LawProse Lesson #297: Anomalies of spelling.

LawProse Lesson #297: Anomalies of spelling.

English orthography, or spelling, is riddled with challenges. Because English speakers have plundered the vocabularies of so many different languages, English words have no common etymology. This diversity of origin has led to words that depart from patterns, or even adopting a source language’s grammatical patterns that are indiscernible to English-language monoglots. Take, for example, all the Latin-derived words ending in –us (admittedly, some of them are ultimately Greek but borrowed through Latin): acanthus, apparatus, cactus, conspectus, fungus, nexus, obelus, octopus, platypus, prospectus, terminus. In Latin grammar, that list represents two types of nouns (second- and fourth-declension masculine nouns), and they’re inflected differently in the Latin case system. Then we have the adjective de minimis, which is noticeably Latin but with an –is ending because it’s in the ablative case with de. Small wonder that it would sometimes be misspelled *de minimus (the asterisk notes a departure from Standard Written English). Another contributor to English nouns is the Latinate suffix –um (for second-declension neuter nouns): compendium, forum, maximum, memorandum, minimum, moratorium, philtrum, stadium, and testimonium. But if there’s some exception that doesn’t fit the pattern—say, in personam (an adjective or adverb in English, borrowed as a Latin phrase consisting of a preposition plus a noun in the accusative case)—people have to remember it. Here, it’s –am, not –um. All this is taxing on the mind. These anomalies are costly to maintain—cognitively costly. The English language has many of these anomalies, which either you or your spell-checker must be alert to. Although some are etymologically related, others are quite unrelated words that have a coincidence of sound that misleadingly makes speakers think of them as being analogous. airplane but aeronautics bumptious but presumptuous clamor but glamour (yet glamorous) coup de grace but foie gras de jure but du jour democracy but idiosyncrasy express but espresso femme fatale but feme sole idea but ideology juror but perjurer pizza but pizzeria pruritis but tinnitus restaurant but restaurateur spoil but spoliation strategy but stratagem tendon but tendinitis If you can think of others, send them to me at I’m always on the lookout for new examples. Meanwhile, here’s wishing you good words—and correct spellings.

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