Friday, December 25, 2015

A Christmas Present for the Whole World!

Merry Christmas, World!

I have done more than my share of spreading collapse-related doom and gloom, and to make up for it today I am spreading a bit of cheer, in the form of a pleasant, useful, family-friendly booklet titled

The Pitfalls of English: A Guide and Reference

It is a dictionary of English heterographs, heteronyms and contronyms. (If you don't know what they are, read on!) The amazing thing about this book is that up until now it didn't exist. But then, as Nassim Taleb pointed out, how many centuries did it take for people to realize that maybe they should put suitcases on casters(US)/castors(UK)?

If you are reading this, then this book is for you. Maybe you want to avoid making a fool of yourself when speaking or writing English. Or maybe you just want to devise devilishly clever puns. Or maybe you need a thoughtful gift for that special person whose sloppy spelling annoys you. In short, it's a good book to have, provided you either know or would like to know English. It's very reasonably priced, so please buy two, keep one copy as a reference and use the other to slap people with when they make mistakes. Better yet, buy a whole bunch, and give one to every English teacher you know. And if you are an English teacher, have the school buy one for each of your students (at a large quantity discount).

Here is the introduction that lays out the entire rationale for this book:

English is an incredibly handy language. In fact, if you only know one language, but it’s English, you’ll probably manage to get by somehow. It’s almost incomparably easier to learn than Chinese, Arabic or Russian. Even Spanish, which is another incredibly handy language, and also fairly easy to learn, has quite a bit more grammatical machinery to it than English: grammatical gender, inflections and so on.

This is why English is in such widespread use all over the world. If a Chinese, a Russian and an Arab meet and have a conversation, it’s a safe bet that they will be speaking English. There are many reasons why it’s so easy to learn: English grammar is small and simple; English vocabulary is international, much of it borrowed from Latin, Greek, French and other languages; and a bit of English is easy to pick up simply by paying attention, because it has excellent penetration throughout the world via popular music, movies and the Internet.

So far so good. But there is another side to English which makes it rather unnecessarily complicated. While spoken English is easy, written English is so confusing that kids in English-speaking countries spend several more years just learning how to read and write than kids who grow up speaking much more complicated languages, such as the aforementioned Chinese, Russian and Arabic. About half the kids end up having serious difficulties with learning to read and write English.

All the trouble comes from the fact that most English words are still written pretty much the same way they were when they first entered the language—which was often hundreds of years ago, when they sounded very different. For example, when the English first started using the word “nature,” they most likely pronounced it “nah-TOO-reh.” Now they pronounce it “NAY-chuh,” but they still write it as if it were pronounced “nah-TOO-reh.” What this means is that for a great many English words (some 40 percent of them) you have to memorize both how they sound and how they are written, separately. And that, as an English person might put it, is “a bit of a bother.”

And so there is a lot to memorize. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to lots of obsolete spellings, many English words have more than one meaning. This is quite normal (most languages have such words, called homonyms), but in English they are sometimes written differently depending on what they mean! These homonyms are called heterographs. If you pick the wrong spelling (which is something people do all the time—writing, “break” instead of “brake” or “wave” instead of “waive”) dictionaries are of little help and spellcheckers are of no help at all. This book helps you deal with these bothersome special cases with confidence and ease. Luckily, the number of such words is quite small compared to the number of homographic homonyms—words that are spelled the same regardless of how many different meanings they have.

For example, the word “litter” is written the same whether it refers to

• a basket of puppies or kittens,
• fallen tree leaves,
• a cat’s toilet supplies,
• scattered trash or
• a royal traveling bed.

If “litter” were broken up into, say, “litter,” “lytter,” “littor,” “lyttor” and “littre,” respectively, would this make English a better language and the world a better place? No, not really! If each distinct meaning of each word were given its own unique spelling, then written English would go beyond “a bit of a bother,” and turn into, as an English person might put it, “a bloody nuisance.”

