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I Can Help You Do Grammar!

One of the most misunderstood and misrepresented concepts in the study of PDE (Present-Day English) is verbal constructions, especially auxiliary verbs (“helping” verbs) and their roles. In English, one of the functions of auxiliary verbs is in the construction of interrogatives and negatives. If a declarative sentence has an auxiliary verb in its predicate, that auxiliary can be inverted wth the subject to form a closed interrogative (a yes-or-no question):
She can pick you up at seven.
Can she pick you up at seven?
That adorable baby has been sleeping well.
Has that adorable baby been sleeping well?
The Queen of England’s valet is coming over.
Is the Queen of England’s valet coming over?
The auxiliary also assists in negative constructions; the negator is placed between the first auxiliary and the following verb:
She will pick you up at seven.
She will not pick you up at seven.
That adorable baby has been sleeping well.
That adorable baby has not been sleeping well.
The Queen of England’s valet is coming over.
The Queen of England’s valet is not coming over.
When your declarative sentence has no auxiliary verb, then you need to add one for closed interrogative and negative constructions. But you don’t just add any old verb; you add some form of ‘do.’
She picks you up at seven.
Does she pick you up at seven?
She does not pick you up at seven.
That adorable baby slept well.
Did that adorable baby sleep well?
That adorable baby did not sleep well.
The Queen of England’s valet came over.
Did the Queen of England’s valet come over?
The Queen of England’s valet did not come over.
This auxiliary ‘do‘ is referred to in linguistics as Operator Do, Dummy Do, and Periphrastic Do. These interrogative and negative constructions — as well as other verbal constructions with auxiliaries — arose as Old English (c.500-1100 CE) evolved into Middle English (c.1100-1500 CE) — in fact, the Rise of Periphrastic Do is one of the hallmarks of Middle English grammatical development.
It. DOES. NOT. Have. Anything. To. Do. With. Celtic.
Begosh and begorrah.
See, this is the problem with just pulling graphics off the Internet when you have no real understanding to interrogate them. Some wack-job claims in a graphic on the Interwebs (which I refuse to share / perpetuate here in its entirety) that Celtic is responsible for Periphrastic Do in English (annotated):
Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 10.22.53 AM

Oh No He Didn’t!

This is just patently false. Here are the facts, from This Language, a River: A History of English (Smith & Kim, 2018), a clear and concise and beautiful textbook by two of my teachers:
The use of do as an auxiliary verb may have its origins as early as the O[ld] E[nglish] period, but by M[iddle] E[nglish], the construction that becomes the present-day pattern emerges more clearly:

Whan Phebus doth his bryghte bemes sprede… (Troilus & Criseyde, 1.54)

See? Nothing to do with Celtic. The Celts who inhabited the British Isles before the Common Era — and for whom Britain and British and also Brittany in France were named — when the Germanic mercenaries arrived in the 5th century CE were conquered by the Romans, and then conquered by the Anglo-Saxons by and large. Conquered people don’t generally contribute syntactic constructions to the conquerors’ language. To wit:
The Anglo-Saxons did absorb some words from the [Celtic] Britons, place names like Thames or Kent, and words for geological features like torr (a high, rocky peak), a common element in place names like Torcross. But the borrowing was quite limited…. In some ways, these patterns of borrowing are not unlike the borrowing that occurred in the American colonies when speakers of English borrowed native names for places ike Waukegan from Native American languages. Patterns of borrowings such as these, being so largely tied to physicality (as opposed to more deeply cultural kinds of borrowing), being chiefly lexical (as opposed to grammatical), and numbering only about a dozen words in total, strongly suggest that Celtic-speaking peoples had little cultural influence among their conquerors.
~Smith & Kim
Features like the <-ing> participle, used in the progressive verbal construction (am running, was eating, will be studying…) — note, it’s a progressive aspect, not a *continuous *tense, the Periphrastic Do, and the loss of case/gender have NOTHING TO DO WITH CELTIC. It’s 100% Germanic. These are grammatical features, not lexical, and they did not really develop until the Middle English period, long after the conquered Celts were relegated to the far corners of the kingdom.

Here’s more from Smith & Kim, in their chapter on Middle English:

In the ME period we begin to witness the expansion of the verb phrase (e.g. the rise in frequency and types of periphrastic verb forms).
This has Nothing. To. Do. With. Celtic. At. All.
So the [Middle English] sound losses that we have been talking about obliterated a number of grammatical meanings…and weakened the entire system of case in the paradigm…
Noun classification according to grammatical gender becomes defunct.
Again, nothing t do with Celtic, for crying our loud.

How about this?

In OE the present participle (PDE: speaking) had the suffix -ende (e.g. sprecende [speaking]. In ME the familiar -ing replaces -ende in most dialects…. In OE and early ME, we find instances of the auxiliary verb be + the present participle both with -ende and -ing….

K. Aaron Smith is a real expert on the <-ing> form and the progressive construction, not some alternative medicine practitioner who only writes under a pseudonym. Isn’t it a shame when teachers don’t know how to differentiate between a reliable academic source and an Interwebs wingnut?

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A colleague recently informed me of his belief that I “the level of content knowledge [I] demand … in grammar instruction” is unreasonable and discouraging to would-be scholars. That’s an interesting reprimand to offer someone who teaches grammar classes to people who understand nothing about grammar — that I hold people to a high standard if they are going to claim to understand grammar.


You know, one of us has personal knowledge of what adults are capable of learning and understanding about English grammar, and one of us is only guessing.

It also strikes me as hypocritical that it’s somehow perfectly acceptable for people in this “scholar community” [sic] that I am so often lectured about to hold me to a very high standard of politeness and deference because it’s their opinion that I should be so held, and also acceptable that I am so often kicked out of Facebook groups, excoriated publicly, name-called, and harassed and threatened, because I don’t meet these totally subjective behavioral and personality-based standards.

See, the standards I want to hold people to are these: If someone is going to teach other people grammar — especially adults — that person should know how to tell the difference between a noun and an adjective. They should know the difference between form and function. They should understand that adverbs don’t always modify verbs. They should know how to interrogate Internet graphics that they want to share to make sure they’re accurate and from a reliable source. Likewise, if someone is going to try to teach people about the growth and structure of the English Language, they should actually have studied it, and they should have an understanding of how PDE grammatical forms developed historically so that they don’t fall for total rotten baloney like this bloody bloggy Celtic sausage-making and so they don’t continue to perpetuate these false understandings.

