Watch your language — ‘There are leeks in the bottle’

Published 5:55 pm Thursday, February 10, 2022

This column is dedicated to another set of examples of those pesky little misspellings and grammatical infelicities that continue to annoy those of us who are plagued by them when we write and entertain us when we are not the ones making the error. As I’ve said before, the advancements in document editing and spell checkers do not seem to have created a decrease in these kinds of errors but instead have expanded the possibilities of error. Many of these errors are in spelling. Unlike Spanish, which is a syllable-timed language, English is a stress-timed language. This means that we’ll dedicate more time to pronounce stressed syllables and less time to unstressed syllables. Many misspellings in written English are found in unstressed syllables, which are often reduced in speech to a schwa sound (think of the “uh” sound in the unstressed and in this case final syllables of “accurate” and “important.”) These two unstressed syllables happen to be spelled with “a”, but you can find examples in English of all five vowels in unstressed position with a reduced pronunciation. Combine this with a general decline in reading or exposure to the written language and misspellings abound. Here are a few recent examples I have come across of misspelled words.

I saw recently that someone wrote something along the lines of “I like drinks with carbination.” This is a good example of a misspelling in an unstressed syllable, which in this case is the second syllable and it directly precedes the third and stressed syllable. The second syllable is this case is also known as the pre-tonic position. The correct spelling is of course “carbonation” with an “o” but because of the way in which we reduce the vowel in unstressed position, it would be difficult to know it was an “o” without a heavy reinforcement of the spelling system through sustained and extensive reading.

There was a blog post, very sincere and heartfelt, on which the following comment was posted. “Covid has put so many *obsti cles on people, we don’t realize sometimes.” In this case, the misspelled vowel is in post-tonic position (the syllable that comes after the stressed vowel) and again an “i” has been substituted for an “a” that in speech is very difficult to identify as “a” because of the extreme degree of phonological reduction. While writing this column, my own spellchecker resisted this particular misspelling so much that I had to write the word with a space between the second and third syllables or the program would insist on correcting the spelling.

Another spelling error that came across my desk recently was in a communication in which someone was asking “Does it send the message attomatically?” In this case the “t” was doubled at the expense of the “u”, which incidentally along with the “a”, is in an unstressed position, perhaps making it more vulnerable to misspelling. The presence of the double “ll” later on in the word could also have provoked the urge to include “tt.”

I saw that someone spelled the popular, tropical fruit pomegranate with an additional sound, writing “pomergranate.” In this case, it’s possible that the addition of a sound to this word, a process called “epenthesis”, has been motivated by the anticipation of the upcoming “r” at the end of the consonant cluster “gr.”

Some misspellings are due to a confusion between homonyms or words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently and have different meanings. A student e-mailing to let me know about his schedule wrote “That means on Friday I’ll have a 10 minute brake between classes.” Another very sweet student wrote to thank me for my “time and patients.” And in corresponding to a third student about something he had read but not gotten correctly, he wrote by way of explanation, “I missed read what the e-mail said.” Here the student has converted a morpheme or part of a word (in this case a prefix) into a separate word. And I couldn’t help but stop for a second read when I saw a short, handwritten note attached to one of a set of large plastic bottles on campus, ready for water delivery pick up, that appeared to read “There are leeks in this bottle at the bottom.” To be fair, it was most likely written quickly and when I looked closely, it was possible to discern a slight distinction between the formation of the first and second vowels. But from a distance it made me think of a bottle filled with green, odoriferous leeks.

I’ll close with some humorous and thematically paired misspellings that showed up in an e-mail correspondence I had with a fellow foreign language professor. She had been feeding a stray kitten who was hiding under some construction materials, and she’d asked me if I could feed it one day because she was going to be travelling. I was not able to find the kitten so I wrote to her that I couldn’t find the pallet under which the kitten was hiding, except that I wrote “I can’t find the palate where the kitten is hiding.” I didn’t actually see the misspelling until she replied to my message. I was pretty sure I’d spelled it the right way. Did I have a moment of forgetfulness? Did the e-mail program change my spelling? Whatever the explanation, I chuckled to see that in her e-mail reply where she explained the exact location of the kitten’s hiding place, she closed by saying “I hope you’ll have better lunch next time you look for her.” What a great companion to “palate.” I did finally find the kitten, fed her lunch, and a few days later my friend let me know that she’d found a nice home for the kitten with a loving family.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.