Thursday, March 18, 2010

Take the Grammar Nazi's Advise

I remember studying phonics as a kid. We had these workbooks, with PHONICS in big bold letters on the cover, slantwise, from lower left to upper right. But I remember the teacher telling us as well that for every phonics rule, there is a phonics exception.

I think this is what screws people up – the exceptions.

Take advice and advise. Both are very similar words. Advice is the noun. Advise is the verb. There’s only one letter difference in how the words are spelled. But, oh what a difference that one letter makes.

Here’s the killer: The C in advice is, of course, pronounced with the /s/ sound, while the S in advise is pronounced with the /z/ sound. Both variations are acceptable phonetically. Any student of English learns to recognize them and know the difference.

But this problem transcends phonics, and goes into the realm of hearing words long before trying to spell them. As children, we learn most of our vocabulary by hearing words, rather than reading them. As we grow older, we learn more through reading, but I’m not confident to say that the amount of words we learn by reading outpaces the amount of words we learn through hearing them first. How many times have you said this: How can I look up a word in the dictionary if I don’t know how to spell it? That’s because, I think, what we remember is how the word is said, not how it is spelled.

To make up for this inadequacy, sometimes we go commando with our spelling. Thus you get people using advise when they mean advice. Because of our phonetic upbringing, it’s easy to think the S gives us the /s/ sound we hear in speech. I’ve never seen it in the reverse (something like this: “I advice you not to do that”) though I’m sure it’s quite possible, but much harder to do because, phonetically, we know there’s supposed to be a /z/ in there somewhere.

Advice and advise are just words we have to learn to spell – and use – correctly. At least, that’s my advise.

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