Writers Talk About Writing
Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she examines what happens to the spelling of words when we follow our ears.
My daughter, who is six, is feeling the power of the written word. She's taken to taping notes all over the house — labels for shelves and rooms and drawers, and messages to us that begin "Dere parints."
She hasn't yet made all the connections between words she can read quite easily and their spellings, so that great is "grat" and really is "rile." What's interesting to me is that her spellings tell me what she is hearing: to her, "ledr" is exactly the way letter is pronounced, and she's hearing really as "rilly."
Over time, most of us manage to become decent spellers. But we do it by a combination of memorization and rule-learning; the pronunciations of many English words have strayed too far from their spellings for us to be able to predict with much reliability how a word we've only heard, and never seen, is spelled.
And so we guess, just as my daughter does. And often, we end up producing aural spellings, just as my daughter does.
An aural spelling is one that is based only on what the listener hears. The spelling is incorrect in that it doesn't represent the word or phrase that the speaker used, but it's accurate in that it does reflect the sounds the listener heard. I asked my readers to send me examples of aural spellings for this article, and I was pleased to get a nice range of examples of all three main types of aural spellings. (Thank you to everyone who responded!)
Spellings with missing letters:
In speech, some syllables are stressed and some are not. English speakers often reduce unstressed syllables; for instance, some of us say "lookin'" instead of pronouncing the /-ing/ in looking. I see spellings such as "our renown faculty" with great frequency, and that's because people don't hear the -ed in renowned.
If a past participle that ends with an unstressed /d/ or /t/ sound (like iced) is followed by a word that begins with a consonant, we sometimes let one consonant do double duty (iced tea becomes ice tea; iced cream becomes ice cream), or we just drop the sound altogether (popped corn becomes popcorn). In the case of both ice tea and popcorn, the aural spellings became common enough that they are now standard. An aural spelling of this type that is not yet accepted, and still causes much confusion, is use to for used to.
When you think you've heard one word but have actually heard a different one, you might never find out unless you try to use the word in writing. That's what happens to people who write "it's a doggie-dog world" for "dog-eat-dog" or "the whole kitten caboodle" for "kit and caboodle." You can tell that these spellings, too, reflect the fact that we swallow sounds when we speak, but in the case of a mondegreen, listeners associate the sounds they hear with whatever familiar word or phrase sounds closest to that set of sounds. One of my respondents said that a friend of hers used to think there was a famous novel about a guy named "Warren Peace."
Usage books are full of comments about easily confused pairs of words. The confusion can reflect a misapprehension that is similar to what happens with an aural spelling, even though, for many of the pairs, the sounds are not quite the same. A good example is the common mistake "a mute point" for "a moot point." People tend to be more familiar with mute than with moot, and assume they have heard the more common term. Another example, a ubiquitous one, is then for than, as in this headline that a respondent sent me:
Credit clampdown may pack less wallop then feared
Outright guesses that are flat-out wrong:
In this category come "flying debree," "mini-blines," "chester drawers," and "tryna" for "trying to." One of the funniest examples sent to me was "making endsmeat"; presumably the writer thought "endsmeat" was some type of sausage. What I find curious here is that the writer did not stop to wonder what "endsmeat" was, and perhaps try to look it up. No, the writer assumed that, whatever the stuff was, that was clearly what had been said, and he or she was not going to look stupid by showing ignorance of the word.
Mistakes can go the other way, too — we can only ever see a word in print and make assumptions about how it is pronounced.
I read A Little Princess years before I first went to England. The main character, Sara, liked the name Cholmondeley — I cannot remember why now, but I do remember sounding out this unfamiliar name and coming up with something like /kol-MAHN-duh-lee/. I then met a young man with this name in England — not the Marquess, but quite possibly someone related to him — and had the misfortune to see it on his nametag before I heard him introduce himself.
"Wow," I said, "You're the first real Kol-mahn-duh-lee I've ever met."
"It's CHUM-ley," he said down his nose.
Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.