U is for Unicorn

Mythical beasts
Unicorns exist in the imagination, in toy stores, and sometimes in flea markets.

Consonant — vowel combinations

ub  U-boat                                     bu        bun

uc  buck                                        cu        curb

ud  udder                                       du        duck

uf   bluff                                        fu         fun

ug  ugly                                         gu        gun

uh  uh-huh                                     hu        hut

uj   U-joint                                     ju         junk

uk  ukulele                                     ku        skull

ul   ulcer                                        lu         lunch

um umbrella                                  mu       mutt

un  undo                                        nu        nut

up  upon                                        pu        puny

uq  bouquet                                   qu        quit

ur  urban                                       ru        run

us  user                                          su        sun

ut   utility                                       tu         tune

uv  uvea                                         vu        vulgar

uw thruway [US]                          wu       wurst

ux  uxorious                                  xu        xu (Vietnamese money)

uz  Uzi (gun)                                 zu        zucchini

 

Vowel — vowel combinations

ua  aqua                                         au        augur

ue  flue                                          eu        feud

ui   fluid                                        iu         radius

uo  buoy                                        ou        our

uu  vacuum                                    uu        muumuu

 

Exercises

  1. Examine the lists of “Vowel—Consonant Combinations” and “Vowel—Vowel Combinations,” and see how many more words you can add to the lists.

Special reading assignment

  1. A unicorn is a mythical beast with one horn or antler, rather than two. Unicorns are usually depicted as a white horse with flowing mane and tail.
  2. Do you use an umbrella in a downpour? Up until Thursday, I thought they were ugly.

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in 2017.

U is for Uglifruit

Tangelo or Uglifruit
An Uglifruit is a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit.

Silent letter U

Rule

U is not pronounced when it comes after G and before a vowel. In these words, the U serves to make a hard g-sound.

catalogue

colleague

dialogue

guard

guess

guide, guidance

guilt

guitar

Exceptions

The letter U may take on the sound of W, especially after a G or a Q.

anguish

queen

quick

sanguine

segue

suave

In these words, the letter U does not create a hard g-sound. The G is a part of the nasal form —ing— or —ong—.

meringue

tongue

The same rule applies when the letter U follows a C. The U is silent, but serves to make a hard-c sound.

biscuit

circuit

U is also silent in words of mainly French derivation with the suffix —que.

antique

appliqué

bouquet

cheque [UK; check, US]

marquee

mosque

oblique

plaque

toque

unique

U is silent in few other words.

quay (pronounced kee)

Exercises

  1. Make a sentence using words with a silent U and then sound them out.

Special reading assignment

  1. Uglifruit is a trademark name for a Jamaican tangelo, a hybrid cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit (or pomelo).
  2. Is it our Ulster team that is the underdog? That’s unusual.

Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace

Daucus carota
In the very centre of a Queen Anne’s Lace flower is one tiny purple floret.

The sounds of Q

The letter Q, which by itself has the sound of K or a hard C, is in English almost never found by itself, but rather as the digraph, QU. It may be better to think of it as a short K sound followed by a diphthong: UA, UE, UI, or UO.

quarter

quest

quit

quorum

Occasionally, a word with QU is pronounced as a K, without a following diphthong.

quoit

clique

When you understand the origins of letters, you understand English spelling.

Historically, the letter Q came by way of the Phoenicians (they had two K sounds, one a guttural Qof that does not exist in English). The Greeks took it over as qoppa or koppa, but dropped it, as their language did not use that sound. The Etruscans had three K sounds, gamma, kappa, and koppa, this last letter always used before u or o.

The Romans took their alphabet from the Etruscans, but Latin had only one K sound. They dropped kappa and finally used gamma as the letter C and koppa as the letter Q.

Latin needed a representative for the sound “kw” common to the language. The Romans used the letter Q followed by a V (as the letter U hadn’t been invented as yet).

In Old English, the “kw” sound was represented by CW. In their alphabet, “queen” would have been spelled, “cwen”.

