Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

English – Part 5: Adjectives

© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In Part 4, we looked at pronouns. This time, we'll look at adjectives. An adjective (abbrev. adj.) is a word that describes a noun, a noun phrase, or a pronoun.

An attributive adjective precedes the noun or noun phrase; for example, White in "White House". [Interestingly, in the romance languages, adjectives follow the nouns; for example, "casa blanca" (white house in Spanish, but literally house, white), "monte verde" (mountain, green in Spanish), and "Baton Rouge" (stick, red in French.]

A predicative adjective takes the place of a predicate. For example, a predicate version of "He is a happy man." is "He is happy."

An adjective becomes nominal when its noun is implied, as in "I preferred the old version, but he preferred the new [version]"

Some adjectives can go before or after a noun, as in "proper house" and "house proper", which have different meanings.

Compound Adjectives

When an adjective is made up of multiple words, it is a compound adjective. Ordinarily, these words are hyphenated, as in "easy-going man", "sky-high prices", "10-year-old boy", and "hard-to-get toy". Of course, like all good rules, there are exceptions: hyphenate a two-word compound except when the first word ends in -ly, as in "hotly debated topic", "hastily drawn conclusion", and "mostly unfounded claim". Of course, when used in another context, such as a predicate, the same words do not have that hyphen. For example, in "He is easy going."

Possessive Adjectives

As their name suggests, possessive adjectives indicate possession. These adjectives are:


Possessive Adjectives




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person

his, hers, its


However, don't confuse these with their possessive-pronoun counterparts mine, yours, his/hers/its, ours, and theirs.

The word whose is a possessive adjective.

For example:

  • "My car is blue."
  • "Which are your containers?" "Her bins have her name on them."
  • I believe this is their chair."
  • "Whose turn is it?"
  • "She's a person whose imagination knows no bounds."

The archaic version is thy, as in the Biblical quote, "Thy will be done", from the Lord's Prayer.

See also "generic you" and "determiners" below.

The Generic "you"

If one speaks with a plum in one's mouth, or one attended a proper boarding school, one might use the words one, oneself, and one's when referring to an unspecified person. For example, while in everyday speech we might say, "You must do your best", the more formal version would be "One must do one's best". As one can clearly see, one's is a possessive adjective.


Question: "When is an adjective not an adjective?" Answer: "When it is a determiner." Just when I was convinced there were only eight parts of speech in English, I found that someone (probably a lonely bloke called Ronald who as a child never had a pet) sitting in his ivory, linguistic tower, decided that, "No, some words simply can no longer be consider adjectives! Let's invent a new category and call it determiner, but only on Wednesdays, after 3 pm!"

In a previous installment, I raised the question as to what part of speech is an article (the, a, and and)? All of my dictionaries say these words are articles whereas for all other words, they actually tell me the part of speech. (Just like them to avoid the issue completely!)

To set the record straight, here's a direct quote from Wikipedia: "A determiner is a word, phrase or affix that occurs together with a noun or noun phrase and serves to express the reference of that noun or noun phrase in the context. That is, a determiner may indicate whether the noun is referring to a definite or indefinite element of a class, to a closer or more distant element, to an element belonging to a specified person or thing, to a particular number or quantity, etc. Common kinds of determiners include definite and indefinite articles (like the English the and a or an), demonstratives (this and that), possessive determiners (my and their), and quantifiers (many, few and several)."

As suggested above, another group of words that fall into this category is cardinal numbers. For example, "those 10 books", "the three little pigs", and "the seven wonders of the world". On the other hand, the ordinal numbers—first, second, third, and so on—are adjectives.

Adjective Order

It is quite common to apply multiple adjectives to the same noun. For example, "a little old lady" and "the big red shiny ball". In such cases, is there a suggested or required order for them? The hyperlink for this section leads to a detailed explanation, but here's the gist of what Wikipedia says in this regard. ' … the adjective order in English is Determiners, Observation, Size and shape, Age, Color, Origin, Material, Qualifier … adjectives pertaining to size precede adjectives pertaining to age ("little old", not "old little"), which in turn generally precede adjectives pertaining to color ("old white", not "white old"). So, we would say "One (quantity) nice (opinion) little (size) round (shape) old (age) white (color) brick (material) house."' To borrow from Winston Churchill, the complexity of that previous sentence "is something up with which I will not put".

Comparison to Adverbs

We'll cover adverbs in a future installment, but a few comments regarding them are useful here. While an adjective qualifies a noun (or pronoun), an adverb qualifies a verb. For example, in the adjectival example, "the slow boat", the noun boat is slow. In the adverbial example, "the boat goes slowly", the verb go is modified. There are many such pairs of words, with the adverbial member ending in -ly. Occasionally, the exact same word can be an adjective or an adverb, depending on the usage. For example, "the tall man" vs. "the man stood tall".

The "fewer" vs. "less" Debate

For a long time now, these two words have been used as synonyms. However, there are those who argue that there is an important difference between the two. The issue has to do with whether the noun being modified is countable. For example, "There is less ice", but "There are fewer ice cubes". The noun ice is not countable while ice cubes is.

What about "The interest rate is less than 1%." Should that be less be fewer? No. While one could count whole percentage points, interest rates are often quoted with one, two, or even three decimal places, the values of which are not, in any whole-number sense, countable.

By the way, fewer is classified as a determiner while less is an adjective.

For more details, click here.


I do have one pet peeve regarding the use of adjectives: despite its extensive use by speakers of American English and claims by various (apparently inferior) dictionaries, fun is not an adjective. We did not have a fun time at the beach. Rather, we had a good/great time. Now, don't let me catch you misusing this again!

