An anticupertino incorrection?

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'Definitely' is always spelled with an 'a' —'definitely'. I don't know why," says Paul Budra, an English professor and associate dean of arts and science at Simon Fraser.

So reports CNews in Canada here.

But I think what they meant was that Professor Budra (who is talking about the disastrous state of the spelling and grammar skills of students in Canada's universities today) said (or rather, emailed) 'Definitely' is always spelled with an 'a' —'definately'. The in-house automatic spelling checks, I conjecture, flagged definately as an error (which it is: undergraduates take note), and they incorrectly corrected it to the correct spelling, which here was incorrect!


  1. Steve F said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    He probably had Microsoft Word's autocorrect facility on, so the misspelling was not even flagged but just silently 'corrected'. I recently produced a worksheet for students to correct commonly misspelt words and encountered exactly this problem – most of my deliberate misspellings, being common ones, were instantly changed to the correct version. Yet another example of Word's infuriating overhelpfulness.

  2. Cheryl Thornett said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    Steve F:
    I, too, produce worksheets with deliberate mistakes for students to correct. Change the settings, and turn off the grammar check! (I usually don't bother to turn either back on.)

    Of course this means you have to be extra alert for unintentional mistakes, but I'm sure you can't be worse than the managers and administrators who put up mis-spelled and ungrammatical signs for English classes at the place where I work. One of my classes, I read on a public display, meets Monady through Thursady. A colleague and I have a competition to see who can spot them first.

  3. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    An English professor doesn't know why definitely is spelled with an "a"??? That's the sad and disappointing bit, not that the students spell it like that. Well, at least to me.

  4. Martin said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    Is the ending a deliberate (or perhaps delibarate) sarcastic exercise?

    "You can go back and read Plato and see Socrates talking about the allegations that this generation isn't as not as good as previous ones," he notes."

    It's certainly odd for an article that bitches about the poor grammar of youngsters. Perhaps it should go under further "misnegation" material.

  5. Uly said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    Spelling definitely with an a instead of an i would be strange to me too, but I don't have a schwa in that part. (I have a schwi. This whole comment was just an excuse to use the word schwi in casual conversation. Schwi!)

  6. Nemo said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    Jarek, the professor is puzzled as to why students misspell the word.

  7. Lazar said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    I hesitate to bring it up, but this reminds me of the time when George W. Bush, in mocking his own penchant for malapropisms, said that he had coined the word "misunderstanding". By which he meant "misunderestimate".

  8. Oskar said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    I'm just glad I'm not alone in being useless at spelling that damn word :)

  9. sjs said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    Years ago, I worked as a journalist in Cyprus. Back then we had WordStar on DOS computers and the president of the island was named Cleridies.

    That name was always replaced with *ahem* a part of the female anatomy. *ahem* Thus extreme caution was required if one wrote:

    The leader of the opposition, wanting to firm up his popularity with women, fingered Cleridies.

  10. Stephen Jones said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    From the link:
    "Instead of 'because', it's 'cuz'. That's one I see fairly frequently," she says, and these are new in the past five years.
    Whilst the same word with the spelling 'cos has been around since the early nineteenth century.

  11. Lance said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    It's astonishing–or it would be astonishing, if I had any hopes for newspaper articles–that this ran under the headline "Students failing because of Twitter, texting", when (a) the article puts much of the blame on secondary-school education and (b) one of the professors quoted says that this has been going on "for 20 years".

    [Yeah; I didn't even mention that grammar failings were being blamed on Twitter! Sheesh, what anachronistic garbage. But we can't get Language Log into the business of why newspapers write such utterly implausible nonsense about linguistic matters, can we? There'd be no end to it. —GKP]

    And, Nemo: yes, the professor is puzzled as to why students misspell the word. But Jarek's point is that he shouldn't be at all puzzled. Putting in an "a" for "i" to represent a schwa sound is an easy error, especially when "-ate" is such a common word ending. To underscore even further why the professor shouldn't be puzzled: a casual Google Books search for "definately" turns up around 750 books, some of them workbooks for learning English (which suggests that it's a common enough error to be included in this sort of thing)–or, say, "Why is the tendency to spell seperate or comeing or completly or dissapointed or
    definately so recurrent?" in a book called "Teaching English in high school" from 1961. Other results are simply misspellings that got published, like this 1901 New York Chamber of Commerce report (which misspells it twice on one page!), or in the glosses in this linguistics paper.