You might think that this would be enough punishment already, but no, apparently not! In addition, English has quite a few words that are pronounced differently based on what they mean even though they are written the same way. Luckily, most of these have some regularities, and the list of truly random, particularly irksome ones, which have to be memorized individually, is quite short. These are called heteronyms, and this book helps you deal with them too.

Are we done yet? Well, almost, but here is where English gets very strange. It has an entire set of words, some of them quite common, which have two contradictory meanings. When you use these words, you have to be extra careful, because you might accidentally express the exact opposite of what you mean. They are called contronyms, and this book helps you handle them as well.

Heterographs, heteronyms and contronyms are the three main categories of English pitfalls, and the purpose of this book is to show you how to avoid all of them.

* * *

So how, you are perhaps wondering by now, did a simple language with a small grammar and a largely international vocabulary develop all these problems? In this author's opinion, it is because the English, for hundreds of years now, have been practicing something they call

one-upmanship [wənˈʌpmənʃɪp] noun
the technique or practice of gaining a feeling of superiority over another person

Of course, in order to appear well-bred and civilized, the English have had to practice their one-upmanship in gentlemanly or ladylike ways. And what better way to do that than by inadvertently embarrassing each other? This has motivated them to come up with as many ways of embarrassing each other as possible, and what better way to do that than to introduce lots of little pitfalls into their language?

But this problem is not limited to those whose misfortune it is to be English. Wherever English is used, the impact one has on society depends to a large extent on one’s ability to use it correctly, and so all of us, English or not, must learn to steer clear of its pitfalls.

If English is your native language, your educational achievements and career prospects are to a very large extent determined by your ability to spell and to sound educated. It is an unfortunate fact that many perfectly intelligent kids are held back in life due to just a single shortcoming: their inability to spell. If they were being taught in Chinese, or Russian or Arabic, this tiny handicap would make hardly any difference at all. Many more English-speaking kids are diagnosed with dyslexia than Chinese, Russian or Arabic-speaking kids, and this comes down to just one root cause: English spelling.

If English is your second (or third or fourth) language, then the worst compliment you can receive from a native English speaker is “Your English is very good!” This is the hypocritical cry of victory in the game of English language one-upmanship. What it means is that your English is very bad indeed, and that without major improvement you won’t make it very far educationally, professionally or in polite society. If your English were, in fact, very good, you could be sure that nobody would ever compliment you on it. This is because virtually all native English speakers are insecure in their knowledge of their native tongue, apprehensive that you might one-up them, and so they keep quiet on the subject—unless they think that they can one-up you.

Whether English is your native language or your second (or third or fourth) language, this book will help you avoid its many pitfalls and gain the upper hand in the game of one-upmanship. Its first part is as a guide that will show you where the pitfalls are located—what heterographs, heteronyms and contronyms exist—so that you know what to watch out for. The rest of the book is in the form of a dictionary: whenever you aren’t sure of a word’s spelling, pronunciation or sense, look it up, and if it happens to be a potential pitfall, this book will show you how to avoid it.

* * *

If you want to avoid embarrassment and appear intelligent and well-educated while speaking and writing English, this book is for you.

And if you pride yourself on being intelligent, well-educated and at the peak of your game, you should nevertheless take a peek inside this book. It may pique you to discover just how much you still don’t know.

Lastly, if you are, in fact, intelligent and well-educated, and like making puns, then this book is for you as well, because with its help you’ll be sure not to miss any opportunities to appear very clever.

To give you an idea of what's inside, most of the book is in dictionary form, with all the entries in alphabetical order for ease of look-up. Here is a sample:

does: [ˈdoʊz] notes, more than one female deer, [ˈdʌz] 3ps of “to do”
dollop [ˈdɔləp]: large/small amount
done [ˈdʌn]: completed
  dun: grey-brown
dos [ˈdoʊz]: more than one note C
  does: more than one female deer
  doughs: more than one dough
  doze: to nap
dos: [ˈdoʊz] notes, [ˈduz] hairdos, ...and don'ts
  does: more than one female deer
  dos: more than one note C
  doughs: more than one dough
  doze: to nap
dough [ˈdoʊ]: unbaked bread
  do: musical note C
  doe: female deer
doughs [ˈdoʊz]: more than one dough
  does: more than one female deer
  dos: more than one note C
  doze: to nap
dove: [ˈdʌv] noun, [ˈdoʊv] verb
downhill [daʊnˈhɪl]: better/worse
doze [ˈdoʊz]: to nap
  does: more than one female deer
  dos: more than one note C
  doughs: more than one dough