I am not mean or wrong to hold grammar teachers to such a standard. I’m not holding gas station attendants or certified public accountants or electrical engineers to a high grammar-knowledge standard. But people who make money teaching grammar? Absolutely. And for the love of God, that standard does not make me a bully. In fact, I regularly hear from people who appreciate it, because they can trust my integrity as a scholar and as a teacher.

This high expectation is not the same as people trying to hold me to some kind of standard of patience and politeness and tolerance of abject errors spread by “experts.” I do not owe politeness or patience to anyone who is lying to children and teachers, misrepresenting their expertise, or making excuses for the ignorance they are spreading. The thing is, this colleague doesn’t mind at all when I call out Louisa Moats or Malt Joshi or She Templeton on their spelling and grammar errors; it’s only when I call out someone he considers a friend.

That’s not scientific.

It also strikes me as interesting that a colleague — especially a male colleague — has no problem lecturing me about “offering time” to “deepen understanding” — but no one wants to offer me time to deepen my “patience” and “politeness,” even if I were interested in doing so. Of course it’s fine to take all the time you want to understand something, but maybe don’t try to teach a thing you have not yet had the time to come to understand. I’ve been learning, for example, about hypnosis in the treatment of sleep maintenance disorders, but that doesn’t make me a hypnotherapist, and I’m not offering online classes in hypnotherapy. It’s remarkable to me that some of my colleagues — male and female alike — have no problem expecting me to bear some politeness standard that is not even remotely empirical, and that lies outside of my area of expertise (I’m not a therapist or a sex worker; I don’t get paid to make people feel good), but the same people balk when I expect a teacher teaching other teachers to bear a knowledge standard in the subject area they are teaching.


Seriously, go wash that hog, because it stinks.

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This past week, I was celebrating a family member’s college graduation, and talking with my older brother. My brother’s educational background is in physics and business, and he is a muckety-muck in water management in the southwestern U.S. (He also happens to be an amateur linguist who has a Greek tattoo and a Russian license plate and translate hymns from Old Church Slavonic.) Over lunch, he described to my mother and me a regional meeting he recently attended. Needless to say, water management is contentious, and at times, he said, he has to tell stakeholders, “Let’s not pretend like there are simple solutions here.” I seized upon that let’s not pretend.

“When you tell people ‘Let’s to pretend,’ do they call you mean?” I asked him.

“No. I’m not the mean one,” he said.

“Interesting,” I said, “because in my field, when I say things like ‘Let’s not pretend like you actually know what a phoneme is’ or ‘Let’s not pretend like that never happens in phonics instruction,’ people complain and call me mean.

“That’s because you say it in a mean way,” he teased. Har-de-har-har. What that really means is that I am guilty of facts while female.

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I’m starting a new round of Grammar for Grown-Ups — a class informed by my studies with Dr. Smith — a class that has radically changed and is continuing to change the understanding of grammar in this “scholarly community” — in March of 2019. It will be scheduled according to the needs of the first 10 people registered. Lock in your price now with a deposit before the New Year; prices are subject to change.

This class does not require any pre-requisites or prior grammatical knowledge; in fact, the more you think you know now, the more you’ll have to unlearn over the course of the year.

Do you want to understand English grammar? Does that sound good to you?

don’t doubt it.

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An Explosive Understanding

I grew up in a very fruity family.

One set of maternal great-grandparents (Morris and Ann) met through their fathers (Solomon, a.k.a. Max or Meyer, and Sam), both Polish Jews who had emigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century. Meyer and Sam were both produce salesmen in California; later, Morris and his brother Pete ran Smith Brothers Produce, a small stand in California. I’m not positive what happened to Smith Brothers, but I think it was one of the small produce operations bought out by eventually giant produce wholesaler Levy-Zentner & Company.

Later still, my maternal grandpa, Ted — son-in-law to Morris and Ann — worked for Levy-Zentner. My mom and my aunt remember their father’s relationships with central Californian farmers and their families, including an Italian immigrant family whose daughter’s wedding they attended as young adults. I mostly remember my grandpa being retired, but I always knew he worked in produce; as a kid, I remember my large family receiving large cardboard crates of fruit from my him: grapefruits and mangos and California pears.  As a young adult, reading William Saroyan and John Steinbeck’s California fictions made me imagine what things might’ve been like in my grandfather’s life as a young husband and father, whom he may have encountered. I wish I had known enough to ask him when he was alive, but I lacked that foresight. For years, I schlepped stacks of yellowish ledger paper marked with their red rooster logo from one home to another around the country. I still have a few sheets, but most of it left my current premises at the urging of my office organizer.

Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 11.06.26 AM.png

On my dad’s side, my uncle Tony was the son of one of Delaware, Ohio’s Dinovo Brothers produce wholesalers. An uncle by marriage, he was the third generation of Dinovo Brothers, the produce business having been started by his grandfather, Sam, in 1913. My Uncle Tony sold the business in the 1980s, and then ran a place called Cranberry Resort.

Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 1.11.43 PM

See? Fruity.

Fruit is the thing I pretty much always feel like eating, and there really aren’t any fruits that I don’t like.

But my favorite? Pomegranates, hands down. They’re really only good for a couple months in the late fall / early winter. They taste better out west because they don’t have to travel quite so far. I remember visiting some of the old Spanish Missions in southern California whose gardens boast pomegranate trees full of unharvested fruit. I really wanted to take some of them home, but I didn’t. Some say that the pomegranate was the fruit of the Tree of Life in the mythical Garden of Eden, rather than the proverbial apple.

For those couple of months, I peel and eat the seeds of one or two pomegranates pretty much every day.

Both the Latinate pome (French pomme) and the Germanic apple have more general historical denotation of ‘fruit’ than their present-day specifics as Granny Smith or Fuji or Red Delicious apples. To wit: pomme de terre (that’s French for ‘potato,’ literally ‘apple of the earth’) and pineapple. A pomegranate is etymologically a grainy (or seedy) apple/fruit, because of its tight matrix of juicy seeds (or grains).

Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 1.13.22 PM.png

A grenade is so named because of its resemblance to a pomegranate; indeed, in Modern French, the same word is used for both the explosive and the fruit. Classic grenadine is made from pomegranate juice, and the Spanish city of Granada (and its namesake Grenada) is likely named for the red fruit. The icy Italian dessert granita is named for its snowcone-like grains of flavored ice. And the granite countertops in my kitchen have a slightly grainy appearance, as any granite.

I guess you could say that my love of fruit, like my love of words, is set in stone.

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My shippers are having a baby! Since they are already wonderful parents of a wonderful family, this is the best kind of news.

Their Christmas package arrives December 14th, and I plan to give them some time and space to family without worrying about shipments.

The last set of shipments for 2018 will go out on Friday, December 7th. Any subsequent orders received in 2018 will not ship until shipments resume on January 4th.

While LEXinar costs are holding steady, prices on study materials are subject to change after January 1st, so make your plans and place your year-end orders now.

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Content Enough to Function

I’m pleased to announce a long-overdue new LEXinar: The Content~Function Continuum.

Here’s the flyer:

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 10.01.19 AM

If you’ve received your new LEX Grapheme Deck, or an InSight Deck, and you’d like to understand more about “lexical spellings” or “functional spellings,” this is the class for you.

I’m offering this class twice over the northern hemisphere’s winter break: Friday, December 28th at 5pm CENTRAL Standard Time, or Thursday, January 3rd at 9am CENTRAL. When you register, please indicate which one you’d like to take.

The class includes a printable activity handout.

Please join me! Go here to register.

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2019 calendars are now available!

The cover has been updated (get it? up+DATE+ed!), and the inside features the same beautiful word studies and matrices for the months of the year as before.

LEX 2019 calendar cover

These make great holiday gifts for teachers, kiddos, college students, and word nerds.
Save $5 when you order before December 1st. Contact me for overseas orders.

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Stranger Danger

A longtime client just ordered a couple decks of cards, with this thoughtful and provocative note:

Hi Gina, I appreciate all that you do to help educate those of us who need to further our understanding of how the English writing system works. If you find a spare minute, I’d like to know why /g/ in anger is different than the /g/ in danger.

It’s a fine question, and I have financial paperwork to avoid, so I thought I’d write up a response and share it.

First, there is no */g/ in danger, and that’s the point. What my client actually wants to know is why the <g> in anger is different than the <g> in danger.

Second, we need to consider the Four Questions: what each of the words Mean, how each word is Built, and what each word’s Relatives are, before we can consider the fourth question, which is about Letters and Pronunciation, which is what my client’s question is about. I understand that it’s tempting to ask Question #4 without addressing any of the first three questions, but it’s also lazy.

I’m going to assume that my readers know what both of those words Mean and can use them in a sentence, maybe even the same sentence. Both words can be nouns, but only anger can be a verb; if you want to verb danger, you have to add a prefix: endanger. Huh. Whaddya know? An <en-> prefix is French! Even though Louisa Moats claims that it’s *Anglo-Saxon, it’s not. She’s wrong. That kind of guesswork malpractice crap from well-paid “experts” really angers me, and it’s dangerous to our public dialogue.

Oh, hey, look. An <-ous> adjectival suffix. Also French; compare to Modern French <-eux>, as in heureux. If I want to make anger into an adjective, though, there’s no *angerous. Just angry. Huh. Looks like hunger~hungry and winter~wintry. English has a handful of different <-y> suffixes, but this is the only adjectival one. It’s also the only Germanic one. It derives from an Old English <-ig> suffix, which itself is related to the <-ic> we see in Classical words and the French <-ique> that derives from it.

Once we start talking about prefixes and suffixes, of course, we’re moving into how a word is Built and what its Relatives are. So far we have anger, angers, angry and danger, endanger, dangerous, but we haven’t established the structure of anger and danger themselves. Both have <er> at the end, but is it a suffix? English also has a handful of different <-er> suffixes; some are Germanic, and some are French. The two most common suffixes —  the comparative <-er> inflection as in smarter, truer, bolder; and the agentive <-er> derivation as in thinker, writer, truth-teller — are both Germanic, but neither of those are in place in either of these words. Neither word is an adjective, so they can’t be comparative forms, and their nominal uses are not agentive. Anger is not something that *angs, and danger never *danges. It is also not the case that either word is a frequentative verb, like flitter or stammer.

In the entry for one of its six <-er> suffixes, my Mactionary lists danger as an example of a noun with an <-er> “ending corresponding to Latin -arius, -arium.

Screen Shot 2018-11-04 at 10.51.07 AM

Really, both of those words — butler and danger — are bad examples, because neither of them has an attested Latin root with an -arius or an -arium at all (though *dominarium is reconstructed in the Vulgate). Both of these words were molded in French from Latin pieces, but neither of them are Latin words with an -arius or an -arium in the same sense as stationer (L. stationarius) or vintner (L. vinetarius).

Even if we did analyze the <er> in danger as a suffix, however, it would not be generative, because there are no relatives with a *<dang(e)> base element. The word dang is a minced oath or euphemism for damn, and dangle is a Scandinavian word with unclear origins. Danger is befittingly an adventurer, a rogue member of its etymological family, and its vowel took a leap from the <o> that marks the rest of the family, as we can see in this helpful graphic from LIVE author Scott Mills (which I’ve doctored every so slightly by adding a yellow danger to the circle):


Anger, on the other hand, has a final <er> that is not listed among the Mactionary’s <-er> suffixes, but which derives from an Old Norse verbal <ra> suffix whose descendent we also see in the present day words glitter, blunder, and teeter. If I analyze the <er> in anger as a suffix, then, can I find that same <ang> base element elsewhere? In other words, does it have any generative Relatives?

Well, yes. It does. And I posted about my understanding of them here, on my Facebook page in 2013 (go look). Since anguish and angina are Latinate, while anger and angry and angst are Germanic, one might decide not to include them in the same matrix. I now understand that the <u> in anguish is not a connecting vowel, because there’s no history of a connecting vowel letter in that word; rather, the <gu> digraph toggles here with the <g> to preserve the phonological governance in this Latinate word, just like a <ck> toggles with a <c> in words like panicky or trafficked.