    The point isn't that "definately" is right; it's wrong. The point is that no English teacher should be surprised to see students making that mistake.

  12. J. Goard said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

    Spelling definitely with an a instead of an i would be strange to me too, but I don't have a schwa in that part. (I have a schwi…

    So do I, but I equally have a "schwi" in adjectives with -ate, like delicate. Don't you?

    I'm totally with Jarek. Sure, English professors aren't linguists, but if they are going to correct at all, they should have enough sense to diagnose the obvious learning problems: that -ate is a common ending corresponding to the same pronunciation, that the relationship with "finite" is obscure, etc.

  13. Chargone said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    I'm thinking it has something to do with 'definately' being more phonetic/following the spelling rules more closely.

    Not that that means much. English spelling is just one silly bit of nonsense after another. :S

    Count the number of vowels in this post that, by the 'rules', should be long, but aren't. Then count how many of those are reduced almost out of existence in a given dialect/accent/thing. now look at how many don't even make a sound at all. then how many make the Same sound despite being different. then how many make different sounds despite being the same. it's crazy.

    and I'm not even sure this post contains examples of all of them. in fact, it probably doesn't. (not enough long words)

    gotta say, 'cuz' for ' because' is a new one to me. it's always been cousin so far as i've encountered, however meaningful that isn't. usually 'because' becomes ' 'cos ', or occasionally 'coz'…

    but whatever.

    maybe it's just the collective population trying to rationalise the crazy somewhat?

  14. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

    I too was surprised that the professor would want to admit that he doesn't understand why people write "definately".

    Chargone: "I'm thinking it has something to do with 'definately' being more phonetic/following the spelling rules more closely."

    Lance has already pointed out that it's because of the shwa and because -ate is a more common ending.

    Pointing out to students the relationship with "finite" helps them to remember the correct spelling.

    "Not that that means much. English spelling is just one silly bit of nonsense after another."


  15. Uly said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 12:38 am

    So do I, but I equally have a "schwi" in adjectives with -ate, like delicate. Don't you?

    Sure, which is why when I was young I used to mispeel delicate. Put an i in there.

  16. Whitney Chappell said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 2:36 am

    I was a bit confused last year by my first year composition students' use of "defiantly." It popped up everywhere! They were "defiantly" going to write a reflection on a particular essay or they "defiantly" deserved an A. It turns out that "definantly" is another common misspelling of "definitely," leading to the autocorrection "defiantly."

  17. Ben said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 2:51 am

    I am defiantly going to spell it definately (bet definitely not definantly).

  18. Ben said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    Regarding Professor Budra's remark ("I don't know why"), I hope he was just being hyperbolic–as if an imaginary exasperated breath and rolling of the eyes went with that statement–as opposed to sincere in his lack of understanding.

  19. Army1987 said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 5:12 am

    As for "vowels in this post that, by the 'rules', should be long, but aren't": my instinct is to pronounce single vowels as "short" except in words ending with VCe or in words with something vaguely looking like a morpheme boundary where the first morpheme would end with VCe if it were a word. This is correct in "river", "digit", "level", "seven", "devil" (but not "evil"!), "value", "national" (but, for the information of those thinking that English pronunciation is not complete nonsense, not in "nation"), "vanish", "body" and a lot of other such words.
    The Fortran program I used for Monte Carlo simulation of gasses had a variable called "nabors" (for "neighbours"), but I took a while to realize why it was called that way, as I would instinctively use the TRAP vowel in such a word. "Neibrs" would have been a better choice for that, for me at least..

  20. J. Goard said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 5:20 am


    Probably, yeah. But wouldn't it have been great if he had behaved as an educator, toward students and toward readers of the news report? I mean, what would we think of something like this?

    "Kids are really awful hitters, not holding the bat right and always swinging too high. I don't know why," says Paul Budra, a longtime baseball coach and athletic coordinator for the district.