And here are some of the words this dictionary contains:


ad, add
adds, ads, adze
ade, aid, aide
aerie, airy
affect, effect
air, e’er, ere, err, heir
aisle, isle
all, awl
allowed, aloud
altar, alter
ant, aunt
ante, auntie
arc, ark
ascent, assent
ate, eight
auger, augur
aught, ought
aural, oral
auto, Otto
away, aweigh
awed, odd
aweful, awful
axel, axle
aye, eye
bail, bale
bailed, baled
bailey, bailie
bailing, baling
bait, bate
baited, bated
baiting, bating
bald, balled, bawled
ball, bawl
band, banned
bard, barred
bare, bear
bark, barque
Barry, berry
base, bass
based, baste
bases, basses
bask, basque, Basque
bat, batt
baud, bawd, bod
bay, bey
bays, beize, beys
beach, beech
beat, beet
beau, bow
beaut, butte
beer, bier
Bel, bel, bell, belle
berth, birth
besot, besought
better, bettor
bight, bite, byte
billed, build
bit, bitt
blew, blue
bloc, block
blond, blonde
boar, Boer, boor, bore
board, bored
boarder, border
bocks, box
bode, bowed
bold, bowled
bolder, boulder
bole, boll, bowl
boos, booze
born, borne, bourn
borough, burrow
bough, bow
boy, buoy
braid, brayed
braise, brays, braze
brake, break
breach, breech
bread, bred
brewed, brood
brews, bruise
bridal, bridle
broach, brooch
brows, browse
bundt, bunt
burger, burgher
bus, buss
bussed, bust
buy, by, bye
buyer, byre




adumbrate: disclose/obscure
against: towards/opposing
anarchic: chaotic/self-organized
apology: excuse/defense
aught: all/nothing
awesome: terrible/wonderful
awful: inspiring/revolting
before: in the past/in front of
bill: payment/invoice
blunt: dull/pointed
bolt: secure/flee
boned: with/without bones
bound: moving/restrained
bred: mated/made by mating
buckle: secure/collapse
certain: undefined/definite
check: payment/bill
cleave: adhere/separate
clip: fasten/detach
constrain: force/contain
consult: give/take advice
contingent: certain/uncertain
continue: resume/postpone
cored: with/without a core
critical: essential/disapproving
custom: common/special

Here is the link to click to order this book.


Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Absolutely fascinating. Seems as good as Unspell. Result of a sharp Russian, native-Russian-speaking mind looking at the weird English language from outside, but with total fluency. :)

BTW, some pairs (pears?) in the list only work with a NAmerican accent. They don't work in Britain. Though to complicate matters more, >some< of them >may< work in Scotland, according to which strand (in the non-beach [not beech] sense) of modern Scottish speech is in use.

As you say: A bloody nuisance.

I resent being a native-BritEnglish speaker particularly, because my cradle-tongue, but for English imperialism stretching over many centuries, would have been Cymraeg; instead of yr Hen Iaith being an imperfectly-fluent second language as now. Though that said, I wouldn't be without English, particularly of the English variety: carrier of some of the greatest barddoniaeth in world history, after all; and barddoniaeth, inherently, cannot be translated. Meaning, sure; but that goose-fleshing effect of sound and meaning soundly blended? No chance!

I've seen some excellent poems rendered into receiver languages which are something like as good as the donor poem, if the receiver poet is up to it; 'accounts', as Christopher Logue called his BritEnglish rendering of parts of the Iliad. Because Chris was so good, in his veteran-poet time, they're marvellous independent, free-standing poems, and - like the great donor epic itself - highly fit to be spoken out loud rather than taken in off the page through the eyes; to the point where they make a mesmeric live one-man show. But still - not Iliada itself. How could they be?

