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Posts Tagged ‘definite’

Some linguist friends and I were recently chatting about spellchecker-generated spelling errors (I know, I know–we need to get out more).  Most computer spellcheckers make errors of omission, such as when you type in their instead of there and it doesn’t notice.  But they can make errors of commission too.  For example, if I want to type in obvious, but I accidentally insert an extra <i>, my computer will read *obivious as oblivious, and before I know it I’ve unwittingly written something that sounds, well, more oblivious than obvious.

Another good example of a spellchecker error of commission is the replacement of *definatly with defiantly, when what the writer means is definitely.  I have long noticed many people who are otherwise good spellers misspell the word definitely as *definately or even *definatly.  It is a very common spelling error even among quite literate sorts.  This common orthographic foible is a perfect example of why the sense and reason behind a spelling matters more than how a word looks, how it sounds, or what a good memory the speller has.

In the conversation, I submitted that these common misapprehensions of definitely could be easily corrected with some instruction in orthographic morphology:

<de> + <fine> + <ite> + <ly>

The problem with *definately is that the suffixes <-ate> and <-ite> can sound identical when they are unstressed, as in syndicate, requisite, and adequate.  When learners are taught to “sound out” words, or taught that the job of spelling is to represent sound, then they are trained to rely on how a word sounds in order to spell it.  That strategy too often doesn’t work.

If we teach that spelling is about representing meaning rather than sound, however then accurate patterns become evident.  A word’s orthographic phonology often becomes more evident when we look at other members in a morphological family, like syndication, requisition, and equate. Likewise, the suffix /ət/ in definite is spelled <ite>, the same as in the related words finite and definition, where the suffix is stressed and its spelling thus more phonologically transparent.  It all seems perfectly clear when we consider the following matrix, which I developed using principles I learned from Real Spelling.

Matrix for <fine> by Gina Cooke

What words can you derive?  Are there words you never considered to be morphological relatives before?  It makes sense that words like finish and final are related, but it also makes sense that finances are finite and that someone who is refined also has finesse.

One interlocutor in the spelling discussion defiantly countered my presentation of evidence from orthographic morphology by claiming that the polymorphemic word definite is the “root” [sic] of definitely, or maybe, he conceded, the “root” was define.  He argued that it’s easier to “just memorize” the spelling.  While that may be true for many, it’s certainly not true for all.  When people suggest that it’s “easier” to “memorize” words for spelling, it usually means that (1) it was easy for them, so it should be easy for others, and (2) it’s easier as a teacher to give students a list of words to memorize than it is to teach them how spelling works.  But I’m not in search of “easy.”  I’m in search of accurate, meaningful, well-defined information about how written English works.

But! This worthy opponent persisted in arguing his case.  Among his chief arguments were the following:

  1. Like the word define, the words abstain, retain, contain, and obtain are all “their own roots;” 
  2. The <de> in define can’t be a prefix because “‘fine’ isn’t a verb in English;” and
  3. “The only morphemes that matter are the ones present in the minds of current native speakers;”

He also threw in some stuff about Chaucer, Shakespeare and Webster.

Let’s consider these points one by one.

1. Like the word define, the words abstain, retain, contain, and obtain are all “their own roots.”  Or not. The word root is often used with terminological imprecision.  It is used both morphologically and etymologically. For example, if we say that Latin struere, ‘to build’, is the “root” of <structure>, we mean that in terms of its etymology or historical origin.  This is a precise use of the term.  Some people would use it differently, saying that <struct> is the “root” of <structure>.  That is a morphological use of the word, and it means the base element.  It refers to a single morpheme.  In the examples abstain, retain, etc., the words are polymorphemic, or complex.  They all feature a prefix and a bound base, <tain>.  Plenty of native speakers may not be aware of that base, but it’s real.  After all, plenty of native speakers of English are also unaware of me and of the square root of pi, but we’re both real too.  I think that perhaps my debater intended the word stem, which Real Spelling defines as “a complex word (i.e. a base which has already acquired another element) to which a further affix or element is to be added.”

