P is for Poison Ivy

Rhus radicans
“Leaves of three, let it be.” Poison ivy may be a low, sprawling plant, a climbing vine, a tallish bush, or individual small plants scattered amongst other vegetation.

Sounds of P

The sound of P is a sudden breath (a plosive) made by closing and opening the lips.






PH is a digraph

The Greeks invented the letter phi to represent a sound not present in the Phoenician language. It was written as ph when the Romans adopted it into their alphabet. Phi was originally pronounced with an extra breath, as in uphill or loophole, but eventually was changed to an f sound in Latin and Greek. French also adopted the f sound for ph. English was influenced by these other languages, whereas some other European languages have not adopted ph; they just use f. English words with ph are often of Greek or maybe Latin origin.









Silent Ps

The letter P is silent in words that start with pne— or psy—.







Exceptional silent Ps






  1. Look at the P words in the lists. Are they nouns or verbs? Could you use one as an adjective?
  2. Can you make a compound word using one of these words? Use that word in a sentence.
  3. Look for a word containing ph. Is it a compound word or does it contain the ph digraph?
  4. Define the words containing a silent P.

Special reading assignment

  1. The philosophy of the first Pharaohs formed a phantom phalanx.
  2. Pretty parrots’ performances pleased partying people, poolside.
  3. Please note: poison ivy does grow in cities in North America. Poison ivy is extremely variable in its height, size, and growth pattern. Learn to know the pattern of its leaves and stay away. Every new contact with this plant increases your susceptibility.

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


O is for Osprey

Pandion haliaetus
This osprey is nesting on a hydro pole right next to a minor highway south of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.


O is for “or”

Or is a conjunction used to denote one of two alternatives or the last of a list of alternatives. In this way, the word or may also express some uncertainty.

purple or mauve

sheep or goats

an apple, an orange, or a peach

two or three goats

In the case of either…or, you are presented with only two alternatives.

Either we eat now or after the play ends.

Either do your chores or else you are grounded.

He was working either in his office or at the library.

For an expression using whether…or, you are presented with a conditional phrase or an indirect question.

We have to go, whether it is raining or not.

Call your friend and ask him whether or not it is raining there.

The word or may indicate a synonym.

cougars or mountain lions

an opening or gap

O is for ought

The word ought is an auxiliary verb, originally a past participle of the verb, to owe, but now used only with other verbs in the infinitive. It indicates obligation or duty, advisability or prudence, and is less vexing than should.

We ought to leave now.

He ought to have thought of that.

She ought not to have eaten so much.

Confusing O words














  1. Choose a book or newspaper to work with. Find sentences that include the conjunction or and figure out the exact meaning.
  2. Substitute should for ought and consider how the meaning of a sentence changes.
  3. Read through the list of “Confusing O Words”. Check the pronunciation of each word. Any surprises?

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

O is for Outlook

Outlook, bench, willow
This shady outlook is on the bank of Lake Ontario, a good place to watch for birds.

O is for onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia, Greek for “word-making”, describes a word or name that imitates a sound. Commonly, onomatopoeic words include names for noises and for animals and objects that make noises.

Names for noises






Names for animals that make noises

bobolink (bird)

chickadee (bird)

katydid (insect)

phoebe (bird)

whip-poor-will (bird)

In poetry, onomatopoeia is a device used to suggest the sound being described.

And the West-Wind came at evening,

Walking lightly o’er the prairie,

Whispering to the leaves and blossoms,

Bending low the flowers and grasses…

The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

O is for oxymoron

An oxymoron is the use of contradictory ideas in one expression in speaking or writing, to create an impression. In this case, the prefix oxy— means “sharp” and the suffix —moron, “foolish”.

open secret

original copy

typically odd


  1. Find some instances of onomatopoeia and oxymoron and use them in a sentence.
  2. Use the word “outlook” in two different ways.

Special reading assignment

  1. Of the opposite ovens, only one was often off.
  2. Owls, nocturnal birds of prey, have captured the imagination in many ways. In literature, they represent messengers, wisdom, learning, and Athens. An owl may also be an omen. In real life, they just go about their own business.


O is for Owl

Wordsworth the Owl can be found outside the library on Queen Street East in Toronto. Sculptor, Ludzer Vandermolen.


ob—, oc—, of—, op— mean “in the way of”, or “facing” and, usually, something in opposition or contrary. Notice that the c, f, and p are doubled.







offence [or offense]





Special reading assignment

  1. Our one and only objective was to organize the office and outline the operation.
  2. Owls have broad wings, which allow them silent flight and more successful hunting.
  3. Otters have thick, waterproof fur. When they swim, hundreds of shiny, silver bubbles follow in their wake.

