language change and slang linguistics and lexicography

Three English singletons

This post comes from Adam Kilgarriff, a linguist and a specialist in the area where linguistics, computers and dictionaries meet. Adam was at Brighton University until 2004 when he set up his own company, Lexical Computing Ltd. He lives in Brighton.


Spelling rules … if only they didn’t have exceptions.

There are three words of English that are particularly vexing. But for them, there would be three spelling rules that did not have any exceptions in everyday English vocabulary.

The first is co-operative. No other word of English has a hyphen that resolutely refuses to go away. Second-hand and vacuum-cleaned are all very well, but we can choose to write secondhand or second hand (and much of the time, we do) and the hyphen in vacuum-cleaned is forced upon us by our bullying of a perfectly good compound noun (vacuum cleaner) into a verb and, not satisfied with that, into an adjectival past participle – poor thing. In neither case can we hold the lexical item to blame.

Next is café. English doesn’t do accents. It just doesn’t. They are not part of the English spelling system. Of course, we need to work out what to do when we naturalise a foreign word that comes with a diacritic, like olé or naïve or lèse majesté, but it is no great problem. We ignore the diacritic or modify the spelling, or recognise it and pronounce it as an anomalous word, and are happy with that – unless it’s café. And then, beset with the English disease of snobbery and not sure if it’s u or non-u to say café at all, or what to do about caff, or how to avoid writing something that rhymes with chafe – we simply give up and leave the thing in French spelling. Alone, deserted, a palm tree waving tragically in the winds of unconcern on its desert island amid the oceans of English words.

The third, and least forgiveable of all, is cannot. We don’t stick words together. We do not write applepie or Götterdämmerung or Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän like our Germanic cousins. We don’t attach articles like Arabic or pronouns like Spanish or whole sentencesful of grammatical flotsam and jetsam like Finnish, Hungarian or Turkish. On the rare occasions where we do do a little compression and merging we leave a marker, our friend the apostrophe, to show that we really have two words in I’ll, or they’re, or won’t. In every case. Every single case, that is, except cannot. No linguist disputes that this is two words. The modal (can) and the negative particle (not) are, from a syntactic and semantic and pragmatic point of view, entirely standard and unremarkable. But, like a drop of blood in a field of snow, like a falling pin in a silent church, like a gleeful demon in a skyful of angels … but for cannot.

Were I a language evangelist, I would not object to “would of” or the greengrocer’s “carrot’s”, or even to the displacement of our delicate and beautiful system of tag questions by universal innit. These are but variations on the theme of the melody of English. But when one, lone, single, obstreperous word defies an otherwise universal rule, then out! I say! Out, co-operative! Out, café! And out, out, out, cannot!

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Adam Kilgarriff


  • Now I could say, “Ah, but that’s the problem with rules. They are prescriptive and then end up having exceptions that make them defective rules. By using the term ‘patterns’ instead, we can see them as descriptive clues to spelling patterns.” But I don’t suppose that would help.

    Actually I like that hyphen in ‘co-operative’. It’s a long enough word for people to be decoding, rather than necessarily recognising as a whole, and in the American spelling (without a hyphen) you start reading ‘coop…’ and then realise you have to change to ‘co-op…’.

    The one that irritates me is the spelling of ‘argument’. There are some pretty reliable and predictable patterns when it comes to adding suffixes. One is that we usually retain the final ‘e’ before a consonant suffix, and I can’t find any reason for dropping it here. Do you have any idea why we do?

    Interesting post, thanks.

  • I’m a little confused by this cafe thing. Is it a problem in the UK and not in the US? All my dictionaries list the two spellings, I’m getting to retirement age and I’m sure that I learned to sight read cafe as a child, and as far as I can tell, the use of the accent mark is a sign of the fonts one has available. When we used typewriters, it was cafe. Now we can add the accent if the font is available, and I personally am too inept to find it while typing on this particular comment box.

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