U is for Underpass

U of Ottawa underpass
This underpass is a pedestrian walkway.

History of the letter U

The Phoenician letter waw (Y), or “hook”, was one of the most variable, undergoing many mutations as it was adopted by various languages and cultures. This letter was the sixth in the alphabet and the origin in Greek of the letters digamma (F) and upsilon (Y), and in Latin of F and V. The letters U, W, and Y were also derived from it. Thus, waw became both a consonant and a vowel.

In Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac, the letter waw came to be written in different ways, as a single stroke or a little circle.

In Latin, a stemless waw (V) was used for the letters U and W. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the lower case letter v began to be rounded sometimes into a u. The capital U became accepted in the 1700s, especially in France.

There is still confusion over the pronunciation and usage of the waw-derived letters, especially in English words borrowed from other languages.

Some U words

cunning

sum

udder

ultimate

underneath

uniform

unusual

upper

urgent

user

Exercises

  1. Define each word in the lists, “Some U Words.” Identify each as a noun, adjective, verb, or adverb. Use each word in a sentence.

Special reading assignment

  1. An underpass is the space under a bridge of some sort, allowing traffic to go through. A long underpass may be called a “subway”, distinct from subway meaning “underground” or “tube” rail transport systems.
  2. Pedestrian underpasses are built where heavy foot traffic needs to avoid a major thoroughfare.

 

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

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.

Q is for Quarry

Quarry; Open-pit mine
The marble quarry at Tatlock, Ontario, courtesy of Gary Sparkes.

History

The letter Q is derived from the Greek koppa and Semitic qoph. The original meaning of qoph is most likely a “cord of wool” and the original representation, a knot. Another suggestion is that Q represented the eye of a needle with a thread. A similar word in Arabic suggests that it might mean “nape” and represent the back of a head and nape of the neck. Yet another suggestion is that Q represents a monkey. I rather like that one.

Q is for quatrain and quintain

In poetry, a quatrain  is a four-line stanza and a quintain (or quintet) is a five-line stanza. These are usually part of a longer poem and may be variously rhymed.

There is something quieter than sleep

Within this inner room!

It wears a sprig upon its breast,

And will not tell its name.

— Emily Dickinson, from “Time and Eternity”

Exercises

  1. Write your own quatrain or quintain using at least one Q word. Which form is easier to write?

Special reading assignment

  1. The quintessential quiet in the quarter acre was accentuated by the murmur of quaking aspens.

 

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.

T is for Trillium

Trillium grandiflorum
In Ontario, Trilliums blanket the forest floor each spring.

Silent Ts and THs

The letter T at the end of a word of French derivation is usually silent.

ballet

gourmet

rapport

ricochet

Exceptions

bracelet

concert

The letter T may be silent when it follows an S or an F.

apostle

listen

moisten

whistle

Exceptions

The T may or may not be pronounced, depending on the dialect.

often [derived from oft, Old English], soften [derived from softe, Old English]

The letter T may be slurred or silent when it precedes the digraph CH, depending on dialect.

catch

match

watch

kitchen

The letter T may be slurred, or in some dialects silent, when it is in the middle of three consonants, most often at the end of a word. The preferred pronunciation includes a t-sound.

acts

ducts

students

Exception

mortgage (the t is always silent)

The letter T may be slurred or silent in rapid speech.

gentlemen

Toronto (the second t may disappear)

The digraph TH is slurred or silent in some dialects.

asthma

clothes

isthmus

nor’easter (northeasterly winds)

In some dialects, TH is silent at the end of a word where the digraph is in the middle of two consonants, but the preferred pronunciation includes a th-sound.

depths

lengths

months

Special reading assignment

The Thunder God went for a ride

Upon his favourite filly.

I’m Thor! he cried.

The horse replied,

You forgot your thaddle, thilly.

–Anonymous

The Trillium is the official flower of the province of Ontario, Canada. It grows from a small bulb which gains nourishment from the leaves. If you pick a Trillium, you kill the plant.

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 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.