English – Part 4: Pronouns

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In Part 3, we looked at nouns. This time, we look at pronouns. A pronoun (abbrev. pron. or pr.) is a word that can be used in place of a noun or noun phrase.

Subject Pronouns

Let's start with the most common kind of pronouns, those that indicate who or what is doing something; that is, the personal pronouns used as the subject of a sentence or a clause:

Subject Pronouns




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person

he, she, it


Some examples are:

  • "I love ice cream!"
  • "You may go to the movies tonight."
  • "She is busy right now."
  • "It was already broken."
  • "They were late."

In most cases, we must first establish the noun being replaced before we can use the abbreviated, pronoun form. For example, in the sentences above, to whom or what do you, he, she, it, we, and they refer? And in the case of you, is it one person or more than one? However, once the noun is established, a pronoun can make things much simpler. For example, "The President came on stage. He thanked everyone for coming; he gave a great speech; and then he received a standing ovation." As we see, once the subject noun is established, all subsequent pronouns that could possibly replace that subject, do so. Consider the following: "John came to the picnic. Bob came too. However, he was late." Presumably, Bob arrived late. If, in fact, it was John, we'd need to use John instead of he. However, if we replace Bob with Mary, the he would now refer to John.

English had the archaic second-person thou (singular) and ye (plural). The word thou is still seen in literary and Biblical contexts, as in "Thou art my God."

While I is always capitalized, the other subject pronouns usually are not. But, of course, English is full of exceptions. For example, "He was married to She Who Must be Obeyed!", and "I know that He is the Chosen One!"

When a noun phrase includes multiple subject pronouns or such a pronoun and a noun, and the pronoun is I, that pronoun goes at the end of the list. For example, "You and I have been invited to the party." And "My parents and I went to the movies."

You might have heard we being used in an unusual manner. For example, Her Majesty might ask one of her subjects, "And how are we today?" (In fact, your family doctor might say the same thing.) Of course, the correct reply: "We is fine, you foxy Mama!" Apparently, such uses are known as the patronizing "we". Then there is the royal "we" (or Majestic plural), the editorial "we", the author's "we", and the non-confrontative "we", all of which you can read about here.

Object Pronouns

Many sentences contain a predicate having a direct and/or indirect object. The personal pronouns used as objects are:

Object Pronouns




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person

him, her, it


Some examples are:

  • "We saw them at the theater."
  • "Mary gave it to me."
  • "The man helped her to find us."
  • "I last spoke to you on Friday."

Like most subject pronouns, we must first establish the noun being replaced before we can use the abbreviated, object pronoun form.

English had the archaic second-person thee (singular) and ye (plural). The word thee is still seen in literary and Biblical contexts, as in "With this ring, I thee wed." When referring to God, for example, Thee is capitalized.

When a noun phrase includes multiple object pronouns or such a pronoun and a noun, and the pronoun is me, that pronoun goes at the end of the list. For example, "Father gave the tickets to you and me." and "Uncle Jack gave my parents and me a ride home."

Here are some common, but very wrong, examples:

  • "Me and Jimmy went hunting." Correct form: "Jimmy and I went hunting.", because the pronoun is in the subject.
  • "Him and me each shot a deer." Correct form: "He and I each shot a deer.", because the pronouns are in the subject. [We could say, "The deer were shot by him and me." or more simply, "The deer were shot by us.", but that doesn't say clearly that we each shot one. Perhaps we both shot all of them, 25 times, after drinking a case of beer; BURP!]

Reflexive Pronouns

When an object is the same as the subject, we have a reflexive situation, and as the object will be a pronoun, its reflexive form must be used. The reflexive pronouns are:

Reflexive Pronouns




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person

himself, herself, itself


The Royal "we" equivalent is ourself, and the indefinite version is oneself. For example, "One can always improve oneself."

Some examples are:

  • "I appointed myself arbitrator."
  • "He patted himself on the back for a job well done."
  • "They voted themselves out of office."

The reflexive form of thou and thee is thyself.

It is not uncommon to hear people mistakenly use a reflexive pronoun with an unrelated subject. For example, "Please send a copy to Mary and myself." The correct pronoun is me. On the other hand, the opposite mistake can be made; "I'm gonna catch me a wascaly wabbit!" Of course, the correct pronoun is myself, but who are we to argue with the dialog of a Bugs Bunny cartoon? [For that matter, many country (and other) music songs introduce such mistakes intentionally to get the words to rhyme.]

The reflexive pronouns can all be used as corresponding intensive pronouns to add emphasis. For example, "I did all the work myself!" The difference here is that the pronoun can be omitted without losing any meaning, whereas in a reflexive context it cannot.

Reciprocal Pronouns

The terms one another and each other are reciprocal pronouns in which members of a set perform a reciprocal action on other members of that set. Examples are, "They helped each other put on their armor." and "They competed with one another for the prize."

Dummy Pronouns

A dummy pronoun is one used where a noun or noun phrase is required syntactically, yet none is needed or even exists. For example:

  • "It is hot."
  • "It is clear that …"
  • "It rained itself out!"

Possessive Pronouns

Conveniently, possessive pronouns indicate possession. These pronouns are:

Possessive Pronouns




1st Person



2st Person



3st Person

his, hers, its


For example:

  • "The blue car is mine." "Mine is green."
  • "Which containers are yours?" "Hers have her name on them."
  • I believe this is theirs." "No, theirs was the red one."

The archaic version is thine.

Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns are used to distinguish one or more things from a set. For example:

  • "This is my hat."
  • "Are these your gloves?"
  • "She goes out in public in that?"
  • "Are those clean?
  • "Please pass me that one."

