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October 17, 2007


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Oh the temptation to write this with hymonyms is really tempting.
Maybe I'll do it on my blog.
I was flabbergasted.
Reign, rein, why not rain?
Now we are deciding correct spelling by consensus?
Makes no sense.

Why can't we use dictionaries for guidelines any more? We've always decided on spelling by consensus. Both "vocal cord", "vocal chord" and "free rein", "free reign" are acceptable, just like "ameoba", "ameba"; "accidentally", "accidently"; "gauntlet", "gantlet"; "judgment", "judgement". What's wrong with a bit of orthographic variation?

Ah, my mind was in much the same place today, although my example ("gnarled" vs. its probable original spelling, the nearly obsolete "knarled") cuts the other way. And it's really trivial compared to "rein" and "chord."

I'm fairly descriptivist, but I still think that "reign" and "chord" are wrong. (Also: "what a trooper" for "what a trouper.") I'm not going to judge anyone for not knowing the history of every idiomatic phrase, but when I'm proofreading (or editing or teaching or writing), I'm still going to correct this stuff. If my company dictionary is too descriptivist, hopefully a style guide will pick up the slack.

These versions are wrong, however esoterically, and at the very least, I'll get to feel clever. Bonus editing points!

Let me clarify: consensus of linguists and lexicographers, not a survey of we unwashed masses.

A dictionary entry *is* based on a consensus of the "unwashed masses" - or it should be. Dictionaries describe how we spell words, and we spell words according to how they're spelled in dictionaries. And it seems to me that's what "reign" and "chord" are - variant spellings based on a consensus.

Assuming that these variants are going to be in a new edition of the OED? It's not clear, but I haven't listened to the interview.

I think when the meaning is ambiguous, as with eggcorns, and the alternations have enough history, it's time to change the dictionaries and style guides. Style guides reflect fashion, not Universal Truth About Language. Consistency is a good idea for editing, but the whole point of making changes to dictionaries is that there IS consistency in usage that no longer matches the book. Language changes. A dictionary will only ever be a snapshot--or perhaps a collection of stop-motion frames--with a starting and ending point. Language is neither so two-dimensional nor so static. If I'm editing, I'll conform to the approved manual of style. If I'm being a linguist, I'll keep track of ALL usage, not just the one the style guide favors.

Evidence suggests that the "unwashed masses" (boy, there's a loaded phrase*) are not going to learn to spell perfectly. For one thing, English spelling is a huge confusing mess, even so-called correct spelling. For another, a lot of people don't read and write often enough to have internalized the aforementioned huge confusing mess. And for another, the fact is that a lot of people _just don't care_. In the greater scheme of things in people's lives, the difference between "rein" and "reign" ranks pretty dang low.

For those who insist that it's vital to maintain the "right" spellings, I ask you please to be ready to explain to a 7-year-old why "rein", "reign", and "rain" all sound the same. Or why "bow" and "bow" don't. If that can't be clarified to a beginning reader, all bets are off, sez me.

Anyway, it's all context. If you're writing (or editing) for an audience that is likely to care, you worry about spelling. OTOH, if your wife is a wretched speller, there's extremely little percentage in editing her emails. (Ahem.)

* A recent quote from John McIntyre: "Language is an invaluable support in our efforts to identify people to look down on." (http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2007/10/down_memory_land_to_tobacco_road.html)

"Do Benjamin Zimmer and Michael Covarrubias write vocal chords and free reign?"

Do you remember only a few weeks ago when you noticed "vocal chords" in my blog? Yep. I do write it unwittingly at times.

And even though I think it's OK and wonderful that language changes like this I 'corrected' the spelling to "cord"--I'm such a hypocrite.

So of course I had to write another post about all this.

Free "reign" is the product of losing the source of the phrase. Few people ride horses these days, so the connection is lost to most. This leads to many misuses, such as "take a different TACT" - which doesn't make ANY sense, but to those who don't sail, TACK doesn't make sense either.

What a wonderful post! And I love the subsequent discussion, too.

Just the other day, I decided to use "tack" in an article, and I began to muse about the connection between it and "tactic." The words are from different roots, but often used for similar purposes (course or direction v. action or strategy), so it's not surprising that "tack" unwittingly becomes "tact."

Going Like Sixty: Consensus is indeed the way spelling is determined. The question is: consensus of whom? Professional writers and editors? Or the hoi polloi--whose scribblings are far easier to analyze thanks to computers? (By the way, I loved your post: http://tinyurl.com/23zjlz

Goofy: judgement/judgment represent British/Canadian English vs. American English. I can't recall ever seeing "ameba" or "accidently" in print. "Gantlet" and "gauntlet" are two different things (and for that reason are often used in copy-editing tests). As for the OED, I have the newly published 6th edition of the Shorter OED, and no, it doesn't include the chord/reign variants.

