Every time I come to post something on here, I feel like I need to start with an apology, because I haven’t posted in so long. I still need to finish writing about March’s 2-day Etymology Seminar, and the very exciting discoveries brought on by a long drive to Ohio for a recent seminar there. I’ve been considering the various roles of the final, non-syllabic <e> as well, and this post hints at where my thinking is . . .
This post is brought to you by the remarkable network of scholars all over the world with whom I am privileged to work. Tutors and teachers I’ve worked with frequently send me questions, and those questions become the impetus to refine and articulate my understanding. This particular question came from a tutor in the Midwest who has taken it upon herself to become an earnest and dedicated scholar of English in order to be a better teacher of it. After all, we cannot expect our skill in teaching something to surpass our willingness to study it.
So, this tutor emailed me with this question about a published word list purporting to feature words with an <ie> digraph:
“I was looking at a list of words . . . supposedly for the vowel digraph <ie>. The list begins with words like <lie> <tie> <die>. So far, so good. But they also include <cried> <tried> <pried> on the list. I know that in fact the <i> in those words is NOT part of the vowel digraph <ie> but rather is there because the <y> in the base word <cry> was changed to <i> before adding the suffix <ed>.
What about the word <lie>? The past tense of this word is <lied> but explaining how this works in a word sum is confusing to me because I would not drop the final <e> to add <ed> because the <e> is part of a vowel digraph, not a final silent <e>? And <lie> + <d> is obviously not correct. I suppose the same question could be asked of the word died, or tied, or vied??”
How do I love this question? Let me count the ways:
1. The tutor is bringing the full weight of her intellect and her understanding to her analysis of published materials. She does not assume that because it’s published somewhere, it must be accurate.
2. She checks and articulates her own understanding before bringing the question to me.
3. She understands that we must first ascertain the morphological structure of a word before attempting to ascertain its phonological structure. A grapheme cannot straddle a morpheme boundary: there is a <th> digraph in <father> but not in <fathead>. Similarly, as she states, there is no <ie> digraph in <cry> + <ed>.
4. She knows that written language makes sense, and that it is highly organized and orderly. So when she encounters the object of her question — <lied>, <tied>, <died>, <vied> — she doesn’t just chalk them up as “exceptions” or “irregular” (or sight words, learned words, red words, heart words, demon words, or any of the other silly named given to words-the-author-doesn’t-understand). Rather, she seeks to deepen her understanding, and to find the explanation she knows and trusts is there.
So, here’s what I told her:
“You are correct about the vowel in <cried>, <tried>, <pried>, etc. NOT being part of the digraph <ie>.
Likewise, there is no <ie> in <lied> or <died>, because here’s what we have:
<lie> + <ed> → *<lieed> → <lied>
There are constraints on which consecutive vowels English will allow across morpheme boundaries (<agreed> but <agreeing>; <lied> but <lying>). [Actually, these constraints have to do with how English handles digraphs and trigraphs in proximity to identical letters -- it's the same phenomenon at play in <eighth> and <fully>, as opposed to *<eightth> or *<fullly>.]
I want you to think of the <y> and the <ie> as toggling word finally. Words like <cry>, <dry>, <try>, <pry>, <shy>, etc. can be spelled with a <y> because they start with 2 consonant letters, thus providing the requisite 3 letters for a lexical word once that <y> is there. Words like <lie>, <die>, <vie>, <tie>, cannot be spelled with a <y>, because they start with a single consonant and need the vowel digraph to make the 3-letter minimum for lexical words (compare <my>, <by>, <I>). [For the uninitiated, content/lexical words -- nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs -- require a minimum of 3 letters, while function words -- pronouns, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions -- may have just 1 or 2 letters.]
Let’s represent this <ie>-or-<y> with a <Y> — kind of an underlying representation — so we can see how this works when it surfaces in a word:
<lY> → <lie>
<lY> + <ing> → <lying>
<lY> + <ed> → <lied>
<crY> → <cry>
<crY> + <ing> → <crying>
<crY> + <ed> → <cried>
. . . We know that <y> and <i> alternate — that <e> in the final <ie> digraph is kind of a lexicalizing agent — it appears when we need it to lexicalize a word. But it doesn’t need to surface when we’re building something other than a free base element.”
Now, the <ie> digraph is a really reliable grapheme. It spells /aɪ/ at the end of a monosyllable (like lie), /i/ at the end of a polysyllabic word (like rookie), and /iː/ medially (as in field). It’s often diminutive suffix, as in movie or doggie). But it’s widely misrepresented in phonics materials, which ignore words like movie and cookie (assuming new or struggling readers won’t encounter them?), and confound differently structured words like <cried> and <lied>, just like in the published list in question. Here’s what the LEX grapheme card has to say:
Word lists are a misguided attempt to go broad in teaching, to ensure that a child will encounter a large enough number of words with the pattern in question. What they don’t do, what they can’t do, is go deep. What this tutor did when she dared to question the wisdom of a published phonics word list is to go deep. If we go deep in our study — investigate what words mean, how they’re built, where they come from, and what they share with other words — we’re bound to go broad as well; it’s impossible to study a single word deeply without also encountering lots of other words that share a feature, a structure, a history. But breadth alone can never guarantee depth. Lists are a short-cut, a facility, an answer to an unasked question. They stand to absolve teachers and tutors from having to think deeply about the pattern under examination.
For years, the most common question I get when I speak at conferences or workshops is, “What materials/curriculum/books do you recommend?” Ultimately, the answer is “any of them, as long as you always bring your own understanding to the table.” My objective is not to point people to the best set of materials, but to the best understanding of language linguistic science can offer. A teacher thusly equipped — as is the one inspired this post — can make good use of any materials, including the wonderfully and importantly subversive act of teaching children not to believe everything they read, even if it’s written by an expert. Because sometimes they lie.