or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Wrapped Up

In English, we'll often use the same word for different parts of speech, or even the same part of speech used in different ways. Sometimes we pronounce them differently (in "desert" we have "DEH-zert" the noun versus "duh-ZERT" the verb: "read" can be pronounced as past-tense "red" or present-tense "reed"). These come naturally to people who grow up in the language--most of them, anyway--but have to be learned by people studying the language, and I don't envy them that.

Every schoolchild learns early on that tacking the letter "-e" on to the end of a short word will change its pronunciation in a predictable way; it makes a short vowel into a long one. "Cub" is "kub", but "cube" becomes "kyoob"; "rat" is just "rat", but "rate" is "rayt". You can make words up and the rule will still hold; any halfways decent English speaker would instinctively know how to pronounce the vowels in "sil" and "sile".

So given these two qualities of English, wouldn't you think that someone might have noticed the problem with this sentence from a piece in Wednesday's Slate.com?

The rich envelope themselves in their own loneliness, which they then try to pierce in the strangest of ways.

See, "envelope" is a noun, and we might correctly guess that its last vowel is long based on that terminal "-e". On the other hand, the verb form, "envelop", doesn't have an "-e", so it ought to, and does, have a short vowel: "EN-ve-lope" versus "en-VEL-up". And since what's called for in the sentence in question is a verb, well, someone goofed, and no spellchecker in the world is going to catch it.


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