Erin: I'm all in favor of tracking spelling variations. I even think some of them are cute. And I agree about language in flux. I was talking not about misspelled words in emails or other casual communication, but about what passes for Standard American English. Does it still exist? Or are we returning to the way things were in the 17th through 19th centuries, when alternate spellings were accepted and even glorified? (Andrew Jackson: "It's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word." Keep in mind that a much smaller percentage of the population then could read or write at all.)(By the way, I'd never encountered the word "alternations," so thanks for that!)

Mike: Yeah, homophones are a bitch. And also a lot of fun--English-users can really go to town with puns! And I'm not so sure that people don't give a damn about spelling: look at all the books, websites, and even college-level classes that offer spelling help.

Michael: I had completely forgotten that little exchange of ours! I may be a spelling martinet (martinette?), but I'm also blessed with a terrible memory. And thanks for writing that very thoughtful and helpful post of yours ("WWMCD"), which goes further into the subject than I had the energy to do: http://wishydig.blogspot.com/2007/10/wwmcd.html

Generally: In writing for publication, the point is to communicate as clearly as possible. Variant spellings, however self-expressive and colorful, do tend to make the message more confusing. And if you're torn between spellings, there's almost always a non-homophonic way to say the same thing.

For some words, alternative spelling can change the meaning when read by someone who can spell. For other words, even the weirdest spelling won't make much difference. Because it sometimes doesn't matter, must we conclude that it always doesn't matter?

Alot of people could care less if this falls between the cracks [just count the errors there!] but I hope some of us still care. So far it seems that documents that have some importance are still edited by people who can spell and understand idioms (or avoid them).

M-W lists ameba, accidently and gantlet as variant spellings of ameoba, accidentally and gauntlet, so they must be in print somewhere. I honestly don't see how variants like this cause confusion. Standard English is not monolithic, it is full of variation. (by standard English I mean English as it's used by good writers and speakers, which is how MW Dictionary of English Usage looks at it.)

I can see how reign and chord might cause confusion, at least with the half of the population that uses rein and cord. And vice versa. If either one is acceptable, then a guideline would be to use either one consistently.

To be clear, I can spell pretty well (mostly, and watch me disprove that here). I edit for a living, and one thing I do is correct others' spelling. And w/r/t Nancy's comments on confusing messages, there's a great quote from John Scalzi: "Here's a good rule of thumb: For every spelling error you make, your apparent IQ drops by 5 points." I have found myself going through a document and "pre-editing" it by fixing up typos and misspellings before I can even read for content, so distracting do I find those.

However, I do stick with my assertion that for many people -- the much-mentioned "unwashed masses", for example -- spelling isn't that important. For many people of course it is (hence the interest in resources for learning spelling), but for many more, meh. And I have, through many years of effort, almost managed to remember :-) that a person's ability to spell is not correlated with their intelligence or with their skills in many other areas (including areas in which I have no skills at all). Unless it's important -- i.e., for publication -- I try not to hold the spelling of the message against the messenger. :-)

And besides (one more, sorry), when are those Brits going to learn to spell, anyway? :-)

Mike's comment about the Brits reminded me of one additional point I'd wanted to make about "chord" and "reign." In most cases, American English spelling simplifies the British version: we dropped the "u" in "humour" and "colour" and the "s" in "towards." But "chord" and "reign" are the *more* complicated choices. (They're not British spellings; the point about the Brits is just what got me started.) Not only does each word have one more letter than its correct counterpart (and yes, I'm going to go out on a limb and say "vocal cord" and "free rein" are correct), but those extra letters are *silent*! People who use those variants are choosing to make spelling an even greater challenge than it normally is! Go figure.

The ABC News piece simplified matters quite a bit, so I've provided a more nuanced view in my latest OUPblog column:


Hope this addresses some of the commenters' concerns.

(Oh, and it's "vocal cords" an "free rein" for me.)

It's a good job Mike's last comment was appended by a ':-)', otherwise I'd be lobbying for sanctions. I can't see how any American would resent British spellings -- your global influence means you're the ones winning the spelling war... like a dripping tap (translation; 'faucet') wears away the enamel round the plughole.

Look at from our point of view: every computer program(me) we buy in Britain comes with a 'license', and that spelling is not optional. When I think back to my poor old English teacher drumming into us that the noun is 'licence' and the verb 'to license'... But it's 2007, so all I can say is 'vive la difference'.

This is a pet peeve of mine. Every time I try to enlighten someone about a homonym or a misspelling I go to m-w.com and every time the entry lists three or four "acceptable spellings." Maybe we should have dictionaries that are just one page that says "Whatever you think is fine."

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