Terrible Words (or… EnglishFail)

I make typos, I need an editor. Yes, I know this and I cannot appreciate you folks who correct me in the comments more, let me tell you. You guys are awesome and very soon, I’m going to put something in place to pay you guys back, at least a little bit.
So yeah, I cop to that. Your typical novel that you pick up off the bestseller’s shelf has gone through an army of proofereaders, three different kinds of editors and a battery of advanced reviewers. What come up here was literally written a month earlier, run through spellcheck and read once by me. If it’s a story involving Rune Breaker or Maya Blumberg, then my friend Pele also read it. That’s really the sacrifice that’s being made to maintain the utterly insane schedule I keep here. Which isn’t to say I’m not trying to get better at proofing my own stuff to make the experience better for you guys, because I am (I now have a robot voice on my computer that reads the story to me, for example)
Why am I talking about all this? For one, while I try and thank you guys that correct me in the comments each time you do so, I miss some and besides, you deserve more public recognition. For the other, I don’t want the rest of this article to look like an excuse for anything.
See, there’s a saying that ‘it’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools’. While this is true, and I’m not going to blame my tools (the English language) for my mistakes, I would like to throw a spotlight on the fact that as far as tools go, the English language is the equivalent of a screwdriver that a serial killer made by compressing the bone dust of his last few victims: while it might work, it’s pretty clear that it shouldn’t and you feel kind of dirty perpetuating its use.
Now, there are more complex languages out there; languages that change based on whether the speaker is male or female, languages that don’t even use the base phonemes most speech is based on, and written languages wit hundreds if not thousands of specific characters. The thing is thought that most of those are still kind of sort of internally consistent. English has not only declared war on internal consistency, but seems to believe that a) internal consistency kidnapped its daughter and b) the it (English) is Liam Neeson.
Oh, and it steals from other languages too. Like all the time. I’m not even sure we English speakers know that we’re doing it. We just hear someone speaking a foreign language, zero in on a word we think might be fun, and the next thing that word knows, it’s been boarded, its captain thrown overboard and the Union Jack raised over it. Capice, amigo?
I’m not sure of if my non-English speaking audience will find this boring, entertaining, or an excuse to be insufferable on some other discussion board, but I feel like it might be fun to talk about some of the terrible words and word construction that I have to deal with every day. Words like…
To / Too / Two
A phoneme is the basic building block of language. They are the monkey grunts out ancestors strung together to convey ideas like ‘danger’, ‘food here’, and ‘those nice aliens offered to build us a pyramid’. When we break words down into syllables, most of what remains are phonemes.
One of those very simple mouth-noises is ‘tu’. For those of you who took Spanish, you’ll notice that ‘tu’ is the word for ‘you’ because ‘you’ is a basic concept and as such deserves a short, simple word because it’s going to be used all the time.
For those of you who took English, however, you know that the ‘tu’ sound, when made with the mouth, means pretty much every goddamn thing. It mean’s ‘in the direction of’, it means ‘also’, it means the literal numerical value of one plus one. None of these has anything even tangetally to d with the others and yet they’re the same word because… because.
Oh wait, no they’re not the same word—but only if you’re not speaking. When you’re writing, they’re spelled three different ways, and while it does cut down on some confusion, that doesn’t excuse the fact that a) one of those spelling includes a silent ‘w’, which is not a thing that happens except in Welsh (remember what I said about casual theft from other languages) and b) none of those spellings is T-U.
No. Seriously. How the hell does this happen? How does a people let anyone do this to the words they have to use on a daily basis? They cut of Marie Antoinette’s head for being a smug jerk, but not the jokers who invented T-W-O as a spelling?
It doesn’t get any better from here, folks. Especially not if you’re in the military:
Lieutenant / Colonel / Sergeant
I misspelled ‘lieutenant’ three time before giving up and using the right click → correct thing in Open Office.