Indefinite Pronouns

There are numerous indefinite pronouns; these refer to unspecified things. Examples include one; no one, everyone, someone, and anyone (and their -thing equivalents), and none, some, neither, and both.

Relative Pronouns

The relative pronouns are which, that, and who. For example:

  • "He arrived late, which was rude."
  • "The DVD that I bought yesterday was on sale."
  • "The man who left early was a retired military officer."

There has been, and continues to be, a debate about the use of that vs. which. Here is the rule I use: If the pronoun and whatever immediately follows it is necessary to qualify the noun to which it is being applied, use that without a comma; otherwise, use a comma, followed by which. For example, in the following:

  • "Painting Number 10, which the artist painted while drunk, sold for $1 million."

could just as easily have been written instead as:

  • "Painting Number 10 (which the artist painted while drunk) sold for $1 million."


  • "Painting Number 10—which the artist painted while drunk—sold for $1 million."

The fact that the artist was drunk at the time has no bearing on the intended meaning. Removing that clause is just fine.

On the other hand, in "The car that is standing at the curb is mine.", the qualifier is needed.

Interrogative Pronouns

Finally, we look at interrogative pronouns, words used to ask a question. Examples include:

  • "What is today's lunch special?"
  • "Since when?"
  • "Who stole my cheese?"
  • "To whom shall I address the letter?"

The word who is a subject pronoun while whom is its equivalent object version.


I'm reminded of the old joke in which the English teacher asks an inattentive student, "Give me two pronouns." Caught unawares, the student replied, "Who? Me?"

Over the years, I've recommended highly Patricia T. O'Conner's book Woe is I. Should the title of a book on English grammar contain an incorrect pronoun? Of course, like so many other examples in that easy-to-read book, this one is a pun on the very subject it covers.

English – Part 3: Nouns

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

For most of us, I suspect that while we vaguely recall being taught the grammar of our native language, for the most part, we don't remember or care what the formal rules are. We just "know" how to speak in an acceptable way even if it might not be quite correct. When someone says to me, "We done that yesterday." I know that they really meant, "We did that yesterday." From a practical viewpoint, language is more about communicating than correct usage. That said, it doesn't hurt to know how to—and to intentionally—speak and write correctly. People will judge you by the way you speak and write. [For a tongue-in-cheek look at my thoughts about grammar, see "Rex on English and Writing".]

In contemporary English, there are eight parts of speech: noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, preposition, and interjection (sometimes called an exclamation). In this and subsequent essays, we'll look at each. Note though, there will not be a test at the end!

Note that not only did I write, "In English …", I wrote, "In contemporary English, …". The rules may differ between languages, and may even have changed during a particular language's evolution. And then there are different conventions for different dialects.

Many words can be used as more than one part of speech, for example:

  • "I bought a drink." (noun) / "I drink coffee." (verb)
  • "The early bird catches the worm!" (adjective) / "The plane arrived a few minutes early." (adverb)
  • "All children are admitted free." (adjective) / "They gave their all." (noun) / "That's for all of us." (pronoun) / "The instructions were all wrong." (adverb)

Although this series of essays is about English parts of speech, in the spirit of normal, I'll make occasional comments about interesting differences with other languages. Besides, if you ever try to learn another language, sooner or later you'll run into concepts and conventions, some of which are quite different from those in English, and which might not even have an English counterpart.

For many years, many American university students were encouraged—indeed required—to buy a copy of William Strunk, Jr. and E.B White's The Elements of Style. For anyone interested in a more current and eminently readable alternative, I suggest Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe is I. From that book, you can learn something practical each time you open it over a cup of coffee, even if you read only a few sentences or paragraphs at a sitting. [Thanks much Scott for that book, a gift that keeps right on giving!]

Getting Started

As far back as I can recall a noun (abbrev. n) has been the name of a person (e.g., man and Mary), place (e.g., street and Paris), or thing (car and Parliament House). We can extend that definition to include other concrete things such as actions (swimming), as well as abstract things such as ideas (joy) and qualities (honesty).

Nouns can be classified as either proper or common. A proper noun refers to something unique, and, typically, it is capitalized. Examples are John Lennon, Amsterdam, the Earth, Google, the Pacific Ocean, and the Pyramids of Egypt. All non-proper nouns are common, including earth when it refers to the soil rather than the planet. Pets usually have names, and they are often considered members of the family. As a result, we treat their names as proper nouns too. And while racehorses are generally not considered pets, they too have proper-noun names. [Some would argue that a proper noun may consist of a single word only; they refer to multi-word proper nouns as proper names. Using that model, examples are the White House, the Kingdom of Norway, and Doctors without Borders.] Proper nouns and names that identify people may take on titles, as in "Dr. Livingston, I presume" and "Sir Richard Francis Burton". In English, the days of the week and the months of the year are proper nouns, so are capitalized. [This is not the case in Spanish or French.] Interestingly, the season names—such as summer and spring—are proper nouns, yet that are typically not capitalized. Also, while the Unites States of America (often abbreviated as America) is a proper noun, a person from that country, an American [spelled with a leading capital letter], is not, since it doesn't refer to a unique thing.

Verbal and Adjectival Nouns

Many nouns have their root in a corresponding verb. For example, swim leads to the verbal nouns swimming and swimmer, and organize leads to organization and organizer. Some nouns have their root in a corresponding adjective. For example, lonely leads to loneliness, likely leads to likelihood, and absurd leads to absurdity.