How are you going to render your opening invocation in English with the same power that it has in the orginal Greek: 'Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropon, hos mala polla…' Just listen to that! Say it out loud! Yeah, yeah, I know it's the opening of Odysseia, not Iliada, but just >listen< to it in any case! How're ya gonna match that in English? Or any other language?

The great thing about English, though, is that it's such a rag-bag of languages and different eras, all mingled into common modern speech, and still growing and evolving now, as all live languages do unstoppably, that it's a positive playground for the witty inventiveness, and also of course the possessed inspiration, of English-speaking bards.

I wish I'd written this as a native inspiration:

M'aen well troi'n alltud, ambell dro
A mynd o Gymru fach ymhell
Er mwyn cael dod i Gymru'n ol
A medru caru Cymru'n well.

Better to turn exile, now and then
And go from little Cymru far
So that when you get back to Cymru
You can love Cymru better.

[Warning: Don't try machine-translating this. Machines can't do poesy!]

The translation's accurate. But even without knowing how to say all the sounds in the original quatrain (it's called 'Alltud' btw: 'Exile') you might still get a glimpse of its extraordinary power. That can reduce native-speakers to tears.

I guess we'll have to wait for another Orlov inspiration before we can get into the mysterious irrational power of barddoniaeth… (which literally means 'bardspeak' btw…:)

Robert Goad said...

Hay, EYE dun knead thess stoopud crape. Huppee hallowud daze thow.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Rhisiart is right, in that there are some heterograph pairs in the dictionary that are not homonyms in UK English (received pronunciation), but many more are missing. For example, the BBC never tire of telling the world that they are a "trusted sauce for news" because their announcers can't distinguish "sauce" from "source." Perhaps some day I'll put out a UK version. But then we have what's called a "stopping problem": nobody on the Indian subcontinent can distinguish "vine" from "wine"; hardly anyone in Europe can distinguish "bat" from "bet" or "bet" from "bed", and in the Pacific Northwest of the US they can't distinguish "internet" from "intranet" because they both sound line "innernet," while in parts of Texas "pin" and "pen" sound identical. And so on and so forth.

Alex said...

There's a very interesting essay in the public domain by one H. L. Mencken about how American English and British English seperated in literally Elizabethan times and the split still exists. Try getting away with "gotten" or "catty-corner" across the Pond, for instance.

I may buy this book, Dmitry, because there are a lot of things that people write that drive me up the wall; too and to, reign and rein, baited vs. bated, etc. And saying either to rhyme with ether, which is a gas, is fairly annoying too.

Howard Skillington said...

Additional distinctions can be drawn regarding do as a sung musical note.

In European practice of solfeggio [Italian] or solfège [French] as well as in Slavic languages, the syllable do [ˈdoʊ] is fixed to the note C so that, in terms of functional harmony, do has a different place in the tonal hierarchy, depending upon the key of the music.

But in Movable do solfège, more commonly used in English-speaking countries and, more recently, in Asia, do (or often doh [ˈdoʊ]) is tied to the tonic key, so that doh corresponds with the note C only in the key of C. In this system doh has the same function in terms of tonal hierarchy, regardless of the key.

Parenthetically, when Guido of Arezzo devised this system in the eleventh century, he took as the names of the sung syllables the first words of the lines of the Latin hymn, Ut queant laxis, resulting in a sung scale that began with ut, rather than do. In the early sixteenth century the lowest note recognized by musical theoreticians was designated as gamma, so that singing all of the available notes up to the top ut was to “run the gamut.”

In his work in Optics Isaac Newton theorized that the musical note do corresponds with the color red; Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, who experienced synesthesia, also associated red with the key of C.

For the sake of thoroughness one might also note that d’oh in Simpson-speak connotes an acknowledgment on the part of the speaker that his or her intelligence has, once again, proved to be unequal to the situation at hand. In the aggregate, these utterances would, of course, be d’ohs.

seraphim said...

