A look at some of the idiosyncrasies of the English language
English can be very confusing

The English language has always been fascinating to me. These days, I'm often amused (or not) by the way our younger-generation distorts and changes the meaning of words, and invents new ones. Like gay, and sick, and cool. And don't get me started on the "shorthand" that they use when texting, which seems to be slowly becoming more common in "normal" text, IMHO.

But when I look back at the language in "the olden days", I can see that there were probably as many anomalies and rule-bendings then as there are now. For instance the "Holy Grail" rule for words containing adjacent letters I and E was "I before E, except after C". This rule has some weird exceptions!

And if English kids in an English school found it hard to learn English, pity the poor immigrant trying to come to grips with it, sometimes from text-books only!

Weird letter combinations

ough: The ough group can be pronounced in at least six ways, depending on the surrounding letters. Try reading these words allowed aloud:
through, trough, tough, thought, though, bough. The pronunciations are, in order, as pronounced in too, off, cuff, port, low, cow.

eigh: Similarly, this group has at least two pronunciations: freight and height. If we get these confused the words are pronounced as fright and hate.

qu: The qu group is usually required for use of the letter q (but there are some rare exceptions, eg. umiaq, sheqel). This in itself is rather strange, but to make things worse, it can have two different sounds, which are kw, as in queen and quail, and k as in plaque and unique.

wh: This one is not so much weird as interesting: It begins all of the single-word queries except one: who? what? why? when? where? which? The exception is how?, which has both letters in it but separated.

o: Although all the vowels have at least two sounds (the long and short versions), this letter has five different sounds allocated to it, as in the words log, rogue, woman, women, to, as well as the oo and ou sounds as in boot and out, and the silent rendition as in "Phoenix" and "amoeba".

What's all the "nyms" about?

There are several words that end with the suffix "nym", and these can confuse even the most seasoned English-speaking person. The more common ones are synonyms (words that have the same or similar meaning, like "big" and "large"), antonyms (words with opposite meanings, like "big" and "small"), and acronyms (words made up of the initials of something, like "UNESCO)". But there are others.

Words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, or pronounced the same but spelled differently, are called homonyms. Some examples are rain, rein, reign; weight, wait; herd, heard; and saw (viewed) and saw (cutting tool), sore, soar.
Choosing the wrong one can change the meaning of a sentence quite dramatically. Here's an example:

A group of hunters were walking together in the woods, when one of them felt the "call of nature". He handed his rifle to a friend and went a short distance away to relieve himself. As he was squatting, a large bear came from the trees and charged at him. The hunter jumped up and ran for his life back to his group of friends. Picture it: there he was, running through the woods with a bare behind!

Homonyms are separated into three sub-groups: homophones (same sound, but either the same or different spelling), homographs (same spelling but the same or different sound), and heteronyms (another "nym"), which have the same spelling but different sounds).
Heteronyms are also homographs, which are also homonyms. But the reverse is not necessarily true. Is that clearer?

What's a "schwa"?

When a word has a vowel-sound that's suppressed (like the "a" in woman) it's called a "schwa" and can be any of the vowels or vowel-combinations, or "y".
Some examples: woman (the "a"), weeded (the third "e"), minus (the "u"), doctor (the second "o"), and digit (the second "i"). It's all a bit ridiculous (the "ou"), really.

Collective nouns

A group of geese is referred to as a gaggleAll of these are collective nouns (names for groups) for various things:

herd (cows, sheep), flock (sheep - again), gaggle (geese), colony (ants, bats), troop (monkeys), swarm (bees), school (fish), murder (crows), drove (cattle), pod (whales), cackle (hyenas), shoal (fish), pack (wolves), cry (hounds), pride (lions), cloud (flies).

Some of these terms apply to several different objects, and some objects have several collective nouns that can be applied to them. Personally, I'd rather use bunch for the whole bunch of them!