It is my firm belief that none of these would exist if not for Generals and Majors who couldn’t spell. You want to know just how awful these are? If you’re a person who speaks the proper Queen’s English, that first word is pronounced ‘LEFTenant’.
Oh, and that second one is pronounced ‘kernel’. You might have heard of silent ‘m”s or ‘g”s, but that right there is a disguised ‘r’. At the end of the dictionary, Scoob and the gang pull the head off the ‘l’ in Colonel to reveal it was Old Man R all along, trying to scare people away from his stash of Confederate gold.
Actually, there’s a really good article on Cracked on this subject that explains Colonel. Hint: it’s another word English jacked from someone else.
English’s kleptomania also explains ‘lieutenant’ too. It’s a French word and it seems that English has a liking for French words that use way way more vowels than are strictly necessary. See also: guarantee and bureau. Why am I blaming English for what seems to be a failing in French? Because ‘ieu’, ‘eau’ and ‘ua’ are commonly used phonemes in French—there are a lot of words that there work that way. This is not true in English, where they make no sense.
Sergeant comes from the same place, though even given the French connection, I can’t figure out why, in this case, the ‘e’ sounds like an ‘a’. It might be English speakers mispronouncing it, it might be the same thing that makes ‘les’ sound like ‘lay’, the word may never know.
What we do know is why so many military ranks are stolen from French. Contrary to modern pop culture, the French have historically been the opposite of cowards—and by that, I mean, they were the nation equivalent of that guy who gets drunk and takes a swing at everyone he comes into contact with; friends, family, cops, statues, his own mirror image… They invented what was ‘modern warfare’ up until WW1 and the advent of machine guns changed the rules and for several hundred years, their chief export was not champagne or cheese but ice cold murder.
One surrender to a force that attacked by surprise and was back by literal mad scientists and people seem to forget that ‘killing people’ was their national pastime for a long, long while (see again my Marie Antoinette comment). All I’m saying is that I’m shocked they haven’t bitch-slapped the entire English speaking word for stealing their military ranks.
No segue, I’m just hopping right on over to…
Anyone on the internet knows that if you want to make someone flip their grammatical lid, you just need to spell the possessive of ‘they’ as either T-H-E-R-E or T-H-E-Y-‘-R-E.
You might expect this to be some sort of commentary on mixing those three up, but it’s really not. ‘There’ and ‘They’re’, unlike ‘to/too/two’ are two completely legitimate words with logical reasons to exist. ‘There’ is the opposite of ‘here’ and as such is spelled similarly to it. ‘They’re’ is a contraction of ‘they are’ and follows the basic form for contractions. See? Both fine, both logical.
And then we have ‘their’. Or rather, all possessive pronouns.
Possessives are one case where, in English isn’t completely pig-stupid. Generally, you just slap and apostrophe and an ‘s’ on a noun and you’ve got a possessive. For plurals ending in ‘s’, you just ad the apostrophe. Simple. Unless you’re using a pronoun. If you are, apparently, the standard operating procedure is to inject absinthe into your face, then start writing.
In a fair and just world, the possessive form of ‘they’ would be ‘they’s’ But it’s not. It’s ‘their’, or ‘theirs’. Because of course! Because ‘r’ is right before ‘s’ and ‘I’… I have no idea where there’s an ‘I’ there. That ‘I’ is stupid, unnecessary and only serves to make the whole thing harder to spell.
Speaking of which, English students are taught the mnemonic ‘I before e, except after c’. This is the most vicious of lies. Not only are there hundreds of words that don’t follow that, but there is no word that couldn’t just replace ‘ie’ with ‘ee’ for the exact same effect.
Back on topic though, it somehow gets dumber with the other possessive pronouns. ‘You’ becomes ‘your(s)’ and that’s fine, I guess. After all, ‘r’ is the same letter as ‘s’ and who needs apostrophes anyway? But then we have ‘she’ becoming ‘her(s)’ and… what the hell? We actually removed an ‘s’ from this one. Okay, but then ‘he’ becomes ‘his’. There’s not even another form of that one, just ‘his’–and there’s tat damn ‘I’ again.
It can’t get worse can it? Oh yes, dear reader, it can. ‘Us’ becomes ‘our(s)’. That doesn’t even pretend to sound like the original word! What if even the hell, man? Oh, and then ‘I’ becomes ‘my’ and ‘mine’ because the English language hates you.
And yes, I know that Spanish manages to go from ‘yo’ for ‘I’ to ‘me’ for ‘my’, but at least it uses that same rule for all possessives. English has one rule, and then loses its mind when it comes to pronouns.
Urg. Speaking of breaking basic, sensible rules:
There we so many vids I could have picked…
If there is one rule in in English spelling, it is that you have to use vowels. That’s A-E-I-O-U. We sometimes allow ‘y’ to sneak in the back door if it’s sufficiently (← ‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’) disguised as an ‘ie’ in stupidly spelled words like ‘cry’, ‘my’ or ‘dry’.
Then there’s ‘rhythm’, which is a study in madness if there ever was one. Okay, first of all: go home Y, you’re drunk. You do not belong in the middle of words pretending to be a real vowel, especially when you’re the only vowel. Nor do we need you insisting that are capable of making the short ‘I’ sound like in the word ‘is’. What is wrong with you?
Also, holy crap, they got rid of some real vowel somewhere along the way. There should be something between the second ‘h’ and the ‘m’, but no, there’s nothing. There’s a deep, unfathomable void that apparently yawns out wither and ‘uh’ or and ‘ih’ sound.
Finally, because not literally everything about this word was wrong yet, they added a silent ‘h’. Because… union quotas? Are there letter unions? There should be if only to have Q whacked and pressure writers nover to use them to write ‘O-R-B-S’.
Huh. So now we know where that ‘y’ from ‘rhythm’ was supposed to go.
There are lots of words with more letters in written form that are strictly called for in their pronunciation (‘through’, for example has a whopping three extra letters when ‘thru’ would suffice, and ‘BitCoin’ also has three too many when ‘scam’ means the exact same thing.) but here we find the rare word with way more letters in the saying than in the writing.
N-A-I-V-E-T-E spells Ny-eve-ah-tay. That middle ‘e’ is doing a but-load of work, let me tell you.
Naivete also brings up an interesting point: the ‘ai’ → ‘eye’ spelling doesn’t show up in a hell of a lot of words, but it’s place is taken in a lit of words but the stupid ‘silent g’ paired with a soft ‘h’. We could save on so many letters if we just used the ‘ai’ correctly. Imagine: right → rait, thigh → thai, and naigh → nai. Oh, and we can finish off that dumbass ‘sometimes y’ thing too with ‘crai’, ‘trai’, and ‘drai’. And thus, the world was saved.
From / Form
There is a special class of words that I suspect were never much of a problem until the advent of the computing age. They don’t sound alike, they have nothing to do with each other, but they are one missed keystroke away from making you look like a dolt and not only will spellcheck not catch them, but multiple casual proofreaders can miss them too.
Form and From are the worst for me. Apparently this is a thing for left-handers for some reason because both my mother and severla of my fellow leftie writer pals have the same problem, but right-handers don’t seem to. And while context makes this one relatively easy to catch, that same context and the human brain’s tendency to not read the whole word or sentence can and will screw you here.
Worse, but less frequent are words that change meanings on a missed keystroke. ‘Ordinance’ and ‘ordnance’ come to mind. Somehow, one ‘I’ is all it takes to render pointless town law minutia into murder-hardware. Context won’t help much hear either, as most people are unfamiliar with both because it’s not a word that comes along that often. I’d really like to know how these words came about, seeing as, unlike ‘from’ and ‘form’, they’re fairly complex words, which usually makes it harder to come up with such similar spellings. Maybe they enforced ordinances with ordnance.
Yeah, I think that’s enough for one week. Didn’t have anything pressing I wanted to relate and, well, sometimes it’s good to get with the wacky. Next week, I’ll be getting back to This Old Monster, the series were I take a traditional monster who has been driven into the ground,examine their history, then refurbish them into something shiny, new, and usually canon for the World of Ere.
Head down to the comments and vote for which you want judged under my stern gaze among: brownies, dragons, orcs & goblins, or griffins / gryphons / griffons (none of those tripped my spell check).
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
You can check in on what Vaal’s working on or just what’s on his mind by following @ParadoxOmni on Twitter, checking out his new (incomplete) Facebook Page or using the hashtags #TheDescendants or #RuneBreaker. Sign up to learn about new book releases by Vaal by clicking here.
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About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. Fun fact: While a ‘tu’-sound does not in itself constitute a word in Finnish, in spoken language it is clearly understood as a contraction of ‘vittu’ (cunt), which is the most common swearword in the language these days and used very much like ‘fuck’ in English.

