Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spelling. Show all posts

13 April 2024

Adventures In Spelling (Or, An Author Gives Up)

Words. They're kind of important in writing. Words are comprised of letters, optimally in the correct order. I'm a liberal arts major and know these things. And yet. The mind and typing fingers can struggle.

I'm actually a darn good speller, or I was. I hung in there on spelling bees as a kid, and nobody geeked out more on PSAT vocabulary than this guy. One thing the young me could've learned better was typing. My mom considered typing a life skill and made us take runs at her IBM Selectric. A sweet machine, the Selectric. The clack of keys, the thump of ball element, precision stuff engineered to sequence manual keystrokes just right, and it never stood a chance. Not with me and my pecking method impervious to parental correction.  

Not all letter combinations are kind to the pecking method. Here are the dreaded words that get me every time.


Every time. Every time I want to type camouflage, I type "camoflage." If I'm overthinking my dropped vowel, I type "camoflague." Maybe it's an extension of living in the South, all these folks in daywear camos. Maybe it's the pronunciation. Said lazily, it can come out as all different kinds of ways. Said correctly, there's no "o" in there anywhere. It's a sneaky little unstressed "uh" vowel that, ironically, blends in with mastermind stealth. YouTube has videos on this pronunciation trick. 

Or maybe lifestyle is my problem. It's not a word that comes up much. I try to live a life neither hiding from anyone nor fixing to bushwhack them, either.


This is less of a misspelling routine than willful disregard. I understand full well the English language contains both the words "farther" and my habitual "further." Farther, a grammarist will tell you, means at a greater distance or to a greater extent. Further covers that but goes, well, further. The adverb and adjectival forms denote something additionally or an additional amount, to include extents and distances. 

This distinction can become fighting stuff, but only for word nerds. Many people go through entire lives not caring about nearly interchangeable word nuance. The difference doesn't matter when writing dialogue unless the character is a fellow word nerd. I hear "further" much more than "farther" in conversation, but that could be a personal filter. "Further" sounds everyday. "Farther" sounds like Thurston Howell asking if you have Grey Poupon.


This is a simple enough word. 9 letters. Pronounced how spelled. And yet. My fingers type it "hypocrasy" or "hypocricy" or the double-up "hypocracy." I'm old enough to know when things aren't gonna get better. It wouldn't be honest to skip this on my typing issues list.


I literally just mistyped that subtitle as "manuever." Frankly, I'm not sure I'm to blame. The second syllable of maneuver (I just mistyped that, too) rhymes with true and blue. Same diacritical marks. The U before the E? Nope, and maybe just what I expected the spelling to do. Anyway, thanks spell check.


"Publically." In the hunt and peck storm, "publically" is what flows. The hodgepodge we call the English language has a rule. A rule, folks, and it says adverbs made from adjectives ending in "ic" get an "ally." A rule, specifically. Except. Oh, the exception. I give you the adverb "publicly." The real lesson is to avoid adverbs. Except in speech because people use adverbs non-stop in speech. And dialogue is done publicly. I have to edit hard, is what I'm saying.


This one is a different glitch. It's tactical somehow, like how my hand positioning gets pulled wide chasing each next letter. Whenever I hunt-and-peck any word with the prefix "semi," things go haywire. The "semi" part is fine. What comes next breaks down into stray characters. The entire remaining word plunges into babble until a rally when some vague semblance of meaning returns. But too devoid of meaning for spell check to fathom. Microsoft Word flags the babble as if a hell-if-I-know shrug. 

If anyone out there wonders who is holding natural language algorithms back from brilliant adoption of "semi" words, it's me. Not sure I can explain it. Only semi-sure I should explore it.


True story. 

Once, I argued at length that superseded was--and could only ever be--spelled "superceded." This wasn't in the spelling bee or PSAT days, either. I was then a young paid professional with a liberal arts education, and I was arguing the pure necessity of "superceded" in my workpapers. "Super," of course, meant the act of revising or replacing. "Ceded" meant the ceding of that ground. I could not have been more wrong. What has me laughing years later isn't that. It's that my boss didn't interrupt. She let me go on. 

Superseded is correct spelling. I know that now. I knew it then, too, except in the moment my better judgment was revised or replaced. The struggle is real and continues. My left index finger--the one in charge of "c"--still gets the itch. 