That kind of thing — that toggling — happens in words with Latinate phonological histories, in which a <c> is palatized (or ‘soft’) before an <e, i, or y>. Because <c> and <g> are closely related, of course, the <g> can have the kind of palatalized variance in its phonology. Can have. A <c> does have that kind of variance; a <g> can, but it doesn’t have to.

The palatization of <c> and <g> in English is Latinate. Germanic words do not have an initial ‘soft’ <c> or <g>: words like cent, city, cycle, cell, ceiling, and gem, germ, giant, gym, and ginger all have Latinate and/or Hellenic histories. Latin itself didn’t have ‘soft’ <c> or <g>; the palatization occurred as Vulgar Latin evolved into French, Catalan, Italian, Galician, etc.  Most words that end with <ge> or <ce> are Latinate; those few that are Germanic were respelled after the arrival of the Norman French: once, twice, bodice, ice, mice all had a final <s> at some earlier point.

Every word that has an <ci, ce, or cy> in present-day English has a ‘soft’ <c>, but that does not hold true for <g>. Words like girl, get, giddy, gift~give, gimlet, giggle, gill, gillie, gear, gecko, and geegaw are not Latinate. Words that maintain a [g] before an <e, i, or y> are not Latinate. In native English words like clingy and tangy (related to tongue and tongs), the <g> does not have to ‘soften,’ but it might, as it does in dingy and stingy.

Let’s go back to anger and its relatives. The Germanic members of the family, like anger, angry, angsthangnail~agnail, all have a [g], while the Latinate angina has a [ʤ], and the Latinate anguish toggles out a <gu> for the <g> to maintain the [g]. The Latinate family also includes cousins with an <x>, like anxious and anxiety; the <g>~<x> relationship is common in Latinate families, like Rex~regal or lex~legislate.

Wow. What a cool writing system.

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Several years ago, in one of my university classes, one of my students investigated the words laughter and slaughter, both nouns that look almost identical, but clearly do not have the same phonology. While they are both native English words, their histories and structures are totally different. She learned, and shared wit the class, that words are not necessarily related just because their surfaces look alike; what matters is their structure and history.

One of my teacher’s common admonitions is to “beware of WYSIWYGgery” — there is no dent in dental, and there is no play in display. There’s no <-ing> in bring, and no <-ed> in bobsled. There’s no <sh> in mishap, and no <ie> in cried. It is not scientific to assume that two words that look alike are alike, in any other way than visual. That is a specious expectation: it is deceivingly attractive. It’s not science if you skip the history and the relatives.

No phonological question can be answered with respect for the writing system if that’s where we start, and English orthography is no stranger than any other writing system: phonology is always part of meaning-making. Always. Phonology is tied to meaning, and phonemes cannot be disembodied from words and morphemes and still properly understood. Even a /g/.

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Recently, at the end of a professional development seminar, I called for any questions that participants might have.

“What do you think of Words Their Way?” asked one.

“How about [Some Other Spelling Curriculum]?” asked another.

I nipped that in the bud. I’m a linguist, not a curriculum clearinghouse. It is not the case that I sit in my home office reading and analyzing spelling workbooks; it is the case that I sit in my home office researching and analyzing the English writing systemSee the difference?

I do teach, but I’m not a teacher. I did not build a career trying out (or being forced to try out) different spelling books, so I am not now in a position to pick one that I can like and approve for all the teachers who apparently crave approval and convenience more than actual knowledge. More than a decade ago, I spent a couple of newsletter cycles writing up reviews of books and materials for the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (now Everyone Reading Illinois), but really, it’s not what I do. I’m not a curriculum reviewer. I’m not a pedagogical researcher. I am not your proofreader. I am not your therapist. I am a linguist. I study language, especially written language, especially especially written English. I do that study alone and in company. Like most researchers, I write up and publish my research; I just don’t do it uncompensated for someone else (like a university, a journal, an outside publisher). I do it myself.

That said, I thought it would be good for me to have a place where I can point people when they ask me about spelling curricula. So here it is.

My well-informed professional opinion on spelling curricula is that they are all garbage. They are all based on lists and quizzes, and they all operate from a Phonology Phirst phalse belieph system.

None of them involves investigating or understanding how written words make meaning, or how the system as a whole works. They involve busywork and “activities” like writing stories or sentences, sorting words into various piles, and playing “games” like word searching or scrambles that are generally not terribly helpful for anyone, and absolutely hell on wheels if you’re even slightly dyslexic. They involve pretests and test-tests, every damn week, that have no actual bearing on whether kids are actually thinking critically, problem-solving, or interrogating anything worthwhile.

I get asked about Words Their Way almost every time this question comes up. Because WTW mentions morphology, it creates a false impression among its consumers of “Oh, yeah, I do that.” No, actually, you don’t. While I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge of any packaged classroom spelling curriculum (have I mentioned that’s not what I do?), I can absolutely pinpoint why I think they’re all garbage: because they misrepresent the writing system. Because they include words they can’t explain and then blame the system. They all do that. Every last one.

Words Their Way, for example, pats itself on the back for “doing” morphology, but Every. Single. Week. kids have to work with words that WTW calls “oddball words” [sic]. Now I don’t want to shock anyone, but “oddball words” is not a linguistic term. I frequently hear teachers fretting over terminology like grapheme or participle or allophone because it’s new to them, yet there’s no hesitation to use — and require kids to use — totally fabricated nonsense like “oddball word” as though that’s a thing.

It’s not a thing.

All spoken words are phonetic; no written words are phonetic. It’s really simple. Writing systems, including English, do not write words phonetically, but phonologically. It’s galling that people considered experts in the field don’t understand this. The words onetwodoes, and of, for example, are regularly pegged as “non-phonetic,” but that’s a misnomer. What people mean when they say that is “I can’t explain the spellingbecause I expect it to be driven primarily by pronunciation, and it’s not.” All of those words have an empirical orthographic phonology whose features belong in the system and are shared with other words.

The <o> in <does>, for example, is the only letter that could spell not only the [ʌ] in does and done, but also the [uː] in do and doing. An <o> also spells [ʌ] in son, mother, love, some, come, one, won, wonder, and a lot of other words. There’s nothing “non-phonetic” about that. And an <o> also spells [uː] in to, who, lose, move, through, and a lot of other words. Also, not “non-phonetic.” The <-es> suffix spells [∅z] just like it always does after a vowel: cries, tomatoes, pennies… No other grapheme would work across the <do> family.

