Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Letter Perfect: Why English is So Hard

The cashier at the fancy foods store was from Bosnia. "I have so much hard time with English," she said. "Why when you add one letter does whole word change?"

She had asked the customer if she had a "dim," and the customer was flummoxed. "A dim," the cashier kept repeating. "A dim. Ten cents."

"Oh, a dime," the customer finally realized. Which led the frustrated cashier to remark on the difficulty of English.

Few languages have as many quirks of spelling as English, since it arose from adaptations of so many other languages. As we've said before, one letter can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

Let's look at those words whose meaning is drastically changed by adding (or subtracting) one letter from the beginning or end.

The "silent e" is responsible for many of these, and many of us know them, as the earlier column noted, because of Tom Lehrer and his song for The Electric Company:

Who can turn a cub into a cube;
Who can turn a tub into a tube …"

Here's but a partial list of those:

Note what they all have in common: They originally ended in a "short" vowel and a consonant, but the "silent e" changes the "short" vowel into a "long" one. (If you've forgotten the "long" vowel sounds just like the letter itself, as in "ohhh," "eye," and "you." The "short" vowel doesn't.)

That silent "e" works for more complicated words, too. Take "stamped," which runs amok when "e" makes it "stampede."

"E" isn't the only letter that changes a word when tacked on the end, of course. Take "jam," which is congestion, a difficult position, or a nice topping for toast, until a "b" is added to the end. Then it becomes a "jamb," the vertical frame of a door or other opening. Probably because that "silent b" doesn't change the pronunciation (unlike changing "tom" to "tomb), "door jam" appears in Nexis about half as often as "door jamb." But "door jam" would probably make the door stick, and is incorrect to boot.

Add an "r" to "live" and you get "liver." Add a second "s" to "needles" or "cares" and you get "needless" and "caress." Note that none of those additions change the vowel sound (unless you were pronouncing "live" to rhyme with "hive").

You can add letters at the beginning, as well, to change them significantly. Our "cut" above becomes "cute" with silent "e," then turns "acute" with an "a" at the beginning. And the winner in the ability to morph with a single letter may belong to "end," whose meaning changes when you add a "b," "f," "l," "m," "p," "r," "s," "t," or "v" to its front.

Finally, some vandals with a sense of humor turned one Brooklyn business into something else entirely. On a sign that read "LIVE POULTRY SLAUGHTER," a square of white obliterated the "S." Then, just in case you didn't get the joke, the vandals spray-painted below it "Comedy Club." While the employees claimed the sign was in bad taste, the alteration was still there seven months later, keeping to the spirit of the change, if not the letter.


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 18th 2013, 5:12 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
Of, "But "door jam" would probably make the door stick, and is incorrect to boot.", I suggest that it might be necessary to boot a door that was jammed!
Tuesday June 18th 2013, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great article. Reminds me of seeing a foreign colleague at a conference recently. She was talking about LinkedIn, which she pronounced with three syllables, "lin-ked-in." I didn't have the heart to correct her!
Tuesday June 18th 2013, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Kathleen C.
The premise here...that the meaning of words can be changed by adding or subtracting a letter...is so patently obvious that I can't imagine why someone would devote an entire article to it, unless she had absolutely nothing else to say. Yes, English is a difficult language, and, yes, people from other countries have a hard time with all its little quirks. But words change depending on how they are spelled in ANY language. I'll never forget a time when the hospital where I worked was having a hard time getting our Latino visitors to wash their hands before entering a particlar patient's room. Someone wrote a sign in Spanish saying "Por favor, lávese las monos." which was SUPPOSED to say "Please wash your hands." Twenty four hours later we discovered that what it really said was "Please wash your monkeys!" By changing the "a" in "manos" to an "o" the helpful scribe had completely changed the meaning of the sign!

My point here is that the way a word is spelled will ALWAYS determine its meaning. Words are constructed of letters, after all. Other than poking fun at those for whom English is a second language I don't see that this article made any point at all.
Tuesday June 18th 2013, 11:59 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
English is, to my mind, a trade language. It is something patched together out of many different languages to allow people to communicate well enough to sell their merchandise, get back on their boats and sail to the next port with another group of people and do it all again. And isn't that how it developed? People of a small island country covered the whole world, buying and selling? To understand it in a predictive sense one must know the rules of German, French, Latin and who knows what all others. To be able to be understood - that is easy - with a lot of hand waving and pointing. Like any 'pigeon' tongue.

People claim this very sloppiness and ambiguity is the strength of English. I'm not sure. But as long as it keeps spreading faster than academics can rein it in, I can't see it changing.
Wednesday June 19th 2013, 10:07 AM
Comment by: mafannie (Knoxville, TN)
I enjoyed reading the article; it simply highlighted some of the quirks in the language--just as you will find in most languages.
Saturday June 22nd 2013, 4:37 PM
Comment by: Soph
This is true! I wonder how english got so hard! It shouldn't be!
Saturday June 22nd 2013, 4:38 PM
Comment by: Soph
Poor women at the cashier!
Sunday June 23rd 2013, 3:11 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
and we forget the french where one does not pronounce the last syllable!
Monday July 1st 2013, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Adriana G.
I do the same mistake all time. Sometimes silent a vowel or consonant in the word. I need a help to speak a perfect English language.

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