Countable Nouns

Another form of classification for nouns is countable vs. uncountable. A countable noun can occur in the plural form, can be combined with numbers, and can be used with an indefinite article (see later below). For example, dog allows dogs, three dogs, a dog, several dogs, and every dog. An uncountable noun is, well, a noun that isn't countable! An instance of the countable noun computer belongs to the family having the uncountable noun name, equipment. We cannot say equipments, each equipment, or use numbers with that word.

A common mistake in regard to countable vs. uncountable nouns is with the use of the comparatives less and fewer. One can have less ice (uncountable) and fewer ice cubes (countable), but one cannot have less ice cubes. One has less time, but fewer hours. Interestingly, the opposite comparative for both words, more, can be used for both countable and uncountable nouns. Can a noun be used in both countable and uncountable contexts? Absolutely! For example, "I eat fruits", and "Some fruits are tropical".

Noun Phrases and Clauses

Simply put, a noun phrase is a phrase that can serve as a noun. For example, "The big black bear attacked the hive of angry honeybees." Likewise, a noun clause is a clause that can serve as a noun. For example, "I know that the flight time to London is five hours."

Collective Nouns

A collective noun is a singular noun that names a group of two or more things. For example, "A committee might have many members" and "She bought a set of wine glasses". Now, when it comes to the names of collections of birds and animals, without a doubt, English has a very large and exotic set. Yes, we all know about a flock of sheep and a school of fish, but what about a congregation of alligators, a bellowing of bullfinches, a gulp of cormorants, an escargatoire of snails, a chattering of starlings, and a gam of whales? To see a long list, click here. [A pet peeve of mine occurs in sports reports in the British Commonwealth. Take the game of cricket (PLEASE!). Sentences like, "England were all out for 95 runs", abound. Now the last time I looked, England was a singular place—it's not multiplying is it? Eek!—so I believe it should be, "England was …". The thing that does exist in the plural is the players on the English team; in which case, "The players on the English team were …" is what was really intended.]

Noun Adjuncts

A noun can modify another noun, in which case, it is a noun adjunct. Examples are oak tree, fruit salad, door key, and chicken noodle soup.

Plural Forms

We've seen examples of both singular and plural nouns, but what are the rules for turning the former into the latter? I remember well when I first read through my introductory German book, which said, "There are eight common ways to form a plural." That seemed unnecessarily complicated, until I started looking at the idiosyncrasies of plurals in English. Yes, there are the obvious ones, adding an s (cat/cats) or es (peach/peaches). But then there are all those "little" exceptions, of which English is so fond: baby/babies, shelf/shelves, man/men, child/children, goose/geese, mouse/mice, person/people, criterion/criteria, and on ad infinitum! And sheep and deer serve in both roles. (So does fish, but fishes does exist.) And then there are nouns retaining their foreign origins. For example, cactus/cacti, forum/fora, opus/opera, and chateau/chateaux. However, if you look in an American-English dictionary, don't be surprised if you find the following: cactus/cactuses, forum/forums, opus/opuses or opera/operas, and chateau/chateaus. Sacrebleu!

Some nouns exist only in the plural form, such as eyeglasses, scissors, shorts, and trousers. Now these all come in "pairs", even though they each represent a single object. Yet we use them in countable contexts, as in "I want to buy some shorts", even if we intend to buy only one pair. However, when it comes to using articles or numbers, we really need to say "a pair of shorts" or "three pairs of eyeglasses", for example.

Quite a few nouns are hyphenated, and care must be taken when forming plurals. For example, three-year-olds and six-packs both have the s at the very end. However, brothers-in-law, commanders-in-chief, and attorneys-general all have the s after the first word.

When multiple nouns are involved, more than one word can have plural forms: for example, gentleman farmer/gentlemen farmers.

Regarding plurals, I'll leave you with the factoid that Japanese doesn't have them! Of course, if that were the end of that story, that would be way too easy, so they invented the concept of counters, which go along with the actual count, and describe some fundamental aspect of the object. For example, in English we might say, "I have three books"; the Japanese equivalent is something like, "I have three flat/bound-thingy book". The word book stays in the singular.


English has articles: the indefinite articles a and an, and the definite article the. Articles go before nouns or noun phrases to indicate any one non-specific thing or one or more specific thing(s). Examples are "a woman", "an apple", and "the men on horseback".

Fortunately, when one learns a new noun in English, one needn't attach an article to it. Okay, but why mention this? Well, more than a few languages classify their nouns as having grammatical gender. For example, in Spanish, which has two genders—masculine and feminine—one learns el señor (the man) rather than just señor, to reflect that a man has masculine gender. You might say, "That's obvious; of course a man is masculine!", but note that, similarly, one learns la casa (the house) instead of simply casa, because a house has feminine gender. All nouns in Spanish have one or the other gender; that's just something to which you have to get used. [At least the gender of a great many Spanish nouns can be determined by the noun's ending, something not true in German. German has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter, and of course, each has its own set of articles. Sigh! My favorite example is der Mann (the man), die Frau (the woman), and das Mädchen (the girl). For some reason, German boys are considered masculine while German girls are neuter! See American writer, Mark Twain's, humorous essay called, "Die Schreckliche Deutsche Sprache" ("The Awful German Language"), in which he put the worst possible spin on that language, but in an entertaining way. And as you might have noticed, in German, all nouns are capitalized.] By the way, Old English nouns had gender!

For the most part, articles are quite straightforward; however, the choice between the two indefinite articles is worth a mention. Simply stated, "Use a when the following noun [phrase] starts with a vowel sound; otherwise use an." Note carefully, that I wrote "vowel sound", not "vowel". Not all vowels are pronounced as vowel sounds. For example, regarding nouns with a leading vowel:

  • an apple
  • an egg but a ewe and a eucalypt tree
  • an Indian
  • an orange but a one-way street
  • an umbrella but a union

And for nouns with a leading consonant:

  • a house but an honest man and an heir, as in the latter two cases, the h is silent.

