Below: Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

English Plus+ News, September-October 1999

Di- or De-? A Spelling Challenge

Is it Demented or Dimented?

Modern English so often pronounces unaccented syllables in such a way that virtually all vowels can sound alike. They all can take on the unaccented "schwa" or "uh" sound.

This can create a spelling problem with certain words and groups of words. Accept/Except is a notorious example.This problem arises with words beginning with the prefixes de- and di-. There is a difference. If you know what the prefixes mean, you can keep track of the difference.

So What Does Defenestrate Mean?
DE-. The prefix de- usually means "out of" or "away from." So the roots of the word deplete literally mean "out of full" or "away from full." That is a little awkward but we understand that it means something close to "empty." Defenestrate means literally "to go or cause to go out of a window." In Latin and many Romance languages today, the word de still has this meaning.

Di-, Dis-, and Dia-
DI-. The prefix di- usually means "two." This is fairly common in chemistry. For example, the compound carbon dioxide means "carbon with two oxygen atoms."

Occasionally di- can be short for the prefix dis-. This normally only happens before the letter v. The prefix dis- means "apart" or "asunder." It actually comes from a Latin form meaning "two," so it is related to the other meaning of di-. We see this in such words as divide (literally, "to see apart") or diverge (literally "to branch apart"). This really is not much different from the current meaning of these words as we can think of these as "to see in two parts" or "to branch in two."

There is also the prefix dia- which has a different meaning, but still, curiously enough, often applies to two things. Dia- means "across" or "through." It also actually has its ultimate root in a word meaning "two." So diameter literally means "a measurement through (or across)," and dialogue means "words across," i.e., spoken with someone else.

What Does This Mean to Me?
So how does this help with spelling? In most cases if you know what these roots mean, you can tell how to spell the word. So is it dimented or demented? Well, the root -ment- means "mind" as in the word "mental." Demented still means "out of one's mind."

For what it is worth, English has several words for "two minds," depending on the sense intended. If a people take different opposing positions, they are doubleminded. If they say one thing but mean something else, they are hypocritical. If it is mental disorder with multiple personalities, there are several different terms, probably the most common being schizophrenic or split personality.

And a Word from Our Sponsor...
For what it is worth, we at English Plus+ have different ways to help you with this spelling problem. (No, if you are a hypocrite or a schizophrenic, you'll have to check elsewhere...) Grammar Slammer Deluxe contains the key to many spelling problems and confusing terms which you can use as a handy pop-up reference on your computer. Our entrance exam program, Verbal Vanquish, has a file called Wordlist which contains critical roots, prefixes, and suffixes to help you increase your knowledge of words in English. We also offer Power Vocabulary from Edicom Systems which reviews in great detail most of the roots, prefixes, and suffixes in the English Language. We can help you vanquish your language anguish.

Let's Correct the Textbooks

Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

This is the third of a series of guest editorials by retired English teacher Donald Hibbard.. English grammar terminology comes largely from Latin, and over the centuries there have been problems trying to fit English to a Latin mold. He may help us re-think some of the things we have learned--even some of the things in Grammar Slammer!

The first installment included the proposition that "A participle, like an infinitive, is used as an adjective, a noun, or an adverb." This idea is in distinct contrast to what textbooks usually say--that "A verbal acting as a noun is a gerund, a verbal acting as a noun is a preposition." In this installment, Mr. Hibbard shows us what he means.

Re-Thinking Verbals

Verbs are the most versatile words in our language. They have by far the largest number of forms. A single transitive verb may exist in 130 different forms. All but sixteen of these are tenses. Those that are not tenses are participles and infinitives.

Tenses--Used only as simple predicates

Participles--Used only as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs

Infinitives--Used only as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs

A basic grammar exercise we all had to do as children or students learning English was to identify the subject and verb of a sentence. Look at the following sentence:

Seeing is believing.

Each of the three words is a verb. Seeing is a participle used as a noun and is the subject of the sentence. Is is a tense and is the simple predicate. Believing is another participle used as a noun and is the subject complement (or predicate nominative).

"Oh, no!" you may be saying. "Seeing and believing are gerunds." Yes, we have used that useless term for ages merely because people tried to make English (the round peg) fit into the square hole of Latin grammar. They declared that a participle was a verbal adjective. Period. Case closed. So they had to call it something else when it was used as a noun: gerund.

Now consider the infinitive:

1. I like to eat.
To eat
is the direct object of like, a noun function.

2. I stopped to eat.
To eat
modifies stopped, an adverb function.

3. It is time to eat.
To eat
modifies time, an adjective function.

In each case, we call to eat an infinitive. Why should we change the name of a participle when we use it as a noun?

Now what about that idea that a participle cannot be adverbial? Nonsense. Let's take a look.

1. The man walked down the street with a limp.
We all agree that with a limp is an adverbial prepositional phrase modifying walked.

2. The man walked down the street limping.
Will anyone with developed grammatical sensitivity claim that limping modifies man? No.

In addition, most sentences beginning with a participial phrase, that phrase is adverbial. In most cases, we could replace the phrase with an adverbial clause rather than an adjective clause.

Running harder than ever, Don broke the record.

If we were to replace the phrase running harder than ever with a clause, we are more likely to say, "Because he ran harder than ever, Don broke the record" as we are to say, "Don, who ran harder than ever, broke the record." While both communicate the same intent, the construction with the adverb clause is more common.

News From English Plus+

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