Fox in Socks – pronunciation and spelling





So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.

Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)

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I feel really groody

Students’ mistakes sometimes surprise me in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way. One section of the weekly test was about feelings. The questions had two sentences outlining a scenario then prompting a feeling by providing the first one or two letters of the word (in a sentence such as ‘I [am/feel/am feeling/was/felt] [a bit/very/really] (adjective)’.) The mistakes fall into a continuum of wrongness: from a simple spelling error to the wrong part of speech to a wrong but existing word to a wrong and non-existing word. (I’ll paraphrase the scenarios to disguise the source slightly.)

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A moment ago I saw the word affinity on a website, which jogged a memory from all the way back in grade 1 of primary/elementary school. The teacher had told us about infinity. Soon after, a female classmate (my only serious rival as the most advanced student in the class) drew a picture of a dancer with a large number of streamers, with the caption effinity streamers. I managed not to say anything to her, but I was inwardly scathing that she had misunderstood the concept and mis-spelled the word. Or maybe she hadn’t misunderstood: the first dictionary I checked just a moment ago includes the definition ‘indefinitely or exceedingly great’. There was certainly an exceedingly great number of streamers. (If I’d had to draw a picture illustrating infinity I would have drawn stars.)

Another definition is ‘unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless’. Most internet service providers talk about unlimited connection (previously dial-up, now broadband). One ISP is currently advertising limitless broadband. English allows for negative adjectives in the form un-N-ed and N-less (and also non– and il-/in-/im-/ir-). Unlimited is the earlier form and is still used almost four times as much as limitless. On the other hand, boundless has been (slightly) more used than unbounded since 1820.

There doesn’t seem to be any difference in meaning (though mathematics may have specialised usages of limit-related words). In terms of the internet, Google Ngrams records unlimited internet from 1991 and unlimited broadband from 1992 (which may be a glitch in the data – the rate for 1993-1997 is identical) and limitless internet and limitless broadband not at all up to 2008 (when its data finishes).

Prust, Proost, Pruest, Preust …

For some reason, I woke up this morning thinking about Marcel Proust, and I couldn’t for the life of me think of the spelling of his name. I ran through Prust, Proost, Pruest and Pruest before I finally got to Proust.

<ou> for /u:/ is not unknown (eg group, croup, croupier, louche) but is surely rare, and from that lot of words seems to be of French origin.


Early this evening my wife and I were heading to meet friends for dinner. Her niece texted her in Korean to the effect of ‘what are you doing?’. My wife was driving, so she told me to text back (in English) ‘We are going to have dinner with church friends’. My wife uses the autocomplete function in Korean and English. When I finished typing with, the suggested next word was froliend. What kind of autocomplete program has froliend in its dictionary?

When we got home, I searched online for that spelling. Google returns about 19 results (‘omit[ting] some very similar entries’). In some cases, the word does not actually appear on the linked webpage; in others, it is the result of mis-scanning old books or newspapers (for example ‘from end to end’ > ‘froli end to end’). When it does actually appear, most of the results are clearly (and all of the results are arguably) a misspelling of friend, but how? i, o and l are in close proximity on the keyboard/touchpad, but any typist bad enough to type those three together would surely make similar mis-typings throughout. (There are other mis-typings, but not to that extent). Also, one result is a sketch drawing with the words ‘i want a best froliend..who becomes my baby and my lover and one day my husband :)’ (that is, the words appear on the drawing, not on the webpage).

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homophones: flair/flare and role/roll

Recently I saw in a job advertisement a statement to the effect that applicants should have ‘a flare for’ (some part of the job). Three thoughts: 1) This is the wrong word – it should be flair. A flair is a talent or aptitude; a flare is a burst of light. 2) Is is very easy to type the wrong homophone instead of the right one, especially when the two are the same part of speech (here, nouns) and there is some overlap in meaning (a person with a flair might be described as ‘bright’). 3) Someone in the company should have spotted this before the ad was posted. (I wonder if pointing out the typo is part of the application procedure, or whether I would look like a smart-alec if I did.)

Soon after, in the automatically-generated subtitles of a job-skills video, I read the phrase ‘your roll’ (in the company). Again, it’s wrong, but the issue here goes beyond human error to the programming of automatically-generated subtitles, which I know very little about. Google N-grams shows that role is far more common than roll, so it should be the default choice of an auto-subtitler.

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