How to Edit Fiction – 3 – Spell Like a Linguist

Posted on July 15, 2011 by


Before you start working, go back to last week’s post and prepare your workspace in the same exact way. You’re going to have to make this a routine. Pretty pretty please? Or at least do something else to block out the world for half-an-hour. It’ll help you focus and be chilled. Good things!


In all likelihood, you’re a phonetic speller. Most people are.

What does that mean? It means that you have a tendency to base your spelling on the way words sound in your head. If you’ve ever found your artfully crafted “aceptible” or “concience” redlined, you’re a phonetic speller.

If you’re gonna write fiction — correction — if you’re gonna edit fiction, you need to break yourself of that habit as soon as humanly possible. Spellcheckers be damned. (They can’t always be there for you.)

But what the hell else is there? If you remember learning how to spell as a young child, you might remember that for every spelling rule there seemed to be a loooooot of exceptions. So sounding it out seems to be the only option, unless you memorise the dictionary.

Jesus christ, I’m not going to ask you to memorise the dictionary, am I? Am I?

Nah. Here’s how you spell like a linguist: you realise that English doesn’t obey one set of spelling rules — it obeys many.

Listen, I’m down with phonetic spelling. If you speak Spanish or are learning Latin, it’s the way to go: those languages have pretty much perfectly consistent spelling rules. But you can’t do it in English, because English is a borrowing language: we nick words from every single language that has conquered us, colonised us, or immigrated to us. There’s Latin, Greek, French, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Gaelic, Celtic, Yiddish — all sorts o’crap in there. (All languages do this to some extent, by the way. It’s sort of a big tenet in linguistics. You can often tell where a population migrated through remnants of other languages that have been left behind.)

The French and the Spanish have governmental regulatory bodies that say what is and what is not acceptable in those languages (I’m not making this up! It’s true! And also kind of cool), but we don’t. So every language that we “borrow” brings its own spelling rules with it. All you have to do is learn to recognise which words come from which language.


Lesson One: Spotting Etymological Roots

Whoa, whoa. Whoa. 

Wait just a damned minute here. No-one said we were going to take a damned remedial uni course, did they? Where’s all this frou-frou uppity pretentious crap coming from? “Etymological”…hunh. My arse.

It’s okay! It’s okay. Breathe. “Etymological” is the word linguists use to refer to the linguistic origin of words. That’s it. That’s all it means. “Where words come from.”

Assignment One
Go have a look around the online etymology dictionary. Play with it. Ain’t it cool? It doesn’t have every single word ever, but you’ll be surprised at how many it does have.

Back? Sweet. Bookmark that baby somewhere, because we’ll be using it from time to time in this webinar. Did you notice how almost every word you searched for, if it was old enough, came from some other language?

“English” is based on a mashup of Anglo-Saxon, Vulgar Latin (yes, a technical term — look it up), and the sort of French brought over by the Normans in 1066. Which means the two biggest categories of words are what we call “Latinate” (i.e. from Latin and Norman French) and “Germanic” (Anglo-Saxon). “English” didn’t exist before the Romans colonised the British Isles. Think about that for a minute.

Latinate words are super, super easy to recognise. They’re the ones that sound snobby! “Accumulate”, “cognisant”, “ameliorate”, “equestrian” — I could go on, if you want me to…? No? You get the idea? Cool.

Germanic words are, for the most part, much easier to spell than Latinate words. Examples are: “woman”, “child”, “wolf”, “anybody”, “apple”. More than likely, you already know how to spell most Anglo-Saxon derived words. You probably also know how to decline and conjugate most of them, although some Anglo-Saxon rules can be tricky. “Goose” to “geese”, for example, or “mouse” to “mice”.

Decline, declension: Stuff you do to nouns to make them grammatically acceptable in a sentence. Example: “child” becomes “children” when made plural.

Conjugate, conjugation: Stuff you do to verbs to &ct. &ct. Example: “to run” becomes “I ran” in past tense first person singular.

I’m betting you know how to decline and conjugate Latinate words as well. They’re really, really easy, for the most part. You know. “Add -s or -es for plurals, -e becomes -ed in the past,” blah blah blah.

But what about the things you’ll find in lesser amounts? What about modern French or Spanish imports?

Assignment Two

Try and figure out (without using an etymology dictionary) where each of the following English words came from.
i) chutzpah
ii) pathos
iii) squirrel
iv) werewolf
v) adequate
vi) kindergarten
vii) piano
viii) vodka
Answers next week! Some of them are much more difficult than others. Don’t worry if you have no idea whatsoever — just try to make a good guess.


Lesson Two: Putting Ety-whatever into Practice

Now here’s the weird part: I don’t actually know all the spelling rules for all of those languages. I don’t really need to. All I need to do is learn how to recognise the family of languages that produced the word. If I do that, I’m off to a really, really good start.

Once you get practiced at recognising where, in general, words come from, you’ll automatically sort them into piles, and your spelling will improve in leaps and bounds. Get a feel for how things should look. A rule of thumb. (You know what that comes from? When artists used to measure perspective changes using their thumbs. No lie!)

Get in the habit of reading with an eye for the way different languages sound. Use the online etymology dictionary copiouslyLatin and you’ll start adding parentheticalGreek notes to every new word you encounterFrench.


~~ NEXT: Grammar Nazism & You ~~