There It Is, Then

I crank through the typing well enough. With corrections. Sometimes, the head gets in the way, or the method. Sometimes, it's a mental thing, the misspelled word so engrained that I'm head-cased and doom-looped. But some words are writer kryptonite, and I've given up pretending otherwise. Writing is nothing if not a learning process, and that includes accepting the trick words.

21 January 2024

Harsh Words

words (graphic)

One of our correspondents sent an article, ‘31 of The Most Hard-to-Pronounce Words in the English Language’. In actuality, the problem isn’t necessarily difficulty vocalizing the words, but associating their voicing and spelling. As their web page explains, English doesn’t always follow a strict likeness between its writing units (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes). Remember the sound-alike spellings of ‘fish’? Ghoti? Pheti?

This disconnect can result in embarrassing mishaps.

  • A French friend asked directions to the ‘Moe-Jave Desert’.
  • A national brand of canned food advised the consumer to “let the air excape.”
  • Dan Quayle couldn’t spell ‘potato’.
  • George Bush Jr couldn’t pronounce ‘nuclear’.
  • I can’t spell, uh… More on that in a moment.

I’ve watched words change meanings such as ‘nimrod’. Originally it was a Biblical name, which came to mean sharpshooter or good hunter, and recently has now come to mean a dolt, an idiot.

words (graphic)

I’ve also observed words change pronunciation. Thanks to a horrible branding ad campaign, the word ‘chic’ changed from a pronunciation of ‘sheek’ to ‘chick’. Ugh. When I was a child, ‘pot pourri’ sounded like ‘POE poor-ree’. Years later when I heard my mother call it ‘paht POORy’, I questioned her about changing the pronunciation. She said, “I gave up.”

Yatch Yacth Yacht

A story circulates amongst boaters about a sea captain who each morning extracted a slip of paper from a drawer and read it before putting it away again. One night a deckhand sneaked in and read it. It said,

Port = left; starboard = right.
sailboats: ketch versus yawl

Me, I have difficulty recalling the difference between a ketch and a yawl… I know I want one, either will do. But my real nemesis is the word ‘yacht’.

I can NOT spell that damn word for anything. I had to look up the spelling for this article after getting it wrong TWICE.

In a similar vein, I suspect I’d have more than usual trouble with the word ‘height’ except I used it several times a week in my technical career (and still use it in SleuthSayers HTML). It’s downright cruel that its sister dimension, ‘width’, has a different ending, ‘th’ instead of ‘ht’.

Speaking of technical, I used to confuse trigonometry with nude sunbathing. ‘Tangential’ tended to come out ‘tangenital’.

The Good Housekeeping list dates back a few years and was picked up by Secret Life of Mom

Secret Life of Mom / Good Housekeeping™ Hard Words
accessory espresso lackadaisical nuptial scissors
anemone February library onomatopoeia specific
choir hyperbole mischievous pronunciation squirrel
colonel isthmus murderer remuneration supposedly
coup jalapeno niche rural synecdoche
epitome juror nuclear schadenfreude worcestershire

They ironically end the list with ‘vocabulary’. I suspect they omitted the word ‘yacht’ because no one could spell it. (Damn, I had to look it up again.)

In their word list, I have to be careful not to spell ‘expresso’ and step carefully when writing ‘mischievous’. Other challenging words rattle about in my head, but I’ll end with a historical note.

Mr Monk Mangles the Monastery

In the days before the printing press, monks copied manuscripts by hand. In a particular abbey, the original was copied once and stored away in a vault, and that copy would be copied, and its copies recopied, to propagate across Europe.

A novice approached the abbot and said, “Reverend Father, we’re doing it wrong. By recopying copies, any errors will be reproduced in subsequent versions. I believe we should always copy from the original.”

The abbot was impressed. He said, “You’re right, lad,” and descended to the vault. An hour later, monks passing the doorway heard sobbing. A friar grew brave enough to enter and ask the abbot what was wrong.

The abbot said, “The word celebrate… We left out the R.”

What are your word nemeses?