In American English, the h in herb is generally silent whereas in British English it is not, resulting in an (h)erb and a herb, respectively.

In older, period-English dialog, one often comes across "an hotel". Considering the word's French origin, hôtel, where the h is silent, one can see why a supposedly sophisticated English person might drop the h.

Actually, the rule stated above assumes the article is followed directly by the noun [phrase]. However, while "an orange" is correct, so too is "a big orange". So it's the sound of the first syllable of the word following the article that really matters.

As it happens, an article is not, in fact, one of the eight parts of English speech. So what is it then? I've searched numerous on-line places and comprehensive paper dictionaries, and not one of them actually answers that question. All they say is that a and an are indefinite articles and the is a definite article! As best as I have been able to figure out, articles are used as adjectives. That said I have seen example of these words used as adverbs.

Although not a grammatical gender issue, due to political correctness, gender-specific nouns like actor/actress are being used less often with the masculine form being used instead for both. On the other hand, with more woman running things, some people classify committee leaders as chairmen/chairwomen, or they simply use chair. However, my experience has been that more and more words ending in -man (such as chairman) are being used for woman as well as men. [The politically correct chairperson didn't appear to get much traction.]


If you have made it this far, no doubt you'll have found that the humble noun is much more interesting that it first seemed, right? No? Surely, the list of animal-group names alone was worth the read!

Stayed tuned for more than you want to know about pronouns and other exciting parts of speech. Now, about that test …

English – Part 2: Pronunciation

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[Due to limitations of the blog software, several symbols used in this essay don't render correctly when written as characters. As a result, in a few places I've inserted pictures of the original Word document formatting instead of the actual formatted text.]

During the past 35 years, I've looked at a number of languages, with a variety of writing systems. [See my July 2010 essay, "What is Normal? – Part 2: Writing Systems".] In more recent years, I've helped to teach English to speakers of other languages. It seems to me that while the grammar for English is simpler than for some other languages, pronunciation can be very difficult, especially in the absence of the diacritical marks present in other European languages. Yes, there are some rules, but there are many exceptions, which you simply have to learn by rote.

English is my native language, and I've been speaking it for some 57 years. Although I have known about pronunciation guides for some years, I'd never taken the time to understand them. Having now spent some time studying the topic, I have a good idea of their intent.

In this essay, I'll look at breaking words into syllables and the pronunciation of those syllables, adding some extra commentary as I go. However, I won't even try to provide complete coverage of the subject. Hopefully though, I'll give you enough information and links that you'll be able to find out more for yourself should you be so inclined. By the way, I'll be focusing on pronunciation of American English.

Breaking Words into Syllables

Each word consists of one or more syllables, each of which is a basic unit of speech that consists of a single sound. A syllable might consist of one to six or, perhaps, even more letters. The process of breaking a word into its constituent syllables is knows as syllabication. The typical way of indicating the syllables in a word is to separate them with a centered dot; for example:

  • hat
  • but·ton
  • e·lec·tric
  • in·ter·i·or
  • en·thu·si·as·tic
  • an·ti·dis·es·tab·lish·ment·ar·i·an·ism

[It is rumored that in parts of Texas, the word shit has at least four syllables, as in shi·i·i·it!]

[The Japanese writing systems hiragana and katakana do not use an alphabet, per se. Instead, they are syllabaries. That is, each character has a sound; there are no such things as an alphabet or letters. Is that normal? Again, see my July 2010 essay.]

The Notation for Vowels

Unfortunately, there are a number of different notation systems for English pronunciation, and some of them appear to be quite complicated. I settled on what I see as the simpler United States dictionary transcription system, which Wikipedia says is, "similar to those used by American Heritage, Merriam Webster, and Random House dictionaries".

For my essays, for definitions I usually refer to Wikipedia and Wiktionary, but for this series on English, I'm supplementing these with the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD).

For the most part, the sounds of consonants are straightforward; it's the vowel sounds—and combinations of vowels with consonants and other vowels—that cause confusion. As such, we'll start with those. (Each word is followed by its pronunciation in parentheses.)

Consider the AHD entry for man:

man (măn)

The pronunciation of the m and n are as expected, but what about the a? Specifically, how do we distinguish this a from other a-sounds, such as that in mane? AHD does this by putting a breve diacritical mark over the a to indicate the vowel has a short sound.

As you might expect, we distinguish different a-sounds by using different diacritical marks. For example:

mane, main, Maine (mān) — these are homophones

In this case, we use a macron to indicate a long sound.

Continuing on with the other vowels, we have the following examples:

met (mĕt)
meet, meat, mete (mēt) — more homophones

pin (pĭn)
pine (pīn)

not (nŏt)
note (nōt)

cub (kŭb)
cut (kŭt)

There is no long-u sound. (See cube and cute below regarding a "long-ooh".)

By the way, just how does one pronounce the word macron? AHD shows both mākrŏn and măkrŏn; it also shows that the 2nd syllable can be -krən (see discussion of the schwa below). And as for breve, AHD shows that brĕv or brēv are equally acceptable.