Phonics Pholks always phail to consider this phundamental question: What would a ‘phonetic’ or ‘regular’ spelling look like for that word, since you don’t like this one?

Really — think about it. How do you think those words should be spelled, Phonics Phellow? What better way can you propose to spell does, what, one, two, or of?

Let’s take of. You can’t spell it *<uv>, because English proscribes those two letters consecutively, and because English proscribes a word-final <v>. You cannot spell it *<ove>, as in love, shove, glove, because that is a lexical spelling, and of is a function word. In fact, a <v> is a lexical spelling, always. And of is a function word, always. And nary the twain shall meet. Oh, look, twain. That <w> probably explains the <w> in two.

The facts about of, what, does, one, two are all available in the understanding I offer, for people who’d like to stop lying to kids.

Just like a “non-phonetic” word, an “oddball word” — like a red word, a learned word, a sight word, an irregular word, an outlaw word, heart word, demon word, whatever word [sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic, sic] — is not a thing. Real science doesn’t offer a dozen different names for the same entity, depending on which curriculum you’re using. Words aren’t irregular, because all language is rule-based. Words that people call “irregular” are often being crammed into false rules, or at least rules they don’t actually belong in. This is garbage that publishers pass off as “science-based.” I’ve written and spoken about this before, herehere, here, here, here, and here. What these are are words that the author(s) don’t know how to explain.

In WTW, “oddball words” are words that have the same so-called ‘sound’ as the main list, but a different spelling pattern. But that’s only “odd” if you grossly misrepresent the English writing system as a messy, pronunciation-based transcription system. It’s not. It’s not a code. And just because the authors or Words Their Way don’t actually know how to explain, you know, actual freaking WORDS doesn’t mean that we all just have to line up and do things Their Way, which is false.

Here are some of the words that WTW can’t explain, but I can, and have: could, would, should; laugh, though, rough, tough, through,; have, give; some, come, done, love, one; what, said, want. Sigh. Seriously, though, what good is a spelling curriculum if it can’t even explain these enormously common, totally normal words, let alone the actual writing system in which they have a permanent context? Several of these words are in my LEX InSight Words decks; others are routinely investigated and explained in LEXinars. Hey, Shane Templeton, if you’re listening, please take a LEXinar. You too, Donald Baer. Louisa Moats, Rebecca Treiman, Marcia Invernizzi, Francine Johnston. Take a LEXinar — they’re really affordable — but if you’re a spelling expert and can’t afford $150, email me and you can come as my guest. But please, stop putting this nonsense in front of children’s faces. It’s hurting them, and their teachers.

Last night, I met with a high schooler and her tutor to study the words syllable and syllabic, which have a bit of a convoluted history: the former has an excrescent (or unetymological) <l> that was giving them trouble in their study. Throughout our session, this brilliant kiddo understood the evidence that I was showing her, but she didn’t like it, and that showed in her face.

I showed her some other words with excrescent letters, like island and ancient and midst. I entered “unetymological” in the search bar of the Online Etymology Dictionary and showed her how many English words had an unetymological feature in their makeup — and how that fact is part of the word’s etymology. “You don’t have to like the fact that that <l> is unetymological,” I explained. “But it is.” There are, after all, a lot of facts that any one of us doesn’t like. “At the risk of sounding callous,” I told her, “I don’t really care how you feel about a spelling; what I care about is that you understand the facts.”

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The tutor messaged me later: “When we ended session I could really tell that [my student] was still bothered. I asked her what was up and she said, ‘it just feels like how all of my old teachers taught me how to read.’ We talked about how there is a distinction between using history and evidence to explain a mutation [in how a spelling evolves, my emphasis] and just blatantly fabricating a cute story founded on no evidence to explain ‘odd’ spellings that you ‘just have to memorize.’ She understood but still felt triggered. It was such strong evidence of what damage a ‘phonics first’ approach can do to a person. Those scars run deep. I can relate girl, oh how I can relate. 💔

You see that? How all of her old teachers taught her — including with phonics — felt terrible to that kid. And that adult? The tutor? Also dyslexic, so she knows, “Those scars run deep.”  Adult dyslexics — including those who are teachers and tutors — tell me all the time that when they study with me, they feel like they are seeing and hearing their own language for the first time. They tell me that they are taking off coats of years of shame. They tell me that their kids’ anxiety is diminished or gone since they’ve started bringing orthographic fact and critical inquiry to the table.

The answer to the question, “What materials should I use?” is “Any of them, as long as you bring an accurate understanding to the task.”

I’ve picked on WTW in this post because it’s the one I know best. And it is widely heralded among the “reading science” types as the best spelling curriculum out there. And maybe it is. But they’re all misrepresenting the language, so in my opinion, they’re all garbage. And no one aspires to being the best bag of garbage at the dump.

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Hey, hey, hey! Come to this conference.

Peter Bowers will be talking about morphology.

I’ll be talking about phonology. Not that phake phonnicky stuph passed off by the Dyslexia Industry and others. Real phonology.

Douglas Harper will be talking about etymology, and undoubtedly wowing us all with pearlescent metaphor and hilarity.

It’s a trifecta: Win, win, win.

Each of the three of us will have have a keynote and a breakout session, and I’ll be there the whole time with a table full of the most linguistically accurate materials money can buy, including the THIRD Edition of the LEX Grapheme Decks, and — I hope — a THIRD Volume of LEX InSight Decks.

Sure, Chicago will be cold in March. And all the cool kids will be there. Hot, hot, hot.

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Cupcake is in 4th grade. That means more spelling words. It does not mean a more thoughtful or accurate selection of spelling words, just more. Fortunately, we get the list ahead of time, so we’re able to start studying before the pretest. Sometimes, Cupcake has a hard week. Not just school, but she continues to work hard to stay on top of her autoimmune disorder. Some days she just feels listless. I never want to push with word study, but her Mama encourages it. Not only does she do better on her spelling work; she also really listens to our study, really leans in.

