English spelling can be an odd thing. Many spelling oddities occur because the English language borrows so many words from wide variety of other tongues, and those adopted words sometimes bring along the morphological idiosyncrasies of their original culture. This column is about a particular type of spelling oddity that can largely be
blamed on attributed to French borrowings.
The pairs of words outlined below differ in spelling only by the presence or absence of a final letter e, but that single letter can make all the difference. Copy editors and proofreaders alike should take care around these words.
A small collection of French loanwords retained both their masculine and feminine forms when they entered the English language. The two forms differ only in that the feminine word contains a terminal -e that the masculine form does not. In each case, the words are pronounced exactly the same:
(My helpful and knowledgeable readers will alert me in the comments section to any similar French loanwords I have omitted from this list.)
Careful copy editors take pains to match the gender of the word with the gender of the individual the word describes. But extremely careful and sensitive copy editors may find these words even more painful to use. Here’s why:
By choosing one form over another, an editor subtly assigns a gender to the person being described. With good reason, editors are deliberately moving toward gender-neutral writing; it’s one of the major justifications for using singular they. Therein lies an important discussion about gender binarism and othering that is completely separate from my topic today, so I won’t dig into it further. But you can read what we’ve written before about singular they, gender inclusivity, and gender identity.
How is a conscientious editor to deal with these gendered words and still maintain gender neutrality? As far as I know, best practices haven’t been laid down yet. But considering these words come from French, I look to French editors to make the first suggestions.
Gaff and Gaffe
These words both entered our language through French, but the differences go way beyond gender. To keep these separated in your mind, remember first that gaffe is always a noun and has only one definition: a social or political blunder. This mnemonic can help: You might say “eee-eee-eee” (that’s a high-pitched laugh) when someone makes a gaffe.
The e-less gaff has many definitions, most of them involving some sort of pole with a hook or spar on the end or, as a verb, the act of using a gaff. Merriam-Webster’s lists other meanings of the e-less gaff, too:
- Something that’s painful or difficult to bear
- Persistent criticism or abuse
- A cheap theater or music hall (chiefly British)
- To cheat, or to fix for the purpose of cheating
Envelop and Envelope
These two words are more closely related than gaff and gaffe, but, unlike all the previous examples, that extra e changes the pronunciation. Both stem from the Old French word meaning “to wrap,” and there’s some wrapping going on for each.
Envelop (en-VEH-luhp or in-VEH-luhp) is the verb meaning to enfold or enclose completely or, in military parlance, to attack an enemy’s flank — presumably to completely surround the opposing forces. The participle retains the single p: enveloped, enveloping.
Envelope (AHN-vuh-lohp or EN-vuh-lohp) is the noun. Those rectangles of paper and glue used to send letters come to mind first, but envelope describes types of wrappers in all sorts of fields, including acoustics, aeronautics, and botany. In mathematics, an envelope is a curve (or surface) that is tangent to each of a family of curves (or tangents). (Or so the dictionary says; I’m no mathematician.)
Native English speakers (or, for that matter, native French speakers) aren’t likely to confuse envelop and envelope. But if you do need some memory help, pairing the words envelope and antelope in your mind can help you nail down both envelope‘s part of speech (noun) and its pronunciation.
At least, until antelop becomes a verb.
Saccharin and Saccharine
On one hand, this pair belongs in this column because, like the other words listed here, that final e makes all the difference. On the other hand, they should be excluded because, unlike the other words, they come to us from Latin without passing through French first.
Regardless, you can read more about this pair in a previous column, “The Sweet ‘n’ Lowdown on Saccharin(e)“.
Bonus: Six Punny Titles I Considered for This Post but Did Not Use
- To E or Not to E
- Gimme an E! (Or Maybe Not)
- Hap-E Endings
- Don’t You Forget about E
- Help E Help You
- It’s All about E
* Yes, brunette doubled the t as well as adding the e; that’s one of those morphological idiosyncrasies I was talking about. Nonetheless, it belongs in the same group as the other words in this list.