3 of English’s most vexing idiosyncrasies

Our language is full of spelling disparities and irregularities. Don’t let these head-shakers trip you up.  

3 spelling challenges

Often, the English language appears to have been invented by a malicious entity.

We can pin some blame on Noah Webster—the American lexicographer who complicated matters by advocating for changes in spelling rules to differentiate American English from its British English parent. However, many of our linguistic idiosyncrasies derive from the fact that English has borrowed heavily from the architecture of other languages. This post explores three categories of vexing spelling issues that English writers confront.

Adding -e to convert nouns to verbs
In a small class of words derived from Old English, an e is appended to a noun to form a verb. Thus, the word for a receptacle or vessel for immersing a person or an object in water, as well as associated senses, is bath, but a person is said to bathe. Likewise, we refer to the air taken in during respiration as breath, but when we describe the act of respiration, we use the term breathe.

Cloth is the word for material used to make garments, but we clothe ourselves when we dress. A sheath is a cover or case, but when we place something in the sheath, we use the word sheathe to describe the action. Meanwhile, a wreath is a circular arrangement of vegetation used as decoration or to denote bestowal of an honor, while wreathe means “shape into a wreath” in literal and figurative senses. Also, teeth are bonelike appendages in animals’ mouths, while teethe refers to the emergence of teeth from the gums.

There are exceptions and complications, of course. Although swath is the spelling of the noun referring to a row of vegetation cut down (or a more general path or portion), swathe means “something used to bind or wrap”—as well as a verb referring to the act of binding or wrapping.

Also, loath is an adjective, not a noun, and it and loathe have different meanings. Similarly, sooth and soothe, though their status as cognates is not immediately apparent, follow this rule. (Sooth is an archaic word meaning “true” or “truth”—and is the root of forsooth, an affected synonym for indeed with the implication of contempt or doubt—while to soothe is to calm or relieve; the link is that the latter word originally meant “verify.”)

Note that in the -ing forms of these words, the -e is omitted even in verb form: bathingbreathingclothingsheathingteethingwreathingloathingsoothing.

Adding -k before -ing and -y endings after -c
For some words ending in -c, when the word is converted to an -ing form—whether functioning as a noun or a verb or an adjectival -y form—a -k is inserted to signal that the c sound remains hard (as in case) rather than soft (as in cell). These words include:

  • picnic (picnicking, meaning “participating in an outdoor meal”)
  • frolic (frolicking, meaning “amusing oneself or acting playfully”)
  • mimic (mimicking, meaning “imitating, resembling or simulating”)
  • politic (politicking, meaning “engaging in political activity or discussion”)
  • colic (colicky, meaning “acting irritably or experiencing abdominal pain”)
  • traffic (trafficking, meaning “dealing or trading, or engaging in an activity”)
  • garlic (garlicky, meaning “smelling or tasting like or reminiscent of the scent or taste of garlic”)
  • panic (panicky, meaning “agitated or anxious”)

Acknowledgment and judgment
This very exclusive club of annoyingly spelled words deserves special attention. Although British English retains the original spellings acknowledgement and judgement, writers in the United States omit the penultimate e—even though its elision erroneously implies a hard pronunciation of g (as in give, as opposed to gel).

Note, however, that no other words with the suffix -ment—including achievementamusement and many others—adhere to this distinction.

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.

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