December 04, 2003

Hammer, jammer, slammer, stammer, grammar

The local newspaper in my home town, out here on the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate, printed a little story just before Thanksgiving about how a book of which I was co-author, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, has won the Linguistic Society of America's Leonard Bloomfield Book Award. (The authors are just tickled pink about that, I should tell you. Bloomfield is one of the true greats of 20th-century American linguistics, and being even vaguely associated with his name made our toes curl with delight.) But to my dismay, the headline in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (11/26/03, uncorrected even in the paper's web archive) was this:

Grammer compendium garners recognition

This misspelling of grammar is incredibly common. And here it got past an author and all the subeditors and printers and appeared in a headline, in a university town, in a story about a grammarian. How could this happen? Nobody misspells hammer as hammar. What's going on?

Taking a lesson from Mark Liberman, I think we should consider quantitative factors. From the elementary 25,000-word dictionary found in /usr/dict/words on most Unix systems (which sometimes contains local modifications), it appears that the number of distinct words in English that end in -er is about five times the number that end in -ar. Interestingly, this ratio of about 5 to 1 stays the same for -mer versus -mar, and for -mmer versus -mmar, and for -ammer versus -ammar. And by the time we are looking at words ending in -mmar we are down to 1. Grammar is an unusual-looking word.

So my guess would be that the frequency of the letter string at the right hand end dominates everything else. Phonologists would doubtless think that people might compare the sound of the word grammar with the sound of the word grammatical to get a clue that it must be an a after the mm (notice, grammatical doesn't rhyme with alphabetical, it rhymes with sabbatical). But people apparently don't do that, despite the fact that it would help so much with spelling if they did. It appears that for human beings, systematic comparison of related word forms is hard, but being sensitive to the frequencies of sequences you have been exposed to is easy.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 4, 2003 01:24 AM