But, but, but Dmitri,

What about then instead of than (and vice-versa)?
What about its instead of it's (and vice-versa)?
What about seperate instead of separate (and vice-versa)?
And many others...

There is something Cekhovian about you, Dmitri, that I like very much (I read a bit more than 'The Seagull'). What really irks me is that people do not understand that Dostoyevsky was a humorist too.
Merry Rozhdestva! S Prazdnikom.

Johnny Swift said...

I suppose at some point you could do a companion volume which lists more-or-less common slang, which English seems particularly eager to incorporate (probably because of being essentially a melting pot of other languages from the beginning). Of course, then you run into the problem you mentioned of where to stop, both in terms of what slang applies in what English-speaking countries, as well as in time, since slang passes into and out of common use.

You are also completely correct that one-upmanship has been an integral part of the English language from the git-go. Many synonyms in English arose from the "nobles" and other hangers-on of the court wanting to display their sophistication and worldliness by borrowing heavily from other languages, particularly Latin and French, to distinguish themselves from the lowly Old English/Germanic of the commoners.

Alex said...

There's also what's been called "kitchen Swahili", where the English speaking colonizers will sprinkle native words into their speech to snow they're such regular folks and in touch with the people and all that rot. I grew up in Hawaii, and we grew up speaking very good English but with tons of dropped-in words, Japanese and Hawaiian, to show how connected to the native culture we were, living so humbly in our upper middle class house in the upper middle class to rich area.

Looking back it was as patronizing as the Coconut Willie records my father bought and laughed at.

Of course the good times didn't last and we plummeted to being very poor. Who says there's so social mobility in the USA? It's just downward, is all. However I became bilingual, fluent in American English and Pacific Creole English (called pidgin in Hawaii but it's actually a creole).

Robert Konrad said...

Witam Mr. Orlov,

Here's a story quite relevant to your book: I was born in Poland. At an early age, I developed a passion for English I still cannot quite understand. It so happened that after I studied English for several years on my own and spent a couple of hours every day listening to the BBC World Service and to the Voice of America "broadcasting in special English," I was qualified enough to pass a challenging entrance exam in order to enroll in a 5-year program to study English philology at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Eventually--and curiously enough--I was offered an assistantship stipend to work towards a PhD in American studies in the US. (Yes, the communist government not only allowed me to travel to the States with my wife and child, but it also covered my travel expenses.)

Life being stranger than fiction, I ended up getting my degree and teaching American studies and English to ... American students at the technical college I spent 20 years as as instructor of English and, occasionally, of American studies.

Life being strange indeed, I also ended up editing an American magazine for 14 years and publishing a college text for teaching modern English syntax.

Which brings me to the main topic: English. I am looking forward to reading your book. I also used to compile lists of linguistic and grammatical curiosities in English. Here's one: do you, Mr. Orlov, (or anybody else here) know how uniquely interesting the word "children" is? It alone has "preserved" a thousand-year long history of the development of the English language. It still has the Old English suffix -ru. ("Children" at the time was "cildru," just as, for example, "lambru" is today's "lambs.")

In the Middle English, there was a trend to borrow the German inflectional suffix -en as a grammatical indicator of plurality. In this way, we still have "oxen." The -en suffix soon disappeared from English--with a few exceptions, "children" being one of them. Except that "children" didn't, for some bizarre reason, drop the -en suffix but kept it and added the new all-English suffix -(e)s. This is why we don't have "childs," which we should, had that strange exception not happened several hundred years ago.

Cottage Crone said...

Dear Dmitry,

I enjoy your columns so much, and your erudition gives me such pleasure, that I ordered 2 of your books. One I will keep for myself, and the other I will give to another lover of language and its idiosyncrasies. I am so pleased to have found your blog a year or more ago, and fervently hope it will be here to read for years and years more.

To you, the best of the best in this particular New Year of 2016.

Des Carne said...

Thanks Dmitry,

I bought your book and am waiting (interminably) for it to arrive in Chile (target date 22 Feb). It promises to add some spice to my pocket-money earning English teaching, if I can tap into that native Chilean sense of humor that makes their argot as colorful as my native Australian.