There are more than two different a-sounds, so it should come as no surprise that there are more than two diacritical marks used in this pronunciation guide. For example:

man (măn)
main (mān)
car (kär)
care (kâr)
hair (hâr)

The two dots are called a diaeresis (or umlaut). The little up-arrow is called a circumflex. These marks can be used with other vowel sounds as well. For example:

pier, peer (pîr)
here, hear (hîr)
ear (îr)

for (fôr) — interestingly, AHD shows fore, four (fôr, fōr)
bought (bôt)
caught (kôt)
paw (pô)

herd, heard (hûrd)
bird (bûrd)
curd (kûrd)
word (wûrd)
firm (fûrm)
term (tûrm)
urn, earn (ûrn)

Consider the following heteronyms:

tear (târ) — to pull apart
tear (tîr) — the thing produced when one cries

There are a number of other o-sounds; for example:

boil (boil)
coin (koin)
moist (moist)
voice (vois)

our (our)
cloud (kloud)
snout (snout)

boot () — uses a double macron
cube ()
cute ()
true ()
soup ()

book () — uses a double breve
tour ()

broom (, )

A difference between American-English and other English dialects is the pronunciation of certain n-sounds. For examples:

news (, )
tune (, )

However, AHD permits both for American speakers.

Unless we're reading a dictionary, we won't see pronunciation-guide diacritical marks (or syllable-separating centered dots for that matter). However, occasionally we might come across some of those marks used in ordinary English-language typesetting. The diaeresis is one example. Consider the following words:


In these cases, the vowel with the diaeresis is pronounced separately from the preceding vowel; that is, the two vowels do not make a diphthong.

[Note carefully that some of these diacritical marks have entirely different meanings when used in writing other languages. For example, German allows an umlaut on its a, o, and u, while French allows a circumflex on its e.]

The Notation for Consonants

According to the literature, the following consonants each have only one pronunciation: b, d, f, j, k, l, m, p, r, t, v, w, y, and z. However, one exception I've noted is that the d in schedule is pronounced j.

For the most part, the letter c sounds like k, but sometimes s. The combination ch is treated separately. For example:

cat (kăt)

face (fās)
cent (sĕnt)

catch (kăch)
check (chĕk)

scheme (skēm) — not the usual ch-sound

In American English, schedule is pronounced without the h, while in British English, that word is pronounced without the c.

The letter g has its own sound, but sometimes is pronounced j. For example:

gag (găg)
gauge (gāj)
sponge (spŭnj)
gem (jĕm)

high (hī) — an exception

The letter h has its own sound except in the combination wh (or th, ch, and sh). For example:

hat (hăt)
host (hōst)

where (hwâr, wâr)
when (hwĕn, wĕn)
which (hwĭch, wĭch)
while (hwīl, wīl)

The letter n has its own sound except in the combination ng. For example:

ran (răn)
rang (răng)

change (chānj) — here the ng is treated as nj

The letter q has no sound of its own; it uses that for k. For example:

quack (kwăk)
quite (kwīt)
queue ()
plaque (plăk)

The letter s has its own sound except in the combination sh. For example:

since (sĭns)
stone (stōn)

cash, cache (kăsh)
shine (shīn)

The letter t has its own sound except in the combination th. For example:

tent (tĕnt)

thin (thĭn)
three (thrē)

this (thĭs) — a slightly different th-sound

The letter x is usually pronounced ks, but sometimes z (as in words prefixed with xeno and xylo). For example:

box (bŏks)
mixed (mĭkst)

Unpronounced Letters

English has many words with letters that are not voiced. Here are some examples:

halve (hăv, häv)
scent (sĕnt)
knot (nŏt)
whole (hōl)
hour (our)
ghost (gōst)

Multisyllabic Words

Thus far, we've looked only at words containing one syllable. When a word has multiple syllables the possibility exists for stress (or emphasis) to be placed on one syllable over another. For example, in the word con·tro·ver·sy, people disagree as to whether the stress goes on the first or the second syllable. (AHD says "the first".)

Consider the following examples:

go·ing (gō′ĭng)
pret·ty (prĭt′ē)
em·brace (ĕm-brās′)
bot·tle·brush (bŏt′l-brŭsh′)

The end of a syllable is indicated by the presence of a stress (prime) character (′), a hyphen-minus (-), or the end of the word. The stress indicators apply to the syllable that immediately precedes them.

[Some treatments of pronunciation define both a primary and a secondary stress character. I have used only one.]

The Humble Schwa

A common symbol seen in pronunciation guides is the schwa (shwä), written as ə, an upside-down-and-reversed, lowercase e. According to Wikipedia, it's "an unstressed and toneless neutral vowel sound in some languages" and "is the most common vowel sound" in English. Here are some examples of its use:

doz·en (duz′ən)
cir·cus (sûr′kəs)
i·tem (ī′təm)
gal·lop (găl′əp)
po·ta·to (pə-tā′tō)

The "zh" Sound

The final sound is zh. Here are some examples:

tel·e·vi·sion (tĕl′ə-vĭzh′ən)
pleas·ure (plĕzh′ər)
ga·rage (gə-räzh′)

The Many Faces of "ough"

This letter combination has one of the most diverse sets of different pronunciations. For example:

chough (chŭf)
plough (plou)
slough (sl, slou)
though (thō)
bought (bôt)
cough (kôf, kŏf)


After a year in the US (in Chicago), I moved to northern Virginia, some 22 miles (40 kms) west of the National capital, Washington DC. Back then, the main road to my city was Route 7. Using my Australian English knowledge, I dared to pronounced route as rt, for which I not only received grief, but there were people who claimed to have no idea what I was talking about. The locals pronounced it the same as the word rout. Since then, I've met many American speakers who use one or the other forms, and AHD blesses both. To those who insist its pronounced rout, I point them to the famous American highway Route 66, which I've only ever heard pronounced as rt.

