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.

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 Tower

Sky scrapers
The top of the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada.

T is for that and those, this and these

That and this are used variously as pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

That (plural, those) is a commonly used to indicate a thing (or sometimes a person) or an action or a circumstance.

That particular dog over there was the one that ate the turkey.

Those skills are very necessary to succeed in that business.

We won’t do that again.

I would not go that far.

I would not go so far as to say that.

That morning, he was at work.

Used as an adverb to introduce a phrase, the word that is sometimes omitted.

That is one item that we defined as the priority.

That is one item we defined as a priority.

This (plural, these) is similarly used to indicate a thing (or sometimes a person) or an action or a circumstance.

This dog of yours, here under the table, ate some turkey, too.

These are the items that we defined as essential for this (our) business.

What did the team decide about this?

Don’t do this; you may break something.

This morning, I am very busy working.

Generally, this refers to familiar things close by and that to less familiar things further away.

I have this idea about that topic on the news.

The saying, this and that refers to unspecified things that you have been doing or getting.

I went to the store and got just a little of this and that.

Exercises

  1. How do you describe a class of things, such as cars, for example? Create your own taxonomy or classification.
  2. Create sentences using the words this and that in as many ways as you can think of.

Special reading assignment

  1. They told me that Timothy and Thomas treated themselves to ten trials at the terrible tumbled-down tenement.
  2. The CN Tower, which opened in 1976, is over 550 metres tall (over 1815 feet tall). The Edge Walk attraction is a narrow ledge 116 storeys above ground level.

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 Strawberries

strawberry
Wild strawberries are small but delicious and sweet.

S is for Syllables

A syllable is a unit of pronunciation having a vowel sound and usually one or more consonant sounds. Syllables give words their rhythm and make poetry possible.

Saying an unfamiliar word syllable by syllable may help, although an understanding of prefixes and suffixes is essential for proper pronunciation.

A word may have only one syllable or many:

air (1 syllable)

afar (2 syllables)

ambush (2 syllables)

ambushed (3 syllables)

absolute (3 syllables)

absolutely (4 syllables)

avocation (4 syllables)

A prefix may have more than one syllable.

anti— an + ti (2 syllables)

A suffix may have more than one syllable.

─ally  al + ly (2 syllables)

A root word may have more than one syllable, as well as a prefix and a suffix, making up a long word.

septic  sep + tic (2 syllables)

antiseptically  an + ti + sep + tic + al + ly (6 syllables)

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.

 

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.

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.

quay (pronounced “kee” and formerly spelt kay or key. These older spellings are still used in some instances, e.g., the Florida Keys.)

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)

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?