This week she is working with 20 words that all have /eɪ/, or ‘long a.’ The list had 7 different spellings for /eɪ/, distributed as follows:

<a>        : 1 word

<ay>      : 3 words
<ai>       : 5 words
<a_e>    : 6 words
<ea>      : 2 words
<e.igh>  : 1 word
<ey>      : 2 words


There’s no rhyme or reason to this distribution, just more footprints from the Assumption of Phonological Primacy. Some of the words weren’t even all that familiar to Cupcake: bail, graze, slate. So we checked in with meaning. Only two words have plus signs, so we made note of those. We organized them according to patterns (graphemes). We looked for bigger patterns and color coded them (final digraphs, medial digraphs, etymological governances…)

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We studied each word, looking for relatives and reasoning through the spellings. We clarified that there’s no such thing as an *<eigh>, that the <e> is the grapheme and the <igh> is a marker, marking (among other things) a relationship to its 3rd or 4th cousin, the , in octave, octopus, octet

Then we zeroed in on the in . Ache is not spelled like other words in that it has two consonant letters between the <aand the replaceable <e>, not just one. Typically, when a <ch> spells /k/, the word it’s in has a Greek origin (like monarch or chrome or chrysanthemum), but ache is Germanic.  It did not evolve with the same spelling as simmilar Old English verbs like bacan (bake), tacan (take), macian (make). The Old English verb acan should’ve become *<ake> in Modern English, but it didn’t.

Why not?

I showed Cupcake and her Mama the Mactionary, which explains, “The modern spelling is largely due to Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, who mistakenly assumed its derivation to be from Greek akhos ‘pain’.” The Online Etymology Dictionary gave us a little more information, which you can go read for yourself. We did this all on Sunday.

Mama texted me on Monday afternoon to tell me the following:

“[Cupcake] gets into the car after school, and as she was changing to go to dance tells me about her spelling. She missed 10 on the pretest… She honestly didn’t seem too bothered, which is great! We have time to keep studying.

“She said,  ‘I told my teacher.” I asked what she told her and she said, ‘You know, about the <ch> in ache!’ I asked what she told her and she recounted what she learned yesterday and even said that the writer thought it was a Greek word and it was actually a mistake! Her teacher commented that was really cool and asked her to share it with the class.

“So here stood [Cupcake]…sharing a slice of knowledge she just learned. Her classmates were like, ‘Whoa! No way!’

“She was just so dang proud of herself. Studying [this way] is life-giving! It’s changing her!”

This kiddo got 10 wrong on the pretest, but ache wasn’t one of them. Neither was eight. Those words had anchors to hold their spellings in her memory, real structural pieces and sense-making patterns with stories attached. Poor kiddo spelled graze right, then changed the < z > to an < s >, I think because I showed her that it was related to grass.

What will hold for her is not missing words on a pretest, or even getting an A on a test-test. What will hold for her is the story of this word, the stories of words, not with some silly, abstract language experience nuance, but in real, structured ways that make sense. The story is anchored in the four questions, which are anchored in our humanity.

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Lists are attempts to go broad, to throw a bunch of examples together without any elegance to tie them together.

Lists are not intended to go deep, not designed or intended to be elegant. Lists are intended to take any thought or discernment out of study: “Here, do this!” they say. “Doesn’t matter why or how, but there will be a test on Friday.” No one becomes a teacher out of a love of lists, though the profession from afar certainly smacks of schedomania.

It’s my job, in working with a kiddo and her spelling lists, to bring sense and elegance and depth to the study. Depth takes time; the word scholarship means ‘being at ease,’ not ‘racing against the clock’ or ‘cramming in as much as possible before the pretest’ or ‘putting it on a poster and selling it.’ I appreciate that Cupcake’s Mama said, “We have time to keep studying,” because things take the time they take.

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I have eight or ten kiddos right now, depending on exactly how you count, and what have means. A couple of them aren’t really mine, but I’m helping their teachers in  mentorships. The mentorships have been a great way to help a teacher make a transition from phonics to facts, and to help launch new student-teacher partnerships on solid footing. I had a great session this week with one of them, waaaaay off in Nova Scotia, with a super cool 4th grader who has warmed up to word study like butter on a baked potato over our 3 mentoring sessions.

“NOTICE how he starts out, for example, with ,” I wrote to the mentee after our session, “saying kinda whatever — *<s-i-h-g> — and we can retrain that and help him notice those patterns [like <igh>].” We do that just by practicing announcing word sums for now. She responded:

“Yes I totally noticed that.  I also notice that you have a definite plan of concepts that you cover in a fairly fluid order, based on feedback that you get from the kid.  Your ease of transition from concept to concept is smooth and effortless.  This work should ebb and flow.  Yesterday, for example, when he gave you the oral feedback to
accurately identify the base and the pronunciation changes with , you made a decision to continue with bound bases yesterday.”I love how you introduce new material casually and then leave it.  And then review it.  It is masterful to watch.  I need to improve how I spiral back to concepts.”Grateful for scholarship!  That was such a great session!”

It was. It really was a great session. She described the kiddo as “half sponge and half Energizer Bunny.” He’s a cool kid, athletic, laid back, creative. But I’ve watched him lean in to this word study. He was prepared to be unimpressed before our first session, I think, but that didn’t stick.

This kiddo hasn’t had any lists for us to work from, at least not yet, so we just work from the language. I’m flexible.

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I have six schools, districts, or administrative educational offices that I’m working with this year, as well as a couple of university professors who hire me as a guest lecturer. I have a seventh educational office engaging me to deliver online professional development to teacher throughout a large geographic region, and I’ve had inquiries from two more entities about next year. In March, I will speak at a conference in greater Chicago, along with Douglas Harper and Peter Bowers.

I also have additional persons and entities attempting to engage me for services that I do not offer, like proofreading, private development for individual professionals who always say they’re too busy to take my classes (but still want to magically understand what I understand), writing up detailed bids for work or proposals for conferences for the chance at a maybe (LOL — no thanks), and “tutoring” (i.e. babysitting) kids without any parent or tutor mentoring or other adult involvement.

People new to my work often assume that they’re the first person to think of a particular question for me. “Is there a book/curriculum?” or “What resource do you recommend?” or “Where can I find a list of base elements…?” It’s ultimately the same question no matter who asks it: “Can you inject me (or my staff) with all the answers so that we don’t have to invest any time in developing an understanding?”