This essay concentrates on American English, but not all Americans speak alike. And for some words it is quite acceptable to have more than one pronunciation. Rules are good, but if there is one thing we can say for sure about English is there are almost always exceptions to the rules. And since there are no pronunciation police (yet) here in the US, regardless of what the rules are, for those of us trying to understand Americans when they speak, we need to be ready for variations. (Now whether they have anything worth listening to is another matter altogether!)

Now and again, I'm exposed to news and business reports on a BBC TV channel. The pronunciation of the following words by its newsreaders and reporters compared with those from the US always jump out at me:

Iraq (is it ĭ·răk, ĭ·räk, or ī·răk?)
The Finnish technology company Nokia

Oh, and by the way, never put the em-fä′sĭs on the wrong sĭl-ä′bəl, and when pronouncing things don't forget to use your dental fricatives!

English – Part 1: A Potpourri

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I was born and raised in Australia, and while English is my native language, to be sure, Australian English is a dialect. I've now lived in the US for 32 years, y'all, where they practice another dialect, along with some different spellings and pronunciations, and a whole other vocabulary.

For the past 30 years, I've traveled widely and met and done business with many people who spoke yet other dialects of English. And many of them spoke English as a second, third, or even fourth language.

Some 25 years ago, a series called The Story of English was shown on US television. In nine parts, it detailed the development of the English Language around the world. What intrigued me most was the occasional use of subtitles, not as closed-captioning for deaf viewers, but as an aid to understanding what some people were actually saying. I recall thinking, "These people may well be speaking their dialect of English, but I sure as heck don't understand a word they are saying!"

I am reminded of some international meetings I chaired 20 years ago that were attended by a Scotsman. The group's members were not at all shy about agreeing or disagreeing strongly with each other's presentations, and after any member spoke, there usually was a lively discussion. However, each time the Scotsman spoke there was complete silence, and it took me a while to figure out that no one else had understood him. For the most part, I managed to follow his presentation, so as chair, I took on the job of paraphrasing some of his points, so others could comment.

Different Regional and National Dialects

The dialects of English with which I am most familiar are Australian, British, and American. [With Australia being a member of the British Commonwealth, Australian English is an outgrowth of British English, and started evolving 10 minutes after the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay in 1788.]

In 1979, I was at a travel agent's office in Adelaide, Australia, planning a one-way trip to the US where I was to work for at least a year. I was given a booklet containing 500 words and phrases in Australian English and their equivalent in American English. At the time, I thought it was a rather silly idea, but once I'd been in the US a while I discovered that there were substantial differences in vocabulary and meaning. The problems came in two flavors: using words listeners didn't understand, and using words they understood to mean something entirely different. Here are a few examples:

  • Biscuits and gravy – Watch enough American movies or TV shows and you'll come across people eating this for breakfast. However, in British English, a sweet biscuit is what American English calls a cookie while a savory biscuit is called a cracker. On the other hand, in American English a biscuit is what British English calls a scone. [While I have met Americans who know what a scone is, most of them pronounce the one as in phone, while British English says it as on.] Regarding gravy, to me, that was brown and you had it with a roast dinner. As to why anyone would want to smother it on their cookies was a mystery to me. As it happens, breakfast gravy in America is white and thick, and often has bits of sausage in it. So once I saw what this concoction actually looked like, it seemed quite appealing and tasted even better. [Originally a southern tradition, this dish is now widely available throughout the US.]
  • Peanut butter and jelly – Again, from my TV- and movie-watching experience, I knew what peanut butter was; it just happened to be called peanut paste in my country. But it was the jelly that sounded strange. To me, jelly was that colored gelatinous desert one made from a box of powder. In the US, that product goes by its trade name, Jell-O. To Americans, jelly is a clear, fruit preserve, and in the case of peanut butter and jelly, it always seems to be red-grape flavored. Once I got passed the idea of wobbly gobs of gelatin on my peanut paste, I found it quite tasty.
  • Jumper – Our first location to live in the US was Chicago, which is known for cold winters, and winter was approaching. Some friends were asking us how cold it got back in Australia. My wife replied that in winter she usually wore a jumper, but if it was especially cold she might wear two of them. Now, apparently they privately thought that unusual, but being polite they made no comment. It was only when I said that I too wore a jumper in winter that they sought clarification. To them, a jumper was some sort of a dress worn only by women and children. [See an alternate meaning in the hyperlink above.] It turned out that the meaning we wished to convey is met by the American word sweater. [I can imagine why one would want to drape around oneself a person who sweats, but that has nothing to do with keeping warm!]
  • Thongs – Australia has a lot of beaches and Aussies have a lot of free time. They like to go to the beach, especially in hot weather. Now in South Australia, my home state, they often wear thongs to the beach, and many non-Aussies might think that's okay. But when an American hears that Aussies are quite happy to wear their thongs when they "go down the street" or "in the supermarket or bank", they come up with an interesting image. To me, thongs were rubber sandals, that some people call flip-flops. As I have since discovered, the singular thong denotes a very brief covering for ones nether regions.
  • Iced coffee – This one sounds simple enough that it's hard to imagine any confusion. Yet to me, its coffee-flavored milk while in the US, I discovered it was simply cold coffee, made with water.
  • Soda – I grew up buying bottles of cool drink, but then I heard about pop, soda pop, soft drink, and fizzy drink, among others. [Apparently, soda was also called tonic in some US regions.]
  • Rubber – Down under, we have these on the end of each of our lead pencils. (Remember the Boy Scout's motto, "Be prepared!") To many Americans, who understand this word to mean condom, they find this amusing. What Aussies have, Americans call an eraser! [That said, to many older Americans, rubbers are overshoes, those things one puts over ones shoes going out in the rain, while they knew condoms by a popular brand name, Trojan. In a likewise manner, in the UK, Durex was a popular brand of condom while that same name was used for sticky tape in Australia.]
  • Fanny pack vs. Bum bag – To Americans, a fanny pack is a zippered pouch you wear around your waist. However, given the vulgar meaning of the word fanny in British and Aussie English, they've come up with an alternate name, bum bag. Since Aussies wear it on their front and not on their bum, that does seem odd. But then bum means something quite different in America. Go figure! [To older Americans from states more closely associated with British English, bum does indeed refer to buttocks.]

