The Ancient Romans Spoke Latin
Deciding whether or not to double a consonant in an English word of Latin origin is easier if you know a few simple facts about Latin
THE LINK BETWEEN LATIN AND ENGLISH
Latin, the language of the ancient Romans, was spoken across Europe 2000 years ago. It is not spoken today, but most of the languages of Southern Europe, such as French and Italian, are descended from it. Although English is not a descendant of Latin, it has borrowed a very large number of Latin words. Some arrived between 900 and 1100 years ago when England was ruled by French-speaking kings (see 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary); while others were adopted by English-speaking academics and scientists as names for new discoveries (ancient Greek was also an important source of such words – see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary).
English words of Latin origin are especially common in academic and professional writing (see 108. Formal and Informal Words and 130. Formal Abbreviations). Spelling them can be tricky. A common uncertainty is whether to write a single or a double consonant in words like aCCoMModation and proFeSSor. The reason why these words give trouble is that their pronunciation is no guide to their spelling – the spelling reflects the Latin origin of the words rather than how to say them.
In this post I aim to present some basic facts about Latin that might help English words of Latin origin to be spelled correctly. Other posts on spelling are 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings, 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words, 62. Choices with Capital Letters and 155. Silent Consonants.
LATIN PREPOSITIONS IN ENGLISH WORDS
Very often English words derived from Latin start with a former Latin preposition, and it is this that frequently helps to create the above-mentioned spelling problem. It is therefore useful to have a clear understanding of what these Latin prepositions are. Here is a list of the main ones:
List of Latin Prepositions in English Words
a/ab/abs- = from ad- = to con- = with/together
contra– = against de– = down/about di/dis- = outwards
e/ex- = out of in- = into inter- = between
ob- = blocking per- = through pre– = before
pro– = forward re– = again/back se– = apart
sub- = under super- = above trans- = across
Some of these Latin prepositions can combine with existing English words, even ones with no Latin links, to make new English words, such as inter-city (see 146. Some Important Prefix Types). However, the occurrences that I am considering here are mostly of a type that do not leave a possible word when removed.
A RULE FOR NOT DOUBLING CONSONANTS NEAR THE START OF A LATIN-DERIVED WORD
An important feature of Latin prepositions is that some (underlined above) end with a vowel (e.g. re-), while some end with a consonant (e.g. con-). This feature is important because it gives some help in knowing whether or not to double a consonant in a Latin-derived word.
One useful rule is that Latin prepositions ending with a vowel are not followed by a doubled consonant. This does not mean that other Latin prepositions (ending in a consonant) always give rise to a doubled consonant (some do and some do not), but at least we can be sure that Latin prepositions ending with a vowel are almost never associated with a double consonant. Here are some examples of words whose Latin preposition ends with a vowel and hence is not followed by a double consonant:
Examples of Latin-Derived Words whose Preposition Ends in a Vowel
Note how the presence of the Latin preposition pro- in profess reduces the difficulty of remembering that there is only one “f” (unfortunately, it is harder to get the later double consonant “ss” right, as no preposition is involved and we just have to remember that the Latin word fess was spelt that way). In the same way, another commonly-misspelt word, referring, can be “proved” not to have a double “f” by the presence of the Latin preposition re-.
A GUIDELINE FOR CONSONANT DOUBLING NEAR THE START OF A LATIN-DERIVED WORD
As mentioned above, a consonant at the end of a Latin preposition is sometimes doubled in an English word and sometimes not. There are two different types of double consonant. In one, the consonant at the end of the preposition is simply the same as the one after it. In the other, which is more frequent, the consonant at the end is changed so as to be the same as the consonant immediately after it.
Most consonant doubling of the second type involves ad-, con-, ob- and sub-. The preposition ad- is especially likely to change its last letter. It can become acc-, aff-, agg-, all-, amm-, ann-, app-, arr- ass- or att-. Here are some examples:
Words with Alternative Spellings of the Latin Preposition ‘ad-‘
The other Latin prepositions with a variable final consonant do not change their spelling as often as ad-, but they do do so in some very common English words. Here are some examples:
Words with Alternative Spellings of Other Latin Prepositions
In order to know when to write the last consonant of a Latin preposition just once, when to write it twice, and when to change it and write it twice, it is necessary to know a little more about Latin. Latin prepositions nearly always combine with other former Latin words, particularly Latin verbs. If you know a few Latin verbs, it will become much easier to make the right spelling choices with any of the changeable prepositions. Here are some very common verbs:
Latin Verbs Commonly Found after Latin Prepositions in English Words
-act (do) -port (carry)
-ceed/-cede (go) -pose (place)
-claim (shout) -press (press
-cur (run) -pute (think)
-dict (say) -rect (control)
-duce/-duct (lead) -sist (stand)
-fer (bring) -spect (look)
-ject (throw) -tain (hold)
-leg/-lect (read) -tend (stretch)
-mit (send) -vise (see)
-pel (push) -vok/-voc (call)
Consonant doubling depends on the first letter of the Latin word after the preposition.
– If this letter is a vowel (e.g. -opt), no doubling occurs (e.g. adopt).
– If it is the same consonant as the one at the end of the preposition, there is a simple double consonant (e.g. ad-dict).
– If it is a consonant that is hard to say after the preposition, the end of the preposition is changed to match it, creating a new double consonant. Defining “hard to say” is not so easy though; here are the main combinations of this kind: -DF- (changes to -FF-), -DG- (-GG-), -DP- (-PP-), -DT- (-TT-), -BC- (-CC-), -BF- (-FF-), and –BP- (-PP).
– If it is a consonant that is not hard to say, there is no changing or doubling. For example, ad- keeps its single “d” before “m” in ad-mit and “v” in ad-vise.
PRACTICE IN SPELLING ENGLISH WORDS OF LATIN ORIGIN
The following exercise is offered as a means of strengthening understanding and memorisation of the various spelling points made above.
EXERCISE: Identify the correct spelling in each pair (answers below).
1. DOUBLE: com-mand
2. SINGLE: super-vise
3. DOUBLE: oc-curring
4. DOUBLE: at-traction
5. SINGLE: pro-posed
6. SINGLE: de-finition
7. DOUBLE: ac-claim
8. DOUBLE: sup-presses
9. DOUBLE: con-necting
10. DOUBLE: in-nocent
11. SINGLE: ad-ult
12. DOUBLE: ad-dict
13. DOUBLE: sug-gesting
14. DOUBLE: oc-cupy
15. DOUBLE: dis-sect
16. SINGLE : operate (There is no Latin preposition)
17. DOUBLE: ac-com-modate
18. SINGLE: o-mitted (A rare change of ob- to o-)
19. SINGLE + DOUBLE: re-sur-rect
20. SINGLE: opening (There is no Latin preposition)
21. DOUBLE: pro-f-fer (This word has two prepositions, pro- and ob-, which share the same “o”. The doubled “ff” is caused by ob-, not pro-)