The answer is No.

When people ask me to recommend a resource, I send them links to my blog and my web store. Honestly, why people who do not own all my products and who have never taken a class with me ask me what I recommend is beyond me. It’s not like I’m just regurgitating information I read in some All-Time Linguistics Compendium of Answers and just hiding it from everyone. When I have a question about language, I don’t go look in one place and read the orange print. A Master List of Morphemes doesn’t exist, nor should it, because English has a million words, and the point is to teach men to fish, not to keep handing out lists of 20 fishes every week and having fish tests on Friday.

You want my secret, People? OK! Listen up, ’cause here it comes:


Study other languages. Travel and practice and learn to speak and read them. Get an advanced degree in linguistics from one of the finest academic institutions on the planet. Study with famous genius linguists in the US and abroad. Get trained and certified in the best practices in education. Push past that training and certification and study further. Present at conference. Tutor hundreds of kiddos. Train and supervise hundreds of teachers. Study thousands of kiddos’ data. Keep your certificates current.  Go to France. Go to Canada. Upend everything you thought you already knew. Shout it from the rooftops. Go back to grad school, to study linguistics again, but differently this time. Create a teaching internship in orthography. Start a business. Go back to France. Research, develop, design, and publish several print resources. Research, develop, and teach online seminars. Continue to maintain your credentials. Continue to study words. Learn new languages, at least their writing systems. Study study study. Take time.

If you want a collection of morphological analyses you can trust, I have a few for sale in my webstore.  If you already own them, crack them open. They do not work if you don’t study them. If you want a collection of words you can start with, I have a few for sale in my webstore. If you already own them, and they’re sitting on a shelf, well, that’s just silly.

I’m not saying that everyone has to lead an identical life to mine, but I am highlighting the fact that my understanding is unique and uncommon and not available in some other place. It’s all out there — I didn’t invent the writing system. But asking me for a Definitive Resource just masks a desperate need for a false sense of security. People sometimes tell me I have an ego problem, but in my estimation, the real ego problem is in the educator who believes they have a right to know and understand things they haven’t studied.

I use lists all the time in my study. I don’t make lists, but I use lists. People bring me lists, or maybe I take them from somewhere. I invite my students — kiddos or adults — to psych out the listmakers with me. What were they thinking? I ask. What do we understand that the listmaker does not?

When teachers or administrators or PD professionals ask me for list, I tell them that they can use any list they want. They just need to bring a real understanding to it, and that takes time. If you want to understand what I understand, study with me. There are a variety of ways to do that. But none of them is on some list or in some book that some other person wrote.
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There are at least 4 different <list> base elements from at least 3 different sources, all Germanic. One is archaic and related to listen and loud. A second denotes ‘desire, will,’ but is rarely used on its own; it’s related to lust and lascivious and it’s the base element of the title of this post. Clever, huh? The third <list> denotes ’tilt, lean, incline,’ like a boat listing to one side. That may be related to the lusty one, but its exact origin is unknown / disputed.

The fourth, the most common <list>, the one that we find in spelling list and shopping list and list price and list a property, that one is Germanic like the others, but the senses it has now are a convergence of an Old English word and a French word of the same historical origin. The Old English word meant ‘cloth border, hem, fringe,’ a stripe, a strip of fabric. By the time the Old French version made its way into English in the 13th century, the world was growing more literate, and the word had taken associations with paper and writing — a strip or border of paper, not just cloth.

The associations between cloth, paper, and associated activities are everywhere. Look at text, texture, textile, context.  Look at map and napkin. Look at toilet, toilette, and toile. And bureau.


A list is nothing special, people. It’s a scrap. A strip. Fringe. It’s an incomplete document. It’s a placeholder. People might say that they make lists to help them remember, but in reality, we make lists so we can allow ourselves to forget. No one actually remembers all the shopping lists they’ve made. They’re thrown out, discarded, scraps, remnants. They are edges that remain on the edges. We don’t frame lists. We don’t keep them as mementos. We don’t give them as gifts.

There’s nothing special about lists. But when we bring our well-trained brains to the table, when we study and engage and take time to notice what’s the listmakers were thinking, we can continue to quilt together a deeper, bigger, better understanding.

No bellyaching, just study.

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Technical Difficulties

I had some issues with blog posts over the past week. I wrote one that ended up in the wrong place on the website, and then wrote another that self-deleted when I tried to move the first. I’m pretty tech savvy, but it’s not my natural habitat, so I’m confident that it was my fault and not some technical glitch. I’m still not sure what I did. Usually I draft in a word processor and then transfer the document to the blog, but this past week I didn’t, and it cost me. So if you saw a blog post appear and then disappear, it wasn’t me playing games; it was me trying to move something and losing it altogether. Too bad, because it was a quality post.

To repeat the cliché, Technology is great when it works.

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Sometimes, the trouble we encounter in word analysis is technical. My LEXinars often delve into seemingly esoteric technical points. It’s not because I’m a pedant; it’s because if you want to have a coherent, working system, you need to deal with technical difficulties. That’s true whether you’re operating a roller coaster or a writing system.

A couple weeks ago, I received this inquiry from an earnest and intelligent teacher who’s somehow wrangled her district into paying for her to take *all* of my LEXinars. She’s been studying with me for about a year, and is developing a beautifully consistent and clear understanding.

Gina, she writes. I’m working on a series of matrices to help me work better with my kids. I’m look at <habe/hibe> right now. I came across the word “habitat.” It appears to be a technical term that literally means “it inhabits.” So that would make it part of the word family, but how would you put that in a matrix? Would it go in the circle outside of the box? Have its own box? Something else entirely?

Because I didn’t see this email when it came in nearly a month ago, this teacher nudged me at the end of a LEXinar today. She reframed her question orally, and I said, “I can help you.” It’s not the case that I can help her because I’m morally superior to others; I can help her because I understand grammar and because I’ve studied this very word before. So I found the buried email and offered a response:

“This is a great question!

For starters, I want you to differentiate between inflectional and derivational suffixes. [We had just discussed this in class, so I knew she’d understand, which is not necessarily the case for most teachers.]

