Grammar in Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks – Part 1


So begins Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks. These four words all consist of four sounds, but in no case do the sounds and the letters match exactly (for a start, fox and box have three letters and socks has five). Ideally, a writing system for a language should correspond to the pronunciation of that language, but for various reasons this is rarely (if ever) the case for any language, and is certainly not the case for English.

In these four words we have <f> = /f/, <s> = /s/, <b> = /b/, <kn> = /n/ and <o> = /ɒ/. But then there are instances when:

  • a letter represents no sound: on the beginning of ‘Knox’. (We could write ‘nox’ and get the same pronunciation.)
  • one letter represents two sounds: <x> = /ks/.
  • two letters represent one sound: <ck> = /k/.

In the case of fox, box and Knox, the /ks/ sounds are bound together and integral to the meaning of the word: we can’t have a /fɒk/, a /bɒk/ or a /nɒk/ (at least not with the same meaning). In the case of socks, the /s/ sound and <s> letter is in a sense ‘detachable: we can have a /sɒk/. (Technically, the /s/ sound and <s> letter represent a separate morpheme, or unit of meaning. Here, /s/ is the plural noun marker.

So, these words all end with /ks/, despite the different spellings (technically, these sounds form the coda of the word) and all have /ɒ/ in the middle (technically, the nucleus). The nucleus and coda together form the rime (note the spelling), which, indeed, is responsible for the rhyme. What makes these words different is the first sound (technically, the onset).

English syllables must have a nucleus, which in 99.9% of words is a vowel. (Just occasionally, sounds like /l/, /r/, /m/, /n/ or /ŋ/ can function as the nucleus.) Many syllables have an onset and/or a coda, which are consonants: at least one, often two or more. /ks/ is a final consonant cluster.

Chicks with bricks come.
Chicks with blocks come.
Chicks with bricks and blocks and clocks come.

<ch> = tʃ is a digraph: two letters representing a single sound (that sound actually has two distinct components, but we think of it as a single sound), so chicks has four sounds: /tʃɪks/.
<br>, <bl> and <cl> are initial consonant clusters because they represent two separate sounds /b/ or /k/ and /r/ or /l/, so bricks, blocks and clocks have five sounds each. In English, initial consonant clusters can consist of two or three sounds, and are usually some combination of /f/, /θ/, /s/, /ʃ/ and/or /m/, /b/, /p/, /n/, /d/, /t/, /k/, /g/ and/or /w/, /l/, /r/ or /j/. Some combinations are very common, others are very rare, and a few more occur only in words borrowed from other languages.

blocks and clocks are a rhyming minimal pair, while clicks and clocks are a chiming minimal pair. blocks and clicks clearly have some elements in common, but differ by two sounds, so are not a minimal pair.

quick trick brick stack
quick trick block stack
quick trick chick stack
quick trick clock stack

It is one of the peculiarities of English pronunciation and spelling that usually represents the cluster /kw/. Not surprisingly, <tr> represents /tr/, and <st>, /st/.

Now we come to ticks and tocks, sir.
Try to say this Mr. Knox, sir….

Clocks on fox tick.
Clocks on Knox tock.
Six sick bricks tick.
Six sick chicks tock.

The sound /s/ and letter <s> play several important roles in English grammar, pronunciation and spelling. In ticks and tocks, /s/ makes a plural verb in each. In clocks tick, clocks tock, the lack of /s/ makes a plain present form verb, needed to agree with the plural noun clocks, compared to  a clock ticks, a clock tocks.

Finally, six and sick are completely different words, but the similarity in pronunciation leads to riddles like ‘A farmer had twenty-/sɪkʃi:p/ and ten died. How many did he have left?’. If the other person answers ‘sixteen’, the first person responds ‘I said “twenty sick sheep”. He had ten left.’. If the other person catches on and says ‘ten (healthy) sheep’, the first person responds ‘I said ‘twenty-six sheep’!

Text © Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.P. and Random House Inc., New York used under the ‘fair dealing’ provisions of s 40(1) of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth)


One thought on “Grammar in Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Grammar in Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks – Part 2 | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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