06 August 2023

English, English

exceedingly handsome Leigh Lundin

Romance writer friend Sharon sent me English usage questions to ponder, which sparked a discussion. I’ll share some of our notes.

  • Double negatives are a no-no.
  • In the word scent, which letter is silent, the S or the C?
  • Isn’t spelling the word queue just a Q followed by four silent letters?
  • When abbreviating refrigerator as fridge, why does a D appear?
  • If womb and tomb are pronounced ‘woom’ and ‘toom’, shouldn’t bomb be pronounced ‘boom’?
  • What is the pronunciation rule for words ending in ‘ough’? I.e, tough, through, thorough, dough, cough, bough?
  • And what about bow, row, and sow that rhyme with how; and bow, row, and sow that rhyme with low?
  • And why is read pronounced like lead and read pronounced like lead?
  • Sharon’s correspondent says the pronunciations of Kansas and Arkansas trouble her more than it should.
  • And why are all three letter ‘A’s in Australia pronounced differently? And likewise two letter ‘A’s in Stephen Ross’ New Zealand?
  • Why do bologna and bony rhyme?
  • Even if it’s spelled baloney, why doesn’t it rhyme with money?
  • In childhood, I fretted that ‘W’ should be called double-V instead of double-U. (French and Spanish pronounced ‘W’ as double-vé and doble ve respectively.)

And finally…

  • How do you console a sobbing English teacher ready to throw in the towel? “There, their, they’re.”

Wait, Wait…

Notes and jokes for those techies out there who pronounce the ‘www’ of World Wide Web as “Dub-dub-dub.”

  • The three most common languages in India are Hindi, English, and JavaScript.
  • Many people in India know 11 languages: Hindi, English, and JavaScript.

What is your favorite Engish quirk?

It’s unfair not to explain ‘in’ jokes. The punchword 11 refers to binary: In English, we count 1, 2, 3, but in binary we count 1, 10, 11.

19 March 2023

Absurd Lines

Weird Al Yankovic
Weird Al Yankovic

So I’m trying to think up an article and Lenovo Google Display is playing rock in the background when I hear the intro to ‘Blurred Lines’, a song so rampantly sexist even Andrew Tate declared, “Holy Ç¥Œ◊‰, that’s sexist,” and went on to say, “Can I get them b✫tch✫s’ phone numbers? What? What did I say?”

But no, it wasn’t Robin Thicke nor even the originator of the tune, Marvin Gaye. It was Weird Al Yankovic presenting a video perfect for SleuthSayers. I could almost hear Rod Serling intoning, “Submitted for your edification, the words of one Mr Yankovic…”

Whereas most reviewers approved the video, some sourballs have to complain and not even about a couple of naughty bits slipped in. One argument grouched that judgmental grammatical purism promotes social distinctions, while another grumbled about  ‘linguistic prescriptivism’, i.e, we don’t need no rules. This flies in the face of classical education when rhetoric and logic reigned, when the educated believed rigor and precision of language underpinned rigor and precision of thought.

Uh oh. Now I’m channeling Pink Floyd…

19 September 2021

How to Speak American

This one’s for you, Anne!

When our Dutch colleague Anne van Doorn visited SleuthSayers, we discussed English competency in general, and American English in particular. Following is my own contribution, but I’ll mention Wikipedia contains a surprisingly good article on the topic.


The primary thing that’s driven me mad is the concept of mass versus collective nouns and subject-verb agreement. For example:

  • US: “Tottenham FC is expected to win.”
  • UK: “Tottenham FC are expected to win.”

When I asked a British instructor to explain, all he imparted was, “You aren’t wrong.” If you figure this one out, let me know. (Wikipedia makes a decent stab of kinda, sorta explaining it.)

In parts of Britain, articles (a, an, the) seem to disappear. In Yorkshire you might hear a construct something like, “She dropped pudding on floor.” The tendency appears occasionally in phrases such as, “I took her to hospital,” where an American would say, “I took her to the hospital.”

For some reason, North Americans don’t have a similar problem with school: “I went to school today.” To be clear, that means attending classes, whereas, “I went to the school today,” more likely implies visiting the campus or schoolhouse. We might say, “I attended college,” but also confusingly say, “I attended the university.”

fanny covering (girl in shorts)
fanny covering (girl in shorts)
also fanny

In the US, bath is strictly a noun and bathe is the corresponding verb. In the UK, bath can be both. My ears still aren’t used to someone saying, “I’ll bath this evening,” (where it’s pronounced bawth). When I try to say it, I sound like a smartass. Er, smartarse.


