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 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 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?

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.

pat

pet

pit

pot

put

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.

alpha

gopher

nephew

phase

phobia

telephone

sphinx

trophy

Silent Ps

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

pneumatic

pneumonia

psych

psyche

psychic

psychotic

Exceptional silent Ps

corps

coup

psalm

receipt

Exercises

  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.

 

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.

 

J is for Jams and Jellies

Preserves
Homemade jams and jellies found at a church sale.

History and significance of the letter J

The letter J is a consonant and, as the newest addition to the alphabet, one of the least used.

In English, the letter J is followed by a vowel.

English words do not end in the letter J. Words ending in a “dzh” sound are spelled with a g followed by an e to make a soft g or j sound.

edge, forge, fudge, sludge

Exceptions:

hadj [Arabic], raj [Hindi]

The letter J was originally used as a variation of the letter I, to create a distinctive ending to lower case Roman numerals, e.g., “xviij” for “18”. Other than that, classical Latin did not have a letter J until Latin scholars started to add them.

In 1524, the letter J began to be used as a distinct letter in Renaissance Italian and Middle High German. In English, too, the letter J became useful as new sounds entered the language, starting in 1634. Before that, for example, “JUSTICE” was written as “IVSTICE”. The vowel I, used as a consonant, came to be expressed as a J.

Other languages have adopted the letter J but pronounce it differently. Some languages, for example, modern Celtic, do not use J except in proper names.

Fun J words

jacaranda

jackanapes

jackrabbit

jawbreaker

jellyroll

jitterbug

jubilee

Jurassic

Special reading assignment

  1. A junction is a crossroad or intersection. A junction box is something else.
  2. The name of the first month of the year, January, is taken from the Roman Janus, a diety with two faces, one looking forward and the other back.
  3. The month of June is named after Roman goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter.
  4. The month of July is named after Roman emperor Julius Caesar (b. 100 BC; d. 44 BC).

 

K is for Kale

Flowering kale does not mind a bit of frost.
Flowering kale does not mind a bit of frost.

The sounds of K

The letter K is an aspirant, the same as a hard C. Some words may be spelled with either a C or a K. Note that there is a difference in meaning between the words, karat, carat, and caret. The words disk and disc are also used for different things.

kaftan, caftan

kaboodle, caboodle

kalamata, calamata (olives)

kerb [British], curb [N. American]

ketchup, catsup [US]

King Knut, King Canute

skeptic, sceptic

disk, disc

CK letter combination

In some words, a K is combined with a C to indicate a hard C, where the adjacent vowels might make a soft C.

brick, bricked

fleck, flecked

 

Silent Ks

At the beginnings of words, K is silent before an N.

These Ks were pronounced in Old English, in the times of Chaucer and still sometimes in the times of Shakespeare. The change came sometime in the 16th and 17th centuries, because it was easier to say the words without the K.

knack

knapsack

knead

knee, kneel

knick-knack

knife

knit

knob

knock, knocker

knot

know, knowledge

In German, Swedish, and Dutch, similar words have kept the K sound. Some foreign names also keep the K sound.

Knesset [Israeli parliament]

Knossos [Minoan Crete city]

 

Double Ks

Double Ks are unusual in English.

bookkeeper

Unusual K words

daikon

eke

feckless

haiku

mukluk

polka

mucky muck

plankton 

Exercises

  1. In a book, newspaper, or webpage, pick out words beginning with K. How do pronounce them?
  2. Make up your own sentence with a lot of Ks. Is it a true alliteration?
  3. Look up the “Unusual K Words” to find their meanings.

Special reading assignments

The knave was keen to kiss the knuckles of the king and to kick the knees of the knights.