Monthly Archives: February 2014

Thoughts on weirdly spelled names

What’s your name? Though historically the answer to that question was a sequence of sounds (or gestures, in the case of sign language), as of recent centuries it can just as easily be a sequence of letters. When I tell you here that my name is Tim, pronunciation has nothing to do with how I’m identifying myself here—only the letters T, I and M. Of course, I don’t think of my name as solely its pronunciation or solely its spelling; my name is a combination of both.

An interesting outgrowth of this is that there are some name pronunciations that have two or more corresponding spellings. “Is that Kate with a K, or Cate with a C?” someone might ask. Or, “Steve, is your full name with a V or a PH?” On some level we consider Stephen and Steven to be the same—but they’re not exactly equivalent. They’re different names.


How did this come about? Let’s take a closer look.

I see two major groups into which we can divide names with alternate spellings: Those that indicate ancestry or in-group status (identify), and those that seek to differentiate.

Consider the name Hugh. If you meet someone named Hugh, you wouldn’t be able to draw any conclusions on his ancestry simply based on his name, but that wouldn’t be the case if he actually spelled it Huw. Though the two names are pronounced the same, Huw is likely to be of Welsh descent (or have otherwise Cymrophilic parentage).

Another place we see these sorts of spellings is in the African American community. An online discussion mentions LeRoi, Jeighcob, Brookelynne, Makaylah, Rhyleigh and many others as names the participants have come across. These, of course, are all alternative spellings of otherwise common names. (We should take a moment to marvel at these spelling alterations; they demonstrate acute knowledge of English spelling patterns in that we can read them easily.) We could conjecture that black parents might choose to name their child with a nonstandard spelling to concretize in-group identity; these types of names tend to be unique to AAVE speakers.

It should be noted that these types of names are only a subset of a rich tradition of black names, many of which are invented altogether. This tendency was satirized in a 2012 Key and Peele video. There’s also been an interesting Reddit conversation on the topic.

The second group of names with alternate spellings don’t suggest heritage or group identity in any way; they simply differentiate. Examples of these are pairs like Sarah/Sara and Brian/Bryan.

We all encounter names like these on a daily basis, and they’ve made their way into pop culture: We get songs like Ben Folds’ “Zak and Sara,” in which we hear:

While Zak without a C tried out some new guitars
Playing Sara with no H’s favorite song

Another example that comes to mind is the character Jam’ie from the Australian mockumentary Summer Heights High. “My name is Ja’mie,” she says, introducing herself: “J, A, apostrophe, M, I, E. Weird name, I know, but you’ll get used to it.” You’d certainly get a mouthful if you accidentally called her Jamie. (Granted, Ja’mie is not pronounced like Jamie, so it may fit better into the “invented altogether” category of names, though it’s clearly satirical.)

Where do these types of names come from? They seem to be a way to differentiate. This seems obvious, but it’s actually a bit strange if you think about it: It would seem that names originally came about as a way to identify things—to say what something is. But these alternate spellings instead emphasize what this person is not. “Sara” might be somewhat like a Sarah, but she is most decidedly not a Sarah.

An interesting consideration is that we don’t name ourselves; our names come from our parents. Alternatively spelled names, then, may be parents’ attempts to give their child a certain quality of differentiation. A badge that says, “My child is unique.” Could it be, then, more about the parent wanting to differentiate themselves, rather than the child?

Changing the way we think about punctuation

In my work as a college essay writing tutor, I’ve noticed that a lot of people have trouble using punctuation. Now, many people seem to believe that trouble with punctuation stems from a failure to memorize and implement a bunch of usage rules, but I’ve come to a different conclusion: If you’re struggling with punctuation, you simply haven’t yet fully thought through your argument.


Let’s begin by clarifying what I mean by punctuation. Punctuation, as I understand it, is anything that stops a piece of writing from being just a string of letters. Punctuation is what helps us define the boundaries between words and even larger segments. Consider these two examples:

  • No punctuation: Heycanyoupackmyboxwithfivedozenliquorjugs
  • Punctuation: Hey, can you pack my box with five dozen “liquor” jugs?

We have quite a few different punctuation marks at our disposal. Let’s consider a number of them:

Space Line Break Period Comma Exclamation Mark Question Mark
x x x
x. x, x! x?
Colon Semicolon Hyphen Dash Quotation Marks Parentheses
x: x; xx xx x (x)

We use each of these under certain circumstances. We can seek to understand the usage of each one in terms of a series of rules typically learned in school, or we can think about them in terms of the meaning they contribute to a piece of writing. I believe the latter is much more effective. More specifically, the meaning that punctuation contributes is a description of how the elements—the words, phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs—relate to each other. In other words, punctuation reveals the organizational structure of writing. Failure to implement them correctly indicates, to me, not a failure to memorize rules, but a failure to analyze sufficiently. When it comes down to it, writing is a symbolic, systematic way to convey thought. Writing is organized, and one of the ways we organize our writing is through the use of punctuation.