    And casting my vote for gryphons because they don’t get enough love in the media.

  2. I’ve been told that “i before e except after c” is fine. Just don’t run a feisty heist on your weird beige foreign neighbour, OK?

  3. First off, thanks for an very fun read there. Reminded me of a convo I was having the other day about the *reason* for Americans spelling differences to English. In this case words that end in -ize, so compartmentalize or criticize. For Brits, we’d spell it ‘criticise’ or ‘compartmentalise’.

    Apparently it’s because we say ‘z’ as ‘zed’ rather than ‘zee’, so the sound doesn’t make sense with the spelling 😛

    And I vote for Brownies or Gryphons. Dragons you seem to be hinting at already and Orcs and Gobbos get redone a lot 😛

    • I like the British ‘Zed’. This might be because of Power Rangers or Men In Black thought >_>

      • actually the reverse with me. I always get odd looks when talking about the letter ‘z’ because I describe it as ‘zee’, like when giving a spelling, or saying the alphabet.

        Bloody Murican Culture creep!

  4. Oh, I very much love analyzing languages and their little idiosyncrasies.

    As for Sergeant… in French, the E is pronounced like an E. Sorry, you English speakers are just being weird, there. 😛

    “Oh, and then ‘I’ becomes ‘my’ and ‘mine’ because the English language hates you.”
    Heh. Words starting with M do have a long tradition of being associated with the first person. In French: me = moi, my = mon, mine = mien, and I… = je.

    Naivete: totally a French word. Actually, it’s naiveté, you accent-less weirdos. Very simple to pronounce: na-i-ve-té. Pretty much a poster boy for words that are written exactly how they’re said, with no superfluous or strangely missing letters. Or, well, poster girl. Because naiveté is a feminine noun. Because ALL nouns have a gender in French. And we don’t have such a thing as “genderless”, only “default to masculine”. I’m sorry, did someone say something about English being a patriarchal language?

    “Context won’t help much HEAR either” …were you making a context joke?

    I’m gonna vote for griffins too. I’m curious what you’d do with them.

    • I have so many questions for gendered languages. I don’t get why abridge is always female–why does it matter if it’s female? And if they’re all female, how do you get more bridges? Are all roads male and it’s just sexual dimorphism?

      Also, I wonder how the stuff I write about Isp & Osp, the Yellow World entities or flowbeasts translates into French or German. I doubt they took power manifestations and monsters into consideration when making their languages.

      • A bridge is not always female. Es _un_ puente, no _una_ puente.

        So you see, while French bridges are female, Spanish ones are male.
        And when two bridges love each other very much, the stork brings them blueprints.

      • Actually, French bridges are male. And French roads are female. Un pont, une route. Blogs are male, but stories female. Honor is male and stupidity is female, but virtue is female and vice male. Strength, greatness, female. Power, male. Male also messages, words, and female letters. A pen is male, but you can also call it a feather, which is female. A sheet is female yet paper is male. Female imagination, female ideas, which come from a male mind in a male brain in a male skull in a female head.

        The answer to your question, of course, is that it doesn’t matter whether bridges are male or female, except so that you know how to conjugate everything around it. Ships being male certainly never stopped generations of sailors from personifying them as female.

        I’m going to stop here for now, because I’ve typed male and female so much they’ve stopped looking like real words. 😛 I am, however, at your disposition if you have other inquiries. 😉

        • And to think at some point, someone had to sit down and decide all this.

          • Eeh… Mostly, I’d say people are going to go with what seems right. I mean, French is a normal language with neologisms, and a hundred years ago, people certainly didn’t know that the Internet was going to be male. But it’s not like there was this secret council with people finally deciding its gender and then saying so to the masses. Or, well, rather, there might have been! The Académie Française* is a thing, and they really DO sit down and decide stuff about the language. But it probably only happened after everyone was already doing it.

            The way I see it, the Internet became a thing, and some people probably thought it sounded better conjugating it as feminine, and some people preferred masculine, and masculine just kinda sorta became the norm.

            *I just saw on wikipedia that it was founded by Cardinal friggin’ Richelieu. How awesome is that? And their motto is “To Immortality”.

