. Read More…