Thanks to internationalism, Americanisms have filtered into the UK and vice versa. However, a few words differ in meaning.

In North America, corn means a particular type of maize. The British use a broader sense of a cereal crop including oats, wheat, and barley.

North Americans tend to use the adjective ‘mad’ when they mean angry. The British limit the word to mean insane.

How do I put this delicately: Never, ever, pat an Englishwoman on the fanny. Bad enough in America, but just… don’t… do it. In the UK, it’s probably not what you think it is.


We come to one of my least favorite (least favourite) words. Feel free to skip to the next topic. I wouldn’t go into this at all, except the English insist upon inserting some derivation of the word piss in every third paragraph– more often if they’re watching a football match in their local pub. North Americans lean toward two meanings, urinate and anger, but the British have come up with many, many more, confusing us poor Americans. These include:

Someone who’s ‘on the piss’ is engaging in a heavy drinking bout until they’re thoroughly ‘pissed’, i.e, drunk. ‘Taking a piss’ can refer to misleading someone, but ‘taking the piss out of’ someone is mocking them. A ‘piece of piss’ refers to something easy to do. A ‘pisser’ is someone or something funny. Telling someone to ‘piss off’ means leave immediately. ‘Piss about’ is to waste time and resources on something foolish. ‘Piss up’ means to ruin something, but plain ‘piss’ means something that tastes bad. Finally the English exploit the word’s versatility with ‘piss on’ implying great contempt and ‘piss in one’s pocket’ meaning virtually its opposite, to ingratiate oneself.

I’m convinced a writer could invent his or her own combination in the form of piss+preposition, and people on that side of the English Channel would intuit exactly what was meant. A wiser choice might be to avoid it altogether. Now excuse me whilst I bath.

French Influence

Despite time and distance, some French spellings and pronunciations have survived in the US. When I was a child, my mother pronounced pot-pourri the French way, ‘POH-puhREE’, but thanks to dumbing down by television and radio, the pronunciation is shifting to ‘pot-porry’. Ugh.

We still pronounce filet mignon as ‘FEElay MIN-yon’ whereas the British say fillet (‘fill-it’) steak. We retain other words the French either seldom use (derrière, double entendre) or the meaning has altered (brassiere). In some cases, North Americans have retained French spelling, such as valor versus valour.

maths symbols

baseball, soccer ball, basketball, football

tyre by the kerb, tire by the curb

Canadians still use serviette but Americans seem to be losing this elegant and useful word in favor (favour) of table napkin.


Math in the US, maths in the UK. Sports in the US, sport in the UK. Consistent, right? And of course US soccer = UK football.

British contrast certain nouns ending in -ce with their corresponding verb forms ending in -se. For example: licence/license, practice/practise. Americans (but less so Canadians) often narrow the spelling of noun and verb to -ce endings. Outside US borders, my memory aid associates the ‘c’ ending with ‘concrete noun’.

Then we have variant spellings: kerb/curb, tyre/tire, gaol/jail. If I could get away with it, I’d use kerb and tyre, being unambiguous with their homonyms. We see a precedent in the word clew that retains its spelling for maritime use, but evolved to clue in the crime and mystery world.

A few authors have proposed we Americans adopt British spellings regarding two ‘writerly’ words. One is cosy (instead of cozy), which one SleuthSayer or another uses. The other is storey (instead of story) when referring to the floor of a building. For example, “She was reading a cosy on her second storey balcony.” Your choice.

Finally, the dot at the end of a sentence… the British refer to it as fullstop whereas Americans usually call it a period. That’s a clue to wrap up.

Good luck, Anne!

28 May 2019

Things You Learn from Editing

As the old saying goes, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. (As a dog owner, I can attest that this is true!) The saying also applies to writers. No matter how much writing experience you have, you still can learn more.
I was reminded of this point recently, as I've been editing a lot of short stories for two upcoming anthologies, one coming out in December, and another coming out next spring. Some of the stories have been written by authors I consider to be short-story experts. Other stories have been written by authors who have had several stories published but who haven't broken out yet, and others still have been penned by authors who are just starting out. And I have learned something from all of them--sometimes simply from reading the stories (even the newest writer can come up with a twist or a turn of phrase that turns my head) and other times from editing them.