          • Which is to say that yes, there is the Académie Française, and they, in fact, sit down and decide stuff. So what you said is exactly right. But they don’t work in a vacuum with no consideration for what people are actually doing, and they’re not just flipping a coin.

            Also, while I assume that the company publishing my dictionary and the Ministry of Education DO take their cues from them at some point, eventually altering the habits of the population, the Académie doesn’t have a direct effect on how people speak on the street. We don’t have broadcasts saying “Attention, all French-speakers! The Académie has decided to change something, so now you all have to say this!” People speak how they damn well want to, whether they speak French or English or whatever. So over here, a bus is male, but in a casual register with slang, it tends to be talked about as female.

          • So it’s on par with the crippling embarrassment English speakers (should) feel when it turned out we said ‘selfie’ so much that it got added to the dictionary?

          • Pretty much.

          • So I’m actually learning french at the moment and from what I can tell some of the genders is good old fashioned sexism and some of it is just, we thought that this word sounds better using un than une it’s masculine.

          • I do accept Rule of Cool as an explanation for any and everything.

      • Oh, and I can certainly tell you how flowbeasts fare in French: they don’t if they know what’s good for them. In English, you can just sort of mash up two random words together and get another one and people just take this strange and wondrous ability for granted. I SHUDDER at the mere idea of what a translation of “flowbeast” would look like in French. And that’s just the construction of the word. You also have to consider that there just isn’t a good translation of “flow”. Flux? Écoulement? Those are not impressive words that you use to describe beasts. Those are words you use to talk about a water leak at best, and diarrhea at worst.

  5. Don’t get me started on the inconsistencies.
    Just one example.
    “Its” is a word that should be banned. It should be “it’s” in both cases, because either that’s how you form the possessive or it’s a contraction.
    Confusing, I hear you say? You can’t hear the difference anyway, which has confused exactly nobody throughout the whole history of spoken English, and generations of kids have had nervous breakdowns hunting down the mistakes (according to the current inconsistent and stupid rule) in their schoolwork.

  6. My vote goes to gryphons.

    Are you familiar with the thing (laid out by I-don’t-remember-who) where someone proposed spelling “fish” as “ghoti”?
    The “gh” from “tough”, the “o” from “women”, and the “ti” from “nation”, I believe. Because of the insanity of English, it actually works. To speak the language is fine, but to write it is to go among mad people.

    English is pretty broken, but I’m not sure how much better other languages are. And for all its weaknesses, at least the strangeness opens up a lot of possibilities – for example, rhymes that could never fly in a romance language or other tongue with regular, standardized endings. Variety is the spice of life, and he who controls the spice controls the universe! Or something.

    On a separate note, when I was in school I was taught that “I before E, except after C, or when it says ‘A’, as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’.”
    Of course, the idea of teaching the rule and the exception(s) together rather encapsulates the problem to begin with, and certainly doesn’t solve it.

  7. Hi,

    Great post, it, and particularly the comments had me in stitches…

    The mnemonic I was taught for I – E orderig was:

    I before E except after C when the sound is Ee

    …which does work more often than not…

    • Never heard that one. It does seem to work better at least. And yet: ‘Their’.

      • Well… That does follow the Mnemonic… (and please tell me if you know what that initial M is dong there…) as the ei in their is pronounced ay (as in neighbour, weigh, etc.)

        Maybe we should ditch English completely… and learn Mandrin instead… after all, English is only the second most spoken Language worldwide 😉

        • Oh, I think I missed the meaning ‘I before E except after C–only in cases when it’s a long ‘e”.

          I think we should just go back to hieroglyphs. Hard to argue that a picture of a cat means ‘cat’.

  8. Three things
    1) To be fair to naivete it’s a poor stolen word that we gave a new name, sometimes you see it with a ï (with a diaeresis) instead of an i. Which may explain why it’s pronounced so differently to its spelling in English.

    2) I’m right handed and I get form/from wrong all the time. It’s so frustrating because spellcheck thinks form is just fine and the grammar check can’t actually parse sentences yet.

    3) It might be crazy to spell and speak and generally make no sense but the beauty of English is we have so many different words and if we don’t have one we can just loan one from someone else like a crappy language roommate stealing all the other languages stuff by saying, “hey Old Norse I’m ‘borrowing’ þeir, we cool?”

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