S is for Sharp, Shin, and Sigma

Long S
Cover page of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, published in 1667, photo courtesy of Wikipedia > Long S.

History of the letter S

The letter S originated with the Semitic letter shin, meaning “teeth” or “sharp”, perhaps inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyph for “tusk”. The symbol for shin looks somewhat like a W, with an upper dot or tittle to distinguish the s-sound from the sh-sound.

The Greeks turned the symbol on its side, to create the letter sigma (Σ, σ) for the s-sound.

Prior to 1500s, the lower-case letter s in Roman print was a “long s” similar to a lower-case f or a tusk. In medieval hand, the words look a little strange to us.

bleff = bless

bleffedneff = blessedness

When printing came into use after the mid-1400s, a rounded s was often placed at the end of words.

blefs = bless

bleffednefs = blessedness

To distinguish between the letters f and long s, the rounded s form that we know today began to be used everywhere, from the mid-1700s to early-1800s.

blessedness

The long s remained as a symbol for shillings in Britain, although it morphed into a slash.

£6/10 (six pounds, 10 shillings)

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in 2016.

S is for Swan

Cygnus olor
The Mute Swan is a species introduced to North America. This male is patrolling a pond in Woodbine Park, Toronto.

The sound of S

The sound of S is generally a sibilant or hiss, similar to a soft C.

salmon

silly

situations

super

Exception

Sometimes the letter s takes on the sound of sh.

measure

sugar

Exception

Sometimes the letter s takes on the sound of z. Words ending in —ise, —ize, and —yse or —yze have the same zee sound. The following words are always spelled with an —ise ending.

advise

arise

clockwise

exercise

revise

Note

Some words are invariably spelled with —se, some with —ze. There are others where the —se ending is preferred in the UK, and the —ze ending in the USA. Canadian English is variable. Use only one dictionary to maintain consistency in the way you spell these words.

agonise [UK]; agonize [US and Oxford English Dictionary]

analyse [UK]; analyze [US]

catalyse [UK]; catalyze [US]

dialyse [UK]; dialyze [US]

paralyse [UK]; paralyze [US]

standardise [UK]; standardize [US and OED]

Special reading assignment

  1. Horse seven from race six was scratched.
  2. Cirrus clouds scudded across the sky.

 Note

If you like swans, you may like this book, available on Amazon Kindle:

Fifty Shapes of Swan: A Natural History in Photos.

 

R is for Rock Cut

 

This rock cut is located on Highway 7 west of Ottawa, Ontario.
This rock cut is located on Highway 7 west of Ottawa, Ontario.

R is for rhyme and rhyme scheme

A rhyme is the repetition of the same or similar sounds, most often in the final syllables of the final words in lines of poetry or song. Rhyme is also a verb, used even to describe how someone made an unintentionally poetic statement.

Rhyme is a poetic device. One common type of poetry features rhyming couplets.

All the stream that’s roaring by

Came out of a needle’s eye;

Things unborn, things that are gone,

From needle’s eye still goad it on.

—  “A Needle’s Eye,” William Butler Yeats

 

A rhyme scheme is the pattern of the rhymes ending the lines of a poem or song. In English, different rhyme schemes have names, e.g., a limerick is AABBA.

Here is another example of rhyming couplets, using letters to mark the different rhymes.

He with body waged a fight,                                A

But body won; it walks upright.                         A

Then he struggled with the heart;                      B

Innocence and peace depart.                               B

Then he struggled with the mind;                      C

His proud heart he left behind.                           C

Now his wars on God begin;                                D

At stroke of midnight God shall win.                 D

— “The Four Ages of Man,” William Butler Yeats

 

Rhyming Mnemonic

Rhymes are also used as a mnemonic to aid memorization.

Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November;

All the rest have thirty-one,

Save February, with twenty-eight days clear,

And twenty-nine each leap year.

— Anonymous

 

R is for rhythm

Rhythm is the regular beat of sounds and silence in speech, prose, poetry, or music. It is as natural as walking and breathing; our hearts beat in a rhythm. In music, the upbeat and downbeat correspond to the metre in poetry, which is measured in feet, e.g. da DUM, which is an iamb.

Iambic pentameter is a common rhythm in poetry, consisting of five iambs per line.

And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;

I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,

And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,

And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;

(Act 3, Scene 1)

—“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare

Exercises

  1. Do you have a favourite poem? What is its rhyme scheme and rhythm?
  2. Do you know any mnemonics used as memory aids? Do they rhyme?

Special reading assignment

  1. Rock cuts are a feature of Canadian landscape, especially in the north.
  2. Rest assured, Rosemary has rated the recipe for roasted radishes.

R is for Raccoon

 

Toronto, Canada, has a large population of raccoons. Sometimes they get into mischief.
Toronto, Canada, has a large population of raccoons. Sometimes they get into mischief.