Inflectional categories in English are as follows (noun, verb, adjective):
1. plural
2. possessive
3. singular 3rd person present tense
4. past tense
5. present participle
6. past participle
7. comparative
8. superlative

Now I want you to differentiate between productive and non-productive suffixes. All inflectional suffixes are productive. If we get a new noun or a new verb or a new adjective in our lexicon, we will still inflect it the same way: (There were three cyborgs; He googled the answer; That is the phattest blunt evah…)

SOME derivational suffixes are productive, like <-ish>:  My voice sounds so cyborgish on that tape. Or <-able>: The answer to that question is googlable.

SOME derivational suffixes are non-productive, like <-ule> or <-ion>. You can’t just add <-ion> to google and get a noun: *googlion. You can’t just add a <-ule> (node~nodule) to cyborg and get a diminutive: *cyborgule.  No matter how much we might wish we could.

Now, some of our derivational suffixes in English were actually inflectional in Latin. For example, the common, non-productive derivational suffixes <-ent> and <-ant> were actually present participle suffixes in Latin (and/or French). This is exactly what you have with habitat — in LATIN, the marks a 3rd person, present tense verb, like the <-s> inflection in English inhabits. You can’t analyze it as a Latin inflection, because the word habitat in English is a noun, not a verb, and anyhow, it’s ENGLISH, not Latin.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t analyze it, just because it’s in a Latin loanword and has a Latin inflection on the end. We still analyze pleasant as having an <-ant> suffix even though it’s not participial in English like it is in French. In order for us to analyze the <-at> from habitat, it suffices to find another word that has the SAME suffix in it. And here it is (drumroll, please):

< magn + i + fic + at >

The present-day English (proper) noun Magnificat is a Christian (largely Catholic) canticle that is derived from the 3rd person, singular, present-tense Latin verb, magnificat, meaning ‘it magnifies.’ It refers to the Blessed Mary singing ‘My soul magnifies the Lord…’

So you have evidence to show that LATIN 3rd person singular present-tense INFLECTION is functioning as a NON-PRODUCTIVE nominal derivation in ENGLISH words of Latin origin. Both habitat and magnificat bear this pattern. [After sending this I also found requiescat, a funereal prayer (thus, a noun) derived from the 3rd person present-tense verb, roughly translated as ‘may s/he rest…’]

There is also a DIFFERENT non-productive Latinate <-at> suffix in the words format and concordat, which derives from the same Latin stem suffix that gives us <-ate>. In the case of these two words, that stem suffix was used in the Latin past participles formatus and concordatum. We have this same <-at> suffix in words like hemostat or thermostat.

In sum, you totally can analyze the <-at> in habitat, but you don’t have to.

I hope this rehabilitates your understanding and makes you better able to work with this family with your kiddos.”

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It’s a joy to see a teacher even willing to grapple with this level of technical difficulty in the writing system. I knew I could help her — and you — understand what’s up with this word. But in order to do so, it’s not sufficient to just understand spelling; you have to get a REAL grip on grammar too. No fakey-cutesy “Great” parts of speech or lie-binders or silly circle diagrams that don’t make sense. Rather, teachers AND kids need and deserve a real, scientific, elegant understanding of how grammar works.

Recently, I asked a friend and colleague why anyone in our “scholarly community” would accept the repackaged dreck of cruddy old grammar pedagogies as a good thing simply because they have warm feels for the person who produced it. It drives me nuts when someone who studies spelling a little starts offering shoddy classes and hawking erroneous materials as though they are experts, and everyone just lines up and praises the effort because, hey, we’re a community and we have to always be nice and complimentary or else someone might not like us because that’s what (mostly) women worry about.

“Why should I call this my ‘scholarly community’ when being a member of it requires me to check my critical understanding of grammar at the door?” I asked. “Why am I supposed to show scholarly respect toward someone who tries to pass off any and few as demonstrative pronouns [sic]?” I lamented. “Why do people who consider themselves my friends and colleagues expect me to politely smile and nod when I see grammar garbage passed off as expertise?”

“Because they don’t recognize it as garbage unless they’ve studied grammar with you,” she responded. “People don’t understand grammar so when they see that garbage they don’t know it’s garbage.” Ohhhhh, right. She helped me see that just because our broader spelling community understands spelling doesn’t mean that grammar has a good foothold. It doesn’t. People don’t recognize grammar dreck as grammar dreck because they don’t know how grammar works. But, as evidenced in the habitat example, understanding grammar — real, Grown-Up Grammar and not some flaccid 5th-grade facsimile — is a required part of understanding technical difficulties in the writing system. Again, you don’t have to analyze habitat, but technically you can if you know how.

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The teachers who take my classes do not do so out of an abundance of free time. They don’t take my classes because they don’t work or aren’t busy. It’s not the case that there’s a body of scholars who understand this but just choose to “do it” differently. There’s no book I can recommend where you can read up on everything I understand. There is my blog and there is my webstore. People often ask me “where’d you learn this?” or “where can I find that?” as though there is some Secret Compendium for Real-Life Linguists where I go look things up that I then bestow on an intellectually hungry audience of non-linguists.

It’s not like that.

The understanding I offer is my life’s work. I can’t inject it into someone else or refer someone to a Book Where They Can Look It All Up. I can’t make some craptastic video about *irregular verbs [sic] or some putrid *layers of language [sic] graphic smell like a rose. Please. If you want to understand what I’m offering, you have to study with me. You won’t find it in someone else’s materials or someone else’s classes or someone else’s brains. I’m not saying I invented the understanding — it’s all out there, so if you also want to spend 35 years studying language, maybe you’ll arrive here at the end of it. Or you could study with me (unless you’ve overstepped your boundaries with me, in which case, technically,  you can’t).

I’m about to start my 3rd round of Grammar for Grown-Ups at the end of this month. It’s so lovely to see this understanding start to blossom. People in my community now talk about form and function, participles, auxiliary verbs, and constituency, in ways that make sense. Someone emailed me this morning to ask if there’s still room. Yes. There’s still room. You can still sign up. We will be meeting 1-2 Friday evenings per month, from 6-8pm Central US time, starting September 28th.

So come get technical: no grammar facsimiles, no fake answers, no false understandings. Just word nerds in our natural habitat.

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