It's the editing finds that can lead to especially interesting conversations.

Did you know that SOB is in the dictionary? All caps. No periods. The acronym for son of a bitch is a word all its own, at least according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Even more surprising (to me at least), mansplain has made the dictionary too. I won't bother to tell you what that words means. I'm sure you know.

Turning to homophones, two-word terms often become single words when slang enters the picture. For instance, a woman might go to the drug store to buy a douche bag, but if her boyfriend is being a jerk, she'd call him a douchebag (one word, no space). And descriptions of animal excrement are usually spelled as two words: horse shit, bull shit, chicken shit. But when you mean "no way" or "a load of not-actual crap" you spell it horseshit and bullshit (again, one word, no space). And when you mean that someone is a coward, you call him a chickenshit--also one word. (Thanks to Michael Bracken for helping me see the horse shit/horseshit distinction recently.) It's interesting that horses, bulls, and chickens have had their excrement turned into slang words, yet dog shit is just that. Two words meaning excrement. As I told a friend, I might start saying "dogshit," when I want to say "no way!" just to see if it catches on.

Keeping with the one-word or two-words questions, do you go into a room or in to a room? This may be an obvious thing for you, but it's one of those little things I find myself double-checking over and over. Same for on to/onto, some time/sometime, and so many more. Each of these words has their proper place, so I like to make sure I use them properly.

Yep, that's a bear on a trampoline.
To answer these questions: you go into a room. Into is the correct word if you are showing motion. The onto/on to question also turns on whether you are showing movement. I jump onto the trampoline. I catch on to my boyfriend's lies. As to sometime or some time, this question turns on whether you are talking about a period of time (writing this blog is taking some time) or if you mean an indefinite date (I'll get back to you sometime next month). Thank goodness for Google, without which I would have to memorize these distinctions. Instead I just get to look them up again and again and again.

Well, I hate to cut this column short, but I'm short on time. (Ha ha!) (And that's two words for ha ha, per our friend Mr. Webster.)

Do you have any interesting word usage issues/spelling knowledge you'd like to share? Please do. I'm always eager to learn something new.


Oh, and before I go, two bits of BSP: My story "Bug Appétit" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story! This story was published in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was a finalist earlier this year for the Agatha Award. I'm honored to be an Anthony finalist along with fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor as well as authors S.A. Cosby, Greg Herren, and Holly West. The winner will be voted on and announced at Bouchercon in November. In the meanwhile, you can read my story here, if you are interested.

And if you're anywhere near Richmond, Virginia, on Saturday, June 8th, I hope you'll come to the launch party for Deadly Southern Charm. This anthology from the Central Virginia chapter of Sisters in Crime includes my newest short story, "The Power Behind the Throne."

The launch party will run from 3 - 5 p.m. at the Libbie Mill - Henrico County Public Library, 2011 Libbie Lake E. St., Richmond, VA. In addition to the usual book launch activities such as book selling and book signing and snack eating, there will be a panel discussion about the pros and cons of writing different lengths of fiction. I'll be on the panel with fellow Deadly Southern Charm author Lynn Cahoon and anthology editor Mary Burton. We hope to see you there!

11 September 2016

Don't Bury that Lede

James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
featuring guest star James Lincoln Warren

Today’s article takes an international bent, one at which the British might cock an eyebrow, South Africans pretend not to look superior, Australians mutter, “WTF?” and Canadians cringe. “Oh, not another American diatribe to confuse the issue.” Yes, I’m talking about spelling, but words of particular interest to writers.

I’ve lived and worked in the UK so I’m a bit schizophrenic about the topic. On good days I might give myself an A- but other days barely a B. When it comes to those plural-singular collective noun & verb combinations, I want to shoot myself, e.g, “Manchester are a great team.” Manchester what? Even Liverpool and Leeds disagree… for different reasons, but do they say Manchester suck or sucks? No… yes… maybe… I’m off on an unwinnable rant.