Prefixes

re— stands for “again” or “go back”. Sometimes, especially when the root word begins with R or RE, there is a hyphen. Also, if you make up a word starting with RE, you ought to use a hyphen.

react

redo

regrow

re-release

re-roof

rerun

restore

retry

Note that a hyphen may indicate a different meaning.

redress vs re-dress

reform vs re-form

rhodo— means “red” or “rosy”.

rhodonite

rhododendron

radio— indicates a relationship with radio or radiation.

radioactive

radiowave

 

Suffixes

er creates an adjective or adverb indicating more, by comparison.

bigger

faster

higher

stronger

er designates someone (or something) who does or is something.

banker

foreigner

New Brunswicker

swimmer

2-wheeler

cutter

re is sometimes preferred over the more common —er, most often in words that originate from French or Latin. This is one place where spelling variations occur, especially in the USA.

chevre [from French] (cheese)

goitre, goiter [US]

litre, liter [US]

louvre, louver

metre, meter [US]

sabre, saber [US]

theatre, theater [US]

ry, —ery designate a place for something, a class of something, a state or condition of something, or a quality or characteristic of something or someone.

bakery, tannery

finery, mastery

cheery, misery, slavery

snobbery, watery

Exercises

  1. Find a paragraph in a newspaper or online and look for all the words containing the letter R. How many of them contain a prefix or suffix beginning with R? What is the root of these words? Does the root make sense on its own?
  2. Write down as many verbs as you can think of. Place the prefix re— in front. Do the verbs still make sense? Try to use them in a sentence.

 

Special reading assignment

  1. Raccoons are native to North America but have spread around the world.
  2. Raccoons do not make good pets. Do you know anyone who has tried to make a pet of one? What happened?

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in the summer of 2015.

R is for Rose

Bush roses with simple flowers are close to Shakespeare's "eglantine."
Bush roses with simple flowers are close to Shakespeare’s “eglantine.”

The sounds of R

In English, the letter R has two sounds: an “are” sound, the same as the name of the letter; and an “rr” sound, a short, vowel-less noise. In some languages (e.g., Spanish) the letter R has a third sound, a trill. In Canada this trill is featured in a funny Tim Horton’s promotional ad,

Rrroll up the rrrim to win!

 

Silent Rs

The letter R may be silent in some dialects (e.g., Boston (US) and some British), where the R is pronounced only if a vowel follows it.

Silent Rs before a consonant (dialect only)

fork

garden

party

Silent Rs at the end of a word, except when the next word begins with a vowel (dialect only)

butter

finger

hear

mother

Note: Students learning English ought to pronounce these Rs.

Fun R words

raggamuffin

rattlesnake

rearrange

reboot

re-record

restraint

revenue

reward

reword

right-of-way

Special reading assignment

’Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.

Raspberries are as well-received as roses in midsummer.

 

 

Q is for Quince

Chaenomeles japonica
This lovely Japanese quince was flowering at the Billings Estate National Historic Site in Ottawa, Canada

Fun Q words

quack

quaff

qualm

quarto

quaver

queasy

quibble

quaff

quiver

Quonset hut

Some more fun Q words

quaint

quarter

quiet

question

queen

quick

quill

qualify

quality

quantity

Confusing Q words

acquire

aquarium

liquor

quagmire

querulous

quire

quirky

raquet

requiem

unrequited

More Confusing Q words

enquiry, inquiry, query

quarantine

quash

quandary

queue, queuing

quintessence, quintessential

quorum, quorums

quota

quote

quotient

 

Exercises

  1. Define each of the words in the “Fun Q Words” and decide whether they are nouns, verbs, or adjectives.
  2. Use each of the “Confusing Q Words” in a sentence to illustrate its meaning.

 

Special reading assignment

  1. The question came up, where was the quartz quarried?
  2. The quintessential quiet in the quarter acre was accentuated by the murmur of quaking aspens.

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in the fall of 2014.

Q is for Quail

Coturnix japonica?
These lovely quails are marching across a planter.

Prefixes

quad—, quadr—, quadri— denote four of something, or a square.

quadrangle

quadrennium

quadrilateral

quadruped

quant— denotes a number of something or a measurement.

quantity

quantum

quart— denotes a fourth of something.

quarter

quartet (or quartette)

Exception:

The mineral quartz has a trigonal crystal form. The name is of Slavic origin.

quasi— means “as if” in Latin, but in English it now implies something that looks OK but is not quite right; “somewhat” or “almost.”

quasi-democratic

quasi-scientific

quasi-stellar object (a quasar)

quin— denotes the number five.

quinary

quincentenary (500th anniversary)

quintet

quintuplets

Suffixes

que in Latin words means “and”, but English words with this ending are usually (but not always) derived from French. The original Latin ending may have been —icus or
icare.

antique

appliqué

communiqué

grotesque [from Italian]

opaque

plaque [from Dutch]

Exercises

  1. Can you identify additional words to add to the lists of prefixes and suffixes?
  2. Use the words in sentences to clarify their meanings.

Special reading assignment

  1. Quail belong to the same family as partridges and pheasants.
  2. Quail eggs were sent to the Mir space station in 1990, where they were incubated and successfully hatched.

Q, q
Q was once a little quail,
Quaily
Faily
Daily
Quaily
Stumpy-taily
Little Quail!

— Edward Lear, The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in the summer of 2015.