2. The <de> in define can’t be a prefix because “‘fine’ isn’t a verb in English.” This is demonstrably untrue. Here, his argument is that, because words that have <de> + {base} are often verbs, like defog and de-ice, formed from adding <de> to an existing verb.  However, that’s not always the case, as in denude and defame.  In this statement, it is clear that he is relying on his own self-perceptions about the language rather than relying on evidence gathered from an investigation.  Any dictionary will tell him that fine is absolutely a verb in English, as evidenced by the following entry for fine in my Mac dictionary:

verb

  1. [ trans. ] clarify (beer or wine) by causing the precipitation of sediment during production.
  2. [ intrans. ] (of liquid) become clear : the ale hadn’t had quite time to fine down.
  3. make or become thinner : [ trans. ] it can be fined right down to the finished shape | [ intrans. ] she’d certainly fined down —her face was thinner.

If someone’s facial features have fined down, then she has fine features, a refined look, or well-defined features.  Clearly these words are related morphologically.

The OED gives three separate entries for fine as a verb, each with a few definitions.  Here are some of my favorites, along with some compelling examples:

  1. (From entry 1) trans. To bring to an end, complete, conclude, finish. c1374 CHAUCER Troylus IV. Proeme 26 Father of Qwyrine! This ferthe book me helpith for to fyne.
  2. (From entry 2) 1. trans. To pay as a fine or composition. 1599 SHAKES. Hen. V, IV. vii. 72 Know’st thou not That I have fined these bones of mine for ransom?
  3. (From entry 3) b. intr. To grow or become fine or clear; to clarify. lit. and fig. Also, to fine down. 1719 Free-thinker No. 134 6 The perpetual violent Motions…hinder his Mind from fining.

This evidence demonstrates that not only can fine be a verb in English, but that it is also a verb with some meanings that are very close to define.  Whereas fine means “to clarify,” then define means “to clarify completely.”

3.”The only morphemes that matter are the ones present in the minds of current native speakers.” The only morphemes that matter to whom?  Matter for what?  How do morphemes become present in the minds of native speakers?  My conversant indicated that he’s interested in “how language develops regardless of formal education” (emphasis added).

Of course formal education has an impact on what is present in the minds of native speakers about their language.  For people whose formal education taught them to “sound out” words, that’s the first strategy they try.  In people whose formal education teaches Greek and Latin etymology in English, an awareness of those patterns can develop.  If people are taught that the base element in <definitely> is <fine>, then that morpheme will become “present in their mind,” whatever that means.

But formal education, like spellcheckers, can have an impact from omissions as well as from commissions.  If a teacher commits the error of assuming that <define> is a single morpheme, then that’s likely how her students will come to think of it, and they will not likely link it to words like fine or definite.  If she commits the error of calling a stem a “root” then her students may remain confused about both morphology and etymology.

In teaching language, errors of commission like those above are pretty common.  Even more common, however, are errors of omission.  If teachers simply omit any information about the morphological structure of words (often because they are unaware themselves), then students persist in approaching words as whole pieces, or as units analyzable by sound only.  If teachers commit the error of omitting instruction in favor of memorization, then students will come to think of words and spelling as things to be memorized, rather than as things to be studied, investigated and understood.

If my interlocutor wishes to study how language develops regardless of formal education, then he will need to consider both what is committed in the language classroom, and what is omitted in the language classroom.  Or, he will need to restrict his work to 2-year-old children.

Once again, let’s consider where what we think about language comes from, especially before we speak it in a classroom, teach it to another person, or assert it as fact.  Hunches, self-perceptions, inexactitudes and uninvestigated statements about language too often defy reason.  But evidence from the language itself definitely clears things up.

© Gina Cooke and LEX: Linguist-Educator Exchange, 2010

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