The alphabet

Years ago, there were some strange letters in the alphabet. One was called "thorn" which was pronounced "th" as in "think" (as distinct from "th" as in "that") and written as þ. This was later changed to the "Y" sound. This is why old English refers to things like "ye olde booke". Another letter was called "wynn". It was pronounced like two "u"s and written as ƿ. This later became the letter double-u (w). A third one, which was right at the end of the alphabet, was & (the ampersand), pronounced "and". This got its rather strange name from the way in which it was listed when reciting the alphabet: "A, B, C ..., X, Y, Z and AND". To make it clearer, it was given an introduction by saying, "in itself, AND". The words "in itself" in Latin were "per se", so it was changed into "X, Y, Z and, per se, AND". This was later contracted, to become "ampersand", then later was removed from the alphabet altogether.

(Disclaimer: The ideas put forward in the following section do not necessarily co-incide with my ideas when sober).

Now, I believe that some letters in our alphabet are superfluous (c, q, x can always be replaced with k or s, kw, or ks respectively), and others are named in a way that doesn't really make clear what the letter should sound like (c, f, g, h, l, m, n, q, r, s, w, x, y). One of my favourites is "h" (pronounced and spelt "aitch", without a leading "H" sound).

There are other sounds that can be made only with a combination of two or more letters, and have no character for themselves, like th, sh, ph, ch. We may think ph has an alternative, f, that we could use, but there are some words that use ph without it forming the f sound, for example uphill, haphazard and shepherd. Also consider mishandled, mishap, sweetheart, warthog, outhouse, pothole (I can't think of any for the ch combination - if you can, please let me know)

I propose we re-define the alphabet (again), the letters included to be pronounced thus: ay, bee, chee (the ch sound, replacing c), dee, ee, fee, gee (as in geese), hee, i (long sound), jay, kay, lay, may, nay, oh, pee, shee (the sh sound, replaces q), ree, see, tee, you, vee, wee, thee (the th sound, pronounced as in thin, replacing x), yay, zee.

Unique words

This section is here for interest's sake only - it has no real bearing on the page topic, but you're invited to send other words that are unique or special in some way, to be included in it.

The most commonly-used English word that has all five vowels, once only, in alphabetical order, is facetious (jocular or amusing). If we consider Y to be a vowel (as some do), then facetiously still qualifies.
There are several more, including abstemiously (to use sparingly) affectiously (with affection), and tragediously (tragically).
The longest word in any of the major dictionaries is Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (a lung complaint - if you have it, you'll probably have a problem pronouncing it!) with 45 letters.
The word dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was considered the champion for a time but now is well down the list.
The longest English word with only one vowel is strengths.
The only base word starting with chth is chthonic (sometimes chthonian), meaning related to the underworld.
And the longest words with no vowels (a dead heat) are tsktsks (clickings of the tongue) and rhythms.


Some abbreviations have been around so long that many people don't even remember what they are abreviations of. Sure, we can use e.g. and i.e. correctly (although some people get these two confused), but what do the letters stand for? Here are some that we all use but may not know the full version of:

e.g. (exempli gratia - Latin for free example), i.e. (id est - Latin for that is), Mrs. (mistress - a married woman), a.k.a. (also known as), a.s.a.p. (as soon as possible), q.e.d. (quod erat demonstrandum - which was to be demonstrated. Not "Quite Easily Done"), PIN (Personal Identification Number).

Since the World was "Wide-Webbed" we've had a real explosion of abbreviations, mainly for the purpose of speeding up typing. I have trouble keeping up with these, but here are some examples I've come across: LOL (laughing out loud), ROL (roll over laughing), ROFL (roll on floor laughing), LMAO (laughing my (armpit?) off), AFAIK (as far as I know), FAIK (for all I know), LOVLI (Laughing Out Very Loud Indeed - this one coined by my wife), CUL8R (see you later), 4EVA (for ever), B4 (before) and LYTTMAB (love you to the moon and back).

Points to ponder

Are terms like not impossible, and not unlike incorrect because they use a double negative, which is frowned upon in linguistic circles?
If forget is the opposite to remember, and something can be unforgetable can something else be unrememberable?
When did Google become a verb?

Go In Piece!

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