The French continued with the Latin QV. When the Normans conquered England, French spelling came to be preferred. CW became QV, and then QU when the letter U was introduced as a vowel. The Norman influence complicated English spelling. Most words containing QU are derived from French and Latin.

The English language didn’t really need QU, as the old CW would have done.

queen (from Old English cwen)

quay (formerly kay or key, these still used in some instances, e.g., the Florida Keys)

quench (in Anglo-Saxon, cwencan)

bequeath (in Anglo-Saxon, bicweoan)

Where QU is pronounced as K, a simple K or C would have sufficed. The following words are derived from French. You may see them spelled with a K on signs or in social media.

antique

boutique

critique

technique

unique

English imports words from other languages, including Arabic. These words may be transcribed from the Arabic alphabet in different ways. The guttural K sound (the Arabic letter qaf) is sometimes transcribed as a lonely Q without a U and is still understandable in English. In the following list, the second instance is the preferred spelling.

burqa or burka or burkha

faqir or fakir

qabab or kebab or kabob

qat or khat or gat

Similarly, some Chinese words have been transcribed into English in different ways.

qi or chi or ki

qigong or chi gong or ki gong

Special reading assignment

  1. Queen Anne’s Lace: a common roadside weed or a beautiful wild flower?

N is for Nut

Aesculus hippocastanum
These horse chestnuts were found on the ground under a tree. The squirrels had opened the bristly husks.

The sound of N

The letter N is a nasal consonant which may take on a nasal vowel sound when combined with g or k.

thin, win

thing, wing

think, wink

 

Silent Ns

The letter N is silent when it follows an M at the end of a word.

autumn, column, condemn, damn, hymn, solemn

Here is a word where the N is sometimes silent, depending on the dialect of the speaker.

government

 

Letter combinations

A common letter combination is —ing, a suffix with a nasal n sound and a silent g.

singing, thinning, winking, wing

 

Double Ns

Words with double nn indicate that the preceding vowel is short or soft.

annual, banner, bonnet, cannot, inner, penny

This rule applies when, in saying the word, the stress is placed on that vowel.

When the stress is on another part of the word, the n is generally single.

inhabit, combination, silent

            Exceptions:

English is very inconsistent in this rule.

These words have an unexpected single n after a short vowel.

anvil, banish, canopy, energy, finish, honey

These words have an unexpected double nn, even though the stress in saying the word is not on the preceding vowel.

anniversary, connect, personnel, questionnaire

 

Confusing N words

narthex

narwhal

nasturtium

nasty

Neanderthal

necessary

negligence

neighbour [neighbor, US]

 

Exercises

  1. Look in a text, a book, or an article on the Internet, for words containing a double-N. How are they pronounced?
  2. Look up the “Confusing N Words” for their definitions. Then use each of them in a sentence.

 

Special reading assignment

Numbers of narwhals are now never known near Norway at night.

 

This blog post is an excerpt from a book, English Manual: Letter by Letter, to be published soon.

 

M is for Monkey

Saimiri sciureus
This Squirrel Monkey watches visitors at the Peterborough Zoo.

Suffixes

mania creates a noun that denotes a mental illness or an enthusiasm.

bibliomania, megalomania

maniac creates an adjective from the noun, meaning affected by mania.

nymphomaniac

manship creates a noun denoting a skill.

craftsmanship, horsemanship, workmanship

mycin denotes an antibiotic made from fungi or mould.

erythromycin, streptomycin

ment creates a noun that expresses an action, whether the means, the product, or the result of an action.

astonishment, fragment, treatment

ment creates a noun from an adjective to express a state of being.

astonishment, resentment

meter creates a noun denoting something that measures.

barometer, odometer, thermometer

metric creates an adjective relating to measurement.

barometric, geometric

metry creates a noun to describe the procedures or science of measuring.

geometry, trigonometry

Consonant — vowel combinations

ma       mass                                         am       ram

me       met                                           em       embrace

mi        mine                                         im        him

mo       more                                        om       come

mu       must                                         um       yum

my       mynah                                      ym       symbol

Exercises

  1. Define the words in the list of suffixes.
  2. Make a list of prefixes starting with the letter M.
  3. Think of four new words with a suffix or a prefix starting with M, and make a sentence with them.
  4. Make your own list of words for each Consonant–Vowel Combination. Which combination is the most difficult? 