One of the most surprising things I've learned about differences was to do with regional vocabularies. After having traveled to many countries while based in the US, I started to explore Australia, visiting parts of my own state I'd never gone to before as well as other states. I very quickly found that the Australia I grew up knowing was not quite the same as that country others 300 or more miles away had experienced.

Those Dreadful Americans are Taking Over the World

Yes they are, but what's your point? Seriously though, the lingua franca of international business and travel is English, with more and more emphasis on some form of an American dialect. [Unfortunately, one of America's biggest exports in that category is the unnecessary and inappropriate use of like. For like some speakers, like it pervades like every phrase!]

Some years ago, I was visiting Australia where I ran into a local complaining about the "excessive" influence the US had on the world. I asked her if she was taking a stand, marching in the streets, or doing anything at all about it. (Of course, she wasn't; she was just complaining about it.) In particular, I pointed out that for many years, what used to be called Chemist Shops were now called pharmacies. Yet I didn't recall that being forced on Australia. Similarly, somewhere along the way peanut paste became known as peanut butter.

If you are tired of all that American influence, remember, "Nothing is a complete waste. It can always serve as a bad example!" In any event, if you recognize a "problem" yet you do nothing but talk about it, then you've become part of the problem.

Getting Defensive

It is not uncommon for people to guess at one's national origins by one's accent or dialect use. However, after some rather negative encounters, I've learned to be a bit cautious.

As you might imagine, when traveling abroad, Canadians do get mistaken for Americans, something they generally deny rather quickly. However, if one listens carefully and long enough to many native English-speaking Canadians, one can hear words like out and about pronounced as owt and abowt, respectively. And speakers from certain areas like to add an extra a between some words. [The joke goes that when officials were picking a name for their new country, they said, "Let's have a C, a, an N, a, and a D, a", which resulted in the present day Canada!]

Well, like Canadians, some New Zealanders are tired of being in the shadow, but for them it's Australia. [NO, New Zealand is not a state of Australia, and NO, it's not on the other end of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Apparently, it's a whole separate country—thanks Wikipedia.] I ran into a rabid Kiwi in a hotel in rural Scotland. My family and I were eating lunch in the dining room when I heard the group at the table next to me talk, and it sounded Orstralian to me. However, when I asked the elderly gentleman if he was an Aussie, he was most indignant. He behaved as if I'd accused him of being English!

Although it's not really a language issue, you may have heard that there is a certain amount of friction between the English and other peoples in the United Kingdom. [That tends to happen when you go around subjugating folks for hundreds of years.] An illustration of this is the Scotsman and the Englishman talking over a beer when the issue of heritage came up. In a loud voice the Englishman said, "I was born an Englishman; I've lived as an Englishman; and by God I'll die an Englishman." To which the Scotsman replied, "Have ye no ambition?"

The Secret to Successful Writing and Speaking

To those of you claiming to have a really extensive vocabulary, I present you with the following quote to test that claim. For the rest of you, you might want to keep a copy handy to impress your friends and to have ready a short and entertaining speech just in case you are asked to speak publicly at a minute's notice:

"In promulgating your esoteric cogitations, or articulating your superficial sentimentalities, and amicable, philosophical or psychological observations, beware of platitudinous ponderosity. Let your conversational communications possess a clarified conciseness, a compact comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement and asinine affectation. Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility and veracious vivacity, without rodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabic profundity, pompous prolixity, psittaceous vacuity, ventriloquial verbosity, and vaniloquent vapidity. Shun double entendre, pruriant jocosity, and pestiferous profanity, obscurant or apparent.

In other words, talk plainly, briefly, naturally, sensibly, truthfully, purely. Keep from 'slang;' don't put on airs; say what you mean; mean what you say; and don't use big words!"

Wisconsin Journal of Education, vol. XI 1881, p. 79, (W.C. Whitford and S.S. Rockwood, editors and publishers), citing The New England Journal of Education.


George Bernard Shaw once wrote that, "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." I think he hit it right on.

Of all English dialects, which do you think is the easiest to understand? To me, it's South African. I find they tend to speak clearly and not too fast.

Regarding people being able to identify someone's dialect, I'm reminded of a time when my (Aussie) wife was playing tennis, and a woman who had heard her talking came over and said, "Don't tell where you are from. I'm good with accents, so let me figure it out." After a few minutes she said, "You're from just outside London, England, right?" To which my wife replied, "Yes, about 10,000 miles outside!"

I have read that one possible way to identify the native dialect of an English speaker is to ask them to say fish and chips. I'm no linguist, but the sound of that simple phrase is quite different when heard across the dialect spectrum.

Finally, let me give a plug to a website and book whose contents were written by my friend and colleague (who, by the way, is not called Dr. Watson). Chris Rae's The Septic's Companion "is an A-to-Zed dictionary of British Slang words and phrases, written by a Scotsman living in America." While the dictionary entries are all available on-line for free, the book has enough clever extras to make it worth buying. Besides, Chris could do with the royalties to help pay for his elocution lessons!