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

O is for Oak

Quercus alba
The white oak has leaves with rounded lobes.

Significance and abbreviations

O is the fifteenth letter of the alphabet and the fourth vowel.

O is the human blood type of universal donors.

O is the chemical symbol of the element oxygen.

O’ as a prefix for a surname is the Irish abbreviation for “of the family”.

o’ stands for “of” in contractions such as “o’clock” and “man-o’-war”.

OK stands for okay and means that everything is all right.

OK is also the state postal code for Oklahoma, USA.

O levels (ordinary levels) was a level of secondary school examinations, part of the General Certificate of Education (GCE) in parts of the United Kingdom. It was replaced by the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in 1988. O levels are the equivalent to Grade 10 in Canada.

ON is the official provincial postal code for Ontario, Canada.

O.R. or OR is the abbreviation for Operating Room.

OR is also the official postal code for Oregon, USA.

Oz is slang for anything Australian.

Oz is also the mythical country and city portrayed in the film, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

oz. is an abbreviation for “onza”, Italian for ounce, a unit of measurement.

Some O words







ouch, ow!





  1. Identify more abbreviations, acronyms, and codes starting with the letter O.
  2. In the list of “Some O Words,” which have a hard O, a soft O, or a diphthong?

Special reading assignment


  1. Out and about the house. [Americans laugh at the way Canadians say this phrase. How do you say it?]
  2. Have you ever seen an ostrich swallow an orange?
  3. The royal or pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) is the national tree of England, the United Kingdom, Croatia, Latvia, and Estonia. Other species of oak represent Germany, Ireland, Moldova, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, the United States, and Wales.



N is for Nest

Song birds' nest
This birds’ nest was built last year. Perhaps the same birds will return to it this spring.


N is a consonant and is spelled, en



narco— relates to narcotics or a numbing effect, as from drugs.

narcolepsy, narcotic

necro— creates a noun or adjective to do with death or the dead.

necrophobia, necrosis

neo— describes something new or renewed.

neo-classical, neocortex, neolithic

nervo— relates to nerves.

nervous, nervy

nitr—, nitro— describes a compound or something containing the element nitrogen.

nitric acid, nitroglycerin, nitrous oxide

non— gives a negative sense or describes a lack of something.

non-addictive, non-believer, non-delivery, non-payment, non-profit, nonsense

nona— stands for nine or ninth.


nucle—, nucleo— describe a nucleus or something to do with it.

nuclear physics, nucleic acid


nutri— describes something nourishing.

nutrient, nutrition



naut describes a person who navigates a space vehicle or something similar.

aeronaut, astronaut, cosmonaut

nd, —and, —end describes a person or sometimes a thing to be treated with some respect.

brigand, graduand

dividend, fiend, friend, reverend

ness creates a noun from an adjective to express the state or condition of someone or something.

artfulness, calmness,  closeness, idleness, sweetness, wilderness

nik describes a person with certain characteristics, especially reminiscent of the 1960s.

beatnik, peacenik, refusenik

nomy denotes an area of knowledge or system of laws in a certain field of study.



  1. Do a search on the Internet for words in the list of prefixes and suffixes. How are the words used? Do you understand them in context?

Special reading assignment

  1. Birds’ nests are difficult to see in the summer when the leaves fill out on the trees.
  2. Nuthatches nest in cavities in trees.


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

N is for Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls at Niagara
“The Maid of the Mist” skirts the rapids at the base of Niagara Falls.

N is for Norwegian

English has borrowed words from the Norwegian language.


floe (ice floe)

klister (ski wax for warm weather)

krill (shrimp-like ocean-dwelling critters)

lemming (a northern rodent given to wide population fluctuations)

ski and skiing words, such as slalom and telemark


N is for numbers and numerals

A number is a mathematical value, a quantity used for counting and calculations.

A numeral is a symbol, figure, or word representing a number:

Roman numerals

I = 1

V = 5

X = 10

L = 50

C = 100

D = 500

M = 1000




  1. Try your hand at writing the date with Roman numerals.
  2. Write a sentence using one of the Norwegian loan words.


Special reading assignment

  1. Niagara Falls tumbles into a great gorge where the Maid of the Mist skirts dangerous whirlpools.