Let’s briefly consider the meaning each of the punctuation marks I’ve mentioned above contributes:

  • Space – Separates words.
  • Line Break – Separates paragraphs, which are conceptual units. A new paragraph signals a change in topic.
  • Period – Separates sentences. (Also used to indicate abbreviations.)
  • Comma – Separates phrases, often for clarity.
  • Exclamation Mark – Lends a tone of surprise or excitement to the preceding sentence.
  • Question Mark – Lends a tone of question or wonderment to the preceding sentence.
  • Colon – Indicates that the following words stem directly from the preceding phrase.
  • Semicolon – Indicates that the preceding sentence and the following sentence are closely linked.
  • Hyphen – Unites two words.
  • Dash – Indicates a sudden change. Used as a pair to inject a thought amidst an ongoing stream, or in the singular to tack on an unrelated thought to the beginning or end of a sentence.
  • Quotation Marks – Indicate speech. May also indicate that a word is not to be interpreted as usual (either to suggest a novel usage of the word or to call attention to the word itself).
  • Parentheses – Indicate superfluous information.

If you have trouble with punctuation and you find yourself wondering if you really need a comma there or if such and such is an appropriate place for a paragraph break, instead of googling for a list of rules, sit back and think about how the chunks of your writing relate to each other. One punctuation mark I bet you’ve mastered is the space; we use spaces to indicate that the things around each space are to be understood as separate words. This seems quite obvious and natural to us. But perhaps you haven’t considered the intuitive possibility of omitting a space to indicate that two “words” should be considered a single entity.

When we get into suprasegmental distinctions, punctuation gets a bit trickier. But don’t lose heart. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Does this part function as a complete thought on its own, or does it rely on something else I’ve written (either before or after) to be understood?
  • How does it relate to what precedes and follows it?
  • Am I starting a new topic here?

You may find it difficult at first. Certainly, any new skill is difficult at first, and a change in mindset can make a task seem more difficult still. All in all, I think this way of thinking about punctuation is more beneficial than expecting you to wrap your head around dozens of rules, which frankly come along with dozens of exceptions anyway. When it comes to writing, we shouldn’t be slaves to detached rules; instead, we should understand how punctuation affects interpretation, and use it to more precisely convey our thoughts.

To drive this point home, let’s consider the following nonsense utterance:

Lorem, ipsum dolor sit amet (consectetur adipiscing elit) ut—eleifend ultrices—vulputate, “Interdum et malesuada fames ac ante ipsum primis in faucibus?”

We don’t know what this means, but to say that we get absolutely no information from it isn’t exactly true. Indeed, we can surmise some things…. We know that “lorem,” “ipsum” and “dolor” are all separate words. We know that “lorem” here is some sort of introductory thought—probably an adverb. We know that “consectetur adipiscing elit” is some nonessential information, and we know that “Interdum et malesuada fames ac ante ipsum primis in faucibus” is a spoken utterance that is also a question. So, while we can’t fully understand what’s written, we can begin to understand some of the grammar—in other words, how the written elements relate to each other.

Exploring the role of intention in the interpretation of messages

In a recent podcast, executive coaches Dave Asprey and Anese Cavanaugh discuss the importance of intention when it comes to interpersonal impact, and their conversation brings up some interesting questions for the realm of the pragmatics of written language.

Anese teaches that our intention forms the base of how our reality unfolds. For example, if you are stressed or angry, the people you interact with will perceive this—perhaps only subconsciously—even if your words and gestures are ostensibly pleasant. In other words, your intention (in this case your bad mood) permeates your outward performance. Conversely, if you cultivate gratefulness, positivity and calmness, you will find that people “inexplicably” are drawn to you. I’m not sure if these things have been studied empirically (I haven’t dug into it), but they certainly pop up so often anecdotally that they’re difficult to ignore.

These findings are curious, and if we consider them linguistically, they fall within the purview of pragmatics. There is something deep within our communication that conveys meaning. What is that “something”: The subtlest facial expression? A nuance in our voice? A shade of gesture? Something electromagnetic?

I am interested in the extent to which these findings hold true in cyber communication. In video and audio chat, for example, and also in writing. We know that the general principles of pragmatics come to play in these areas—but what about all this? They are questions that could be explored empirically:

  • Might an email message written by a flustered sender be interpreted with corresponding aloofness? That is, could a receiver predict the emotional state of the sender?
  • If so, what criteria would affect this: Sentence structure? Word choice? Punctuation? Could we, say, endeavor to calculate the net sentiment that a double space or an ellipsis accords, given a certain context?
  • Could there possibly be an effect with regard to the interpretation of identical messages written by happy compared to unhappy senders? Such a finding would be truly remarkable.