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I was just wondering why some words in English are spelt in a sometimes illogical fashion.

For example, shouldn't "grammar" be "grammer"?

closed as too broad by Ellie Kesselman, Tushar Raj, choster, ermanen, tchrist May 21 '15 at 2:55

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  • @James You need to take into consideration the pronunciation. Pronunciation influences the way many words are spelt. Also a lot of our words come from Latin, which of course has its own spelling rules. – Dog Lover May 19 '15 at 5:08
  • What about 'analysis'? – James May 19 '15 at 5:08
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    What's more weird is how "weird" is spelled; yet you don't seem to have a problem with that one. Seriously, there are hundreds of reasons why certain words are spelled a certain way that doesn't fit your conception of proper spelling. Words have come into English over many centuries, from many different languages, and continue to be absorbed. Even the spelling of Anglo-Saxon-based words has evolved (and continues to evolve.) Learn as many "rules" as you can; meanwhile, learn the "exceptional" spellings until they begin to look reasonable to you. There is no other way. – Brian Hitchcock May 19 '15 at 5:54
  • "a sometimes illogical fashion"? I would rather ask how it is possible that some words do seem to be spelled more or less logically. Try reading The Chaos out loud and wonder about why spelling and pronunciation are but distance cousins in the English family :) – oerkelens May 19 '15 at 9:10
  • @sumelic: the problem is your idea that English spelling does not make sense. It makes perfect sense. It just encodes more than mere pronunciation. Like in every other language, by the way. Things like etymology, morphology, or, you know — meaning. If it encoded pronunciation alone, that would make no sense, and in the most literal way. Every word would be spelled in twenty different ways, depending on the dialect of the writer. – RegDwigнt May 19 '15 at 9:10
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I'm not sure why the spelling grammar surprises you so much, since there are many other common words with the same ending; a few examples are calendar, collar, familiar, mortar, pillar, popular, scholar, and vinegar. (And if you Google those words together, you'll find many lists of such words, with many, many more examples.)

Historically, -er/-re, -ar, and -o(u)r were pronounced differently (if not in English, then in a source language). The pronunciations have all collapsed into a single sound, but the spellings remain.

(That said, the spellings are not perfectly consistent, even with historical pronunciations. Grammar and glamor are originally the same word; the -r- vs. -l- represents a real pronunciation difference, but the -ar vs. -or does not.)

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The word grammar derives from the Old French grammaire. Now, if this ar ending had the same meaning as the modern -er, we might expect this ending to have been regularised in the modern English. However, in reality the modern word grammar does not really have a suffix with its own meaning, or grammatical job. Rather, it would seem that the word comes as one unit, so to speak.

In contrast the -er ending is a morpheme, it has a meaning or function of its own that is distinct from the base of the word. Usually the base of word ending with the suffix -er is a verb. Adding -er to this base or root turn the word into a noun. The -er ending indicates that this noun represents a person or thing that is the agent in relation to that kind of action. In other words an [X]er is somebody or something that [X]es. So, for example an admirer is someone who admires.

It's easy to see that in terms of the modern word grammar, a grammar is not something that grams! However, it's not altogether unreasonable to ask why grammar is not spelt with -er at the end, because most words with unstressed er and ar endings will be pronounced with the same vowel, namely a schwa, /ə/. There is no easy way to predict the orthographic representation of a schwa vowel in English.

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It is influenced by the French word "grammaire". The words of the Latin and Greek word family concerning grammar all contain the letter "A". See etymonline.

  • Further to this, this is how we get the word "metre". Despite it looking like me-treh, it is actually of French origin, and hence its spelling is influenced by that. – Dog Lover May 19 '15 at 8:25

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