Special reading assignment

  1. My mother matched most of the Meissen porcelain with melamine dishes.
  2. Amusing monsters marched merrily in the musical.
  3. Most monkeys are long-tailed primates that live in trees. Apes, by contrast, do not have tails.

 

This blog entry is an excerpt from an upcoming book, English Manual: Letter by Letter, to be published soon.

Note: If you like monkeys and history, you may like to read the e-book, Edwardian Annotated Pets and How to Keep Them. This book, written in 1907, Edwardian England includes information on 17 different monkey species popular as pets.

 

K is for Kangaroo

This kangaroo at the Toronto Zoo is doing a bit of grooming.
This kangaroo at the Toronto Zoo is doing a bit of grooming.

Consonant — consonant combinations

kb        inkblot                                      bk        subkingdom

kc        porkchop                                 ck        truck

kd        markdown                                dk        vodka

kf         blackfly                                    fk         offkey

kg        ginkgo  [tree]                            gk        Bangkok [city]

kh        khaki                                        hk        latchkey

kk        bookkeeper                              kk        lockkeeper

kl         ankle                                        lk         milk

km       workmen                                  mk       gymkhana

kn        knee                                         nk        monk

kp        jackpot                                     pk        napkin

kr         muskrat                                    rk         mark

ks         marksman                                 sk         skill

kt         necktie                                     tk         catkin

kw       silkworm                                  wk       awkward

ky        cocky                                       yk        Vandyke

 

Consonant — vowel combinations

ka        kangaroo                                  ak        akin

ke        keep                                         ek        eke

ki         kick                                          ik         ikebana

ko        koala                                        ok        okay

ku        kudos                                       uk        ukulele

ky        kylin                                         yk        tyke

 

Exercises

  1. In the list of “Consonant — Consonant Combinations”, how many are compound words rather than simple words?
  2. Can you think of other examples for the lists? Write them down.
  3. Create your own sentences using the words in the lists.

 

Special reading assignment

  1. Kangaroos are marsupial mammals; the female has a pocket in which undeveloped young are nurtured. They grow until large enough to be always sticking ears or feet out of the pocket. The mother weans her young in a safe environment.
  2. Most marsupials live in Australia. In North America, the opossum is an example of a marsupial. Have you seen an opossum or a kangaroo?

H is for Hens and Chickens

Sempervivum sp.
This succulent garden plant is very hardy. Perhaps you call it a house leek.

Letter combinations

The letter H combined with other letters creates new sounds.

ch—  The H changes the sound of C.

chat, cheese, church, witch

Exception

choir

dh—  The H softens the sound of D a little.

dharma, dhow

 Exception

In compound words, the d and h are pronounced.

childhood

gh— The H is silent.

gherkin, ghost

gh —  The H changes the G to sound like an F.

cough, laugh, slough (pronounced sluff, meaning to shed one’s skin)

gh  The GH combination maybe silent.

eight, slough (pronounced slew, meaning a wetland), through

kh—  The H is silent.

khaki, Khyber Pass

ph—  The H changes the P to sound like an F.

pharmacy, philosophy

Exception

In compound words, the p and h are pronounced.

shepherd

rh—  The H is silent.

rhapsody, rhesus

sh—  The H changes the sound of S.

share, sheep, shore

th—  The H changes the sound of T.

thanks, the, then, thick, thin, thud

Exception

In names, anything can happen.

Anthony, Thomas

wh—  The H changes the sound of W.

what, when, where, who, why

Exercises

  1. Look for letter combinations in words in a book or newspaper. Say them out loud.
  2. Create your own alliteration using one or more of the letter combinations.

Special reading assignment

  1. How do happy hamsters huddle in hutches?
  2. Handymen have hammers.
  3. Hens and chickens are sometimes grown in a thatched roof.