Tag Archives: English spelling

“I’m not against women. I’m a women myself.”

I wish this were the only example of students’ inability  to make a distinction between one woman and more than one woman. But the exception, anymore, is the student who does make the distinction, and makes it accurately.

Very few students have the same trouble with man/men. In fact I can’t remember a single error in number when it comes to the guys. I imagine we’re dealing with the baby words that begin reading and spelling experiences for us all: bat, bet; mat, met; pan, pen; man, men.

But doesn’t the same difference of pronunciation occur in the syllable they can’t keep straight—woman, women? Evidently that whimsical “o” in the first syllable, changing in response to the changed vowel in the second, is what throws them. How does “uh” become “ih”? So in all likelihood “women” is recalled, if recalled at all, as the word that isn’t spelled the way it sounds, and so students having to write it figure Anything Goes…or Why Bother.

Dare I also speculate that my sisters in feminism, trying to dump the patriarchy from the language, threw some random “y”s in there and thus permanently terrified anyone trying to remember how to spell the word? Back in the day I saw it “wymyn,” “womyn,” “wymmyn”… A word spelled that way has to be pronounced with a wrinkled nose and a pickledy contracted mouth, kind of the expression on Dudley Moore’s face when he pronounced “myrrh” in the great Good Evening skit on the Magi. Anyway, I think the wymyn, having faded from the scene awhile ago, probably are not an influence on my students’ spelling.

Possibly my student wasn’t sure if she herself was one or many, Greta Garbo or Walt Whitman. I’m a women; I contain multitudes.

No, really, this is the kind of error that simply makes me furious. I can produce compassion for most mistakes, but continually making mistakes with basic, common, easy-to-learn words is just lazy, or willfully ignorant. How many Facebook posters have to rant about the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re” before even ONE person writes “Oh, thanks! I really hate making that mistake!” instead of “f*k you, grammar Nazi!”?

Many, many things about the English language are hard. The huge word-stock is the result of vigorous and wide-ranging language acquisition, much of which accompanied land and resource acquisition. The variety of languages from which words were taken, plus the very interesting history of the English language itself as this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England was itself invaded and occupied, plus the interesting pronunciation variants that developed before most people could write and therefore needed to agree on a spelling…all of this gives us a language that is vastly flexible, enormously energetic, capable of great nuance, and bloody confusing.

But how to spell the singular and plural of the word meaning “adult female” is NOT one of those hard things. It is an EASY thing to learn, just as there/their/they’re is easy to learn. All you need is a modicum of self-respect. All you have to do is care to learn it.

Aye, there’s the rub.


“She gets trapped in a viscous cycle.”

Some words are just plain hard to spell. Sometimes you just get spun around as you try to remember if the ending is “-ence” or “-ance,” “-able” or “-ible.” The word meaning a screen for straining just doesn’t look right, spell it “sieve” or “seive.” And does an army mount a “siege” or a “seige” as it tries to “sieze”…umm, “seize” a town? And then there are all the “sc” words, which also never look quite right. And the spinning accelerates.

I guess it becomes a spin cycle.

For this student, obviously it became a viscous cycle. Comes between the “wash” cycle and the “rinse” cycle. The “spin” cycle comes last.

I really, really sympathize with “viscous.” Spell-check won’t help, of course, since “viscous” is every bit as legitimate a word as “vicious.”

I was temporarily side-tracked there by a vision of delicious couscous. Sorry.

The word “vicious” really does seem to need an “s” in there, doesn’t it? An “sc” cluster, just to make it feel a little meaner. You can say you don’t hear an “s,” but you don’t hear a “c” in “science,” either, do you? Come to think of it, there is something a little mean about science—or was I just remembering my high school chemistry teacher?

Of course “luscious” has an “sc” cluster, and there’s nothing mean about it.

So, anyway, do you spell the word in question according to the pattern in “delicious” or the pattern in “luscious”?

Excuse me a moment while I chuckle over that old favorite, “GHOTI.”

I haven’t mentioned that my student could simply have consulted a dictionary if she had a question about spelling. I’m thinking the probability is that she didn’t know she had a question about spelling.

For the student, it’s enough to correct the error. But for the reader, especially a reader who’s a little bit tired, visions develop and multiply.

The viscous cycle must be that stage in the laundry process when all the mud and gunk in the clothing turns the wash water into muck and everything goes sloshing slowly and sloppily around and around, a thick, glutinous mess, waiting for the spinning to accelerate and pull some of the sticky stuff out so fresh water can pour in and rinse it all clean. Well, that’s one idea, anyway.

But since some woman gets trapped in this viscous cycle (according to my student), it must happen in something  bigger than a washing machine. If quicksand mated with a whirlpool, now, that would make a pretty good viscous cycle guaranteed to trap any hapless wanderer in the vicinity…the viscous vicinity….

What if a viscous cycle is merely a vicious cycle in sticky circumstances?

I’ve had this sentence in my Book of Horrors for a long time. I know it made me laugh. I know I must have something useful to say about it, but evidently today all I can do is spin out silly scenarios.

Or is it “scilly scenarios”? “Scylla scenarios”? Odysseus, beware.

I’ll try to get my brain into the dryer by tomorrow. Meanwhile, hasn’t this all been scintillating?