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Ask a lexicographer: part 3

Every now and again, we like to share a few of the very interesting questions sent to us by users of Oxford Dictionaries. Read on to learn about grammatical and conventional markings, the complex origins of a spelling convention, and more.

Which colour?

You can say either. Both have entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, and of the two coloured pencil is the earlier, with a first citation of 1735 (“This gum-water must be kept in a bottle always stopped close, and never dip a coloured pencil into it”), some 64 years before the first example for colour pencil (“A few sets of the beautiful crayon colour pencils”).

The Oxford English Corpus, which monitors language as it is used in everyday contexts, shows that ‘coloured’ (or its US spelling ‘colored’) is much more common. There are parts of English-speaking Asia, however, in which ‘colour’ is the more dominant form.

When two become one

Theoretically, yes you can; although, as abbreviations go, it isn’t terribly efficient. The missing letter marked by the apostrophe still has to be voiced when saying the word aloud (unlike more established abbreviations such as we’ll and there’ll) and in writing, it saves the writer only one written character.

The Oxford English Corpus does not give very many examples of the ‘when’re’ construction, further backing the suggestion that it isn’t very useful.

To learn more about contractions and other abbreviations, visit this page.

Double the fun

Why do we have double consonant letters? This is, for the most part, because originally in English and probably at one stage in French, there was a distinction between short and long consonants. For example, in early Middle English sune ‘son’ was distinct from sunne ‘sun’. When the following consonant was long or doubled, the vowel sound before it was—or became—short, and quite often when the consonant was short or single, the vowel sound before it was—or became—long. When the distinction between long and short consonants ended, during Middle English, the writing of a double, as opposed to a single, consonant became a useful device to show that the preceding vowel was short, and we still retain this convention (albeit inconsistently). For example: bitter versus biter, chaffer versus chafer, etc.

In the case of “s” there is a further complication: between vowels, the single or short “s” became the voiced sound /z/, whereas the double or long “s” remained /s/. Sometimes the /z/ was respelt as the letter “z”, but English seems rather resistant to this, and “z” is used in spelling far less that it is sounded.

Additionally, the plural ending, spelt –s, which had originally had the sound /s/, came in early modern English to be pronounced /z/. This meant that you could now have /s/ or /z/ between vowels and also at the end of a word where a final “e” became silent and in the plural, and this could follow either a short vowel or a long vowel. Hence a system emerged whereby “ss” was used after a short vowel even in final position to show the sound of /s/, while final –s, or –se,  stood for /z/ after a long vowel (rise, raise, ease, knees, keys). To show final /s/ after a long vowel, –ce was very often used, even in words that have no etymological relation to French or Latin, where this construction derives; so alongside piece, price, vice, etc., from French, we have twice, fleece, etc. (There is great inconsistency here as well, since we also have lease, cease, etc., and freeze, breeze, etc.).

Since there are three other consonants that have to be doubled when final after a short vowel, there may be other factors in the use of final double “s”. Whereas several consonants are single at the end of a word whether a long or a short vowel precedes (pod, food, rum, room, tin, seen, dip, deep, pot, pout), the letters “f”, “k”, “l”, in addition to “s” are single after a long vowel (or digraph such as “ea”) but double after a short one (‘deaf, leaf, puff, seek, neck, [with “kk” becoming “ck”]; heel, hill).


The † is called an obelus (or sometimes an obelisk) and it is used in printed matter for a number of purposes. It can be used to mark a reference or footnote, or to indicate that a person is deceased.

In the Oxford English Dictionary (and some other dictionaries), it indicates that a word or sense of a word is obsolete. The OED provides a list of symbols and other attributes that are frequently found in its entries, all of which can be viewed here.

To learn more about common symbols, visit this page.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.