We can blame the devil in Noah Webster for part of our dilemma, but no one ever credited natural language with logic. It’s up to us poor writers to struggle against the darkness. And the not so poor– Stephen King reportedly insists upon certain ‘international’ spellings. Double points to him because he provides a web page so readers can report typos and other errors.

Story v Storey

Our steadfast friend, James Lincoln Warren, has previously suggested we should use ‘storey’ to refer to a floor within a building and ’story’ for literary uses. JLW writes:

The reason I prefer “storey” to “story” when describing a level of a building above the ground floor is because it is more specific. “Story” can mean several things, but “storey” means only one thing.

For whatever it’s worth, etymologically, both words derive from the same origin, Latin historia. In medieval “Anglo-Latin”, historia was used in both senses as with “story”, i.e., “narrative” and “floor”. The Oxford English Dictionary therefore considers “storey” a variant spelling of “story”, and doesn’t show an example of the spelling with the “e” until Dickens, which suggests to me that the inclusion of the “e” in the architectural spelling is quite recent.

Brilliant and simple, right? So if we use story and storey, why not further distinguish other words the same way?

Cosy v Cozy

We North Americans recognize (or recognise– more on that later) two great British inventions, the cosy and the, er, cosy. One popularly keeps tea warm and the other warms readers of golden age mysteries.

Some American authors happily use this spelling, but exceptions abound including our own Fran Rizer, and why not? She writes Southern cozies with a ‘z’, thank you very much.

I like cosy as a noun, but when it comes to verbs and adjectives, my senseless sensibilities kick in. “She cosied up to him,” seems wrong, like she quoted Agatha Christie while serving him a pot of tea.

But if we expand our North American use of cosy with an ’s’, I suggest we negotiate ‘-ize’ endings. The poor zee (or zed) sees so little use, why not allow it to participate in ‘authorize’ and ‘pressurize’ and ‘legitimize’?

Celebrate, crossword puzzlers, celebrate!

Lede v Lead

The first time I came across ‘lede’, I had to look it up to make certain I wasn’t misreading it. The use of ‘lede’ as a variant of ‘lead’ is even newer than storey, dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Lede has been used to mean a headline, but more precisely refers to the opening paragraph of an article or story that summarizes (not summarises) the content following. Waffling Wikipedia suggests lede/lead combines the headline and first paragraph, but the ever precise Grammarist narrows its definition:

Strictly speaking, the lede is the first sentence or short portion of an article that gives the gist of the story and contains the most important points readers need to know… allowing readers who are not interested in the details to feel sufficiently informed.

In more dramatic forms, the lede can compare with a hook, but perhaps less obviously in, say, legal and technical writing. Professional journalism practices say a lede must provide the main points of a story, interest the reader in the story, and accomplish those goals as briefly as possible.

Newspapers used to be set in hot and cold lead (molten metal, Pb), so the lede of a hot lead could be cast in cold lead. As an interesting footnote, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language comments upon lede:

Obsolete spelling of lead, revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from its homograph lead, strip of metal separating lines of type.

Bury the lede” uses only the lede spelling. It’s sometimes misunderstood as burying a lead article within a newspaper, but it more narrowly means to begin an article with unessentials and postpone revealing salient points or facts until deeper in the body. For example, an editor might bury the lede for popular or political reasons.

Kerb – Curb, Tyre – Tire

If we succeed in making the spelling choices in the English language smaller while making the meanings more exact, why stop with these words? Why not use certain British nouns in exchange for North American verbs? “I tired of the tyre against the kerb, which curbed my enthusiasm.” Yeah, that works.

The words clew/clue seem to have sorted themselves out, although an author like  James Lincoln Warren might employ ‘clew’ in nautical and historical writings.

Back to crime writing, what the hell do we do about ‘gaol’, an unholy Norman abomination that dismays even the Welsh? We turn to James once more:

Interestingly, in Samuel Johnson’s definition of GAOL in his dictionary, he writes, “It is always pronounced and too often written jail, and sometimes goal.” He does, however, also list JAIL under the letter “I”. (There is no "J" section).

Publishing News

Congratulations to James for two stories soon to appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines. Tip your boater to him at the New Orleans Bouchercon.