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The word 'explain' has an 'i'. Why does that 'i' disappear when we write it as 'explanation'.

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The written word explain contains an "i". The word explain is pronounced /ɛk'splen/, with no i's. The derived noun explanation is pronounced /ɛksplə'neʃən/, with different vowels. The spelling merely attempts (in no consistent way -- which is typical of English spelling) to represent the different vowels in the pronunciation. Warning: Do Not attempt to make sense of English spelling; go for the pronunciation because that's what's important. Spelling you just have to memorize, unless you get a PhD in historical linguistics. – John Lawler Apr 28 '14 at 17:59
For the same reason a vowel disappears from detain in detention or from ordain in ordination: because you won’t have a long vowel in an unstressed syllable. – tchrist Apr 28 '14 at 17:59
Are you asking why the written 'i' disappears, or why the sound disappears? (In this case, writing seems to be following speech.) – Kaz Apr 28 '14 at 20:54
John, where is the source for that pronunciation? I've never heard explain pronounced that way, it's always /ɪkˈspleɪ̯n/ or /ɛkˈspleɪ̯n/ which certainly has an "i" sound to it. The hypothetical word "explan" would be pronounced distinctly. – Hugh Apr 28 '14 at 23:16
That possibly explains the difference in spelling between maintain and maintenance. Richard D. – Richard D Apr 29 '14 at 9:34
up vote 27 down vote accepted

The question should be: where did that i come from.

If we look at etymonline we find the following: (emphasis mine)

explain (v.)
early 15c., from Latin explanare "to make level, smooth out;" also "to explain, make clear"

Originally explane, spelling altered by influence of plain. Also see plane (v.2). In 17c., occasionally used more literally, of the unfolding of material things: Evelyn has buds that "explain into leaves" ["Sylva, or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesties dominions," 1664]. Related: Explained; explaining; explains.

So it seems that the form explane, probably pronounced much like the current version, lost its final e and to reflect the pronunciation in the spelling, an i was added.

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Like I say, don't expect English spelling to make sense. There is immense and largely random variation in the history and use of every word in the language. And of its spelling. – John Lawler Apr 28 '14 at 18:05
I don't expect it to make much sense, but sometimes there are - at least just below the surface - some nice factoids that can make the memorizing a bit easier to live with :) – oerkelens Apr 28 '14 at 18:10
Anything that helps memorization is unmixed good, as long as you don't try to stretch it to fit everything. As for other facts and other factoids, you can get all you need in David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedias, of Language, and of the English Language. – John Lawler Apr 28 '14 at 18:16
I'm a beginner... I just finished he Little book of Language :) – oerkelens Apr 28 '14 at 18:46

The Latin stem explan- of explanare is to explain in English; the stress is on the vowel a and this leads to an enlargement, a becomes ai /ei/. In explanation the stress is on the next syllable. So we might guess the spelling would be explanaition, but obviously one has kept a spelling that is conforming to the Latin noun explanation(em).

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