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 6:38 am

    I think Budra was saying he was surprised they always got it wrong. After all randomly choosing the vowel would get the right answer a lot of the time.

  22. Amy West said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    The error that I see a lot of is actually "defiantly" for "definitely". There I see the involvement of the spell checker.

  23. Dan T. said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Maybe the person who named the variable was thinking of Jim Nabors.

  24. Ellen K. said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    If it had the trap vowel, I'd spell it Nabbers, not Nabors, which I definitely read with a long vowel. (I almost deleted "definitely" as unnecessary, but, given the topic of the post, I decided to leave it in.)

  25. Mr Punch said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    A case similar to nabors/nation is patriotic — in the US but not Britain. This is the only word that I can recall Hugh Laurie (as Greg House) getting wrong in playing an American.

  26. NW said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    It is a little odd that the OED (2nd ed.) doesn't have this spelling. The short vowel is old: it occurs in both 'definite' and 'infinite' (but not 'finite') many centuries ago, and -at in 'delicate' as also old. There should have been plenty of time (even before the OED reached D) for the two endings to be conflated.

  27. Thomas said,

    February 4, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    That's all good and well, but to me as a non-native speaker of English the following sentence from the linked article sounds really weird: "one in 10 new students are not qualified to take the mandatory writing courses required for graduation" — Is the "are" really okay in English? In German, you would definitely(!) have to say "is" here…

    But hey, perhaps I would just be another student to fail the English language proficiency exam at Waterloo University.

  28. Ellen K. said,

    February 4, 2010 @ 11:43 am

    @Thomas. Somewhere there's a Language Log post covering this sort of thing, I think. I'd called it semantic agreement. Similar to "The staff are…" (staff = workers here, not a stick.). The subject is grammatically singular, but in meaning, plural. Because the staff are made of multiple people, or, in this case here of one in 10, there's more than 10 students. Like, if there's 1000 students, one in 10 is 100 people, thus, a plural verb works. We don't know the number of students, but we do know "one in 10 new students" refers to multiple people.

  29. Ben said,

    February 4, 2010 @ 11:53 am


    I think this phrase structure is the combination of two things:

    1) "One in 10 new students", while perhaps syntactically singular, has a plural referent (10% of the new students is probably more than one student!).
    2) The juxtaposition "students is" is unusual in a well-formed sentence, so "students are" wants to win, regardless of the syntax.

    When you put these factors together, most speakers will produce "one in 10 new students are". And in fact, that sounds a lot more correct to my ear than "one in 10 new students is".

  30. Ben said,

    February 4, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    @Ellen K.: I need to learn to refresh the page before submitting comments…

  31. Ben said,

    February 4, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    Rethinking this, I'm not even sure "one in 10 new students" is syntactically singular; if it were, the subject head would be "one" and "in 10 new students" would be a modifier. But analyzing it that way doesn't make any sense–"one in 10" is really an atomic unit. And its function is to modify "students". So the subject head is "students", making the whole subject phrase plural.

    But I'm no expert, so really someone well versed in syntax should be talking about this.

  32. Stephen Jones said,

    February 4, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    Three types of noun/verb agreement grammatical, notional, and proximal

    One in ten new students don't/doesn't
    grammatical: sing
    notional: plural
    proximal: plural

    So either. The COCA has 88 to 36 for the singular; the BNC 27 to 17 for 'one in + cardinal number + sing/base verb'.

  33. Bloix said,

    February 6, 2010 @ 12:15 am

    "Definite" has become entirely divorced from the word it originates from: "finite," from "fin" meaning "end." Something is "definite" if it has clearly defined boundaries or limits – i.e., it is not "infinite." A "definition" is a setting of boundaries for something, such as a word. Prof. Budra doesn't understand his students' error because to him "definite" is obviously formed from "finite." He doesn't realize that to his students it's simply an intensifier with no particular meaning.

    Any teacher who finds that his or her students are misspelling "definitely" should simply explain the origin, the literal meaning, and the related words. Then teach them to remember "the definition of definitely" and the error will disappear.

  34. Ellen K. said,

    February 6, 2010 @ 11:00 pm

    I don't have access to the OED, but I'm guessing that "definite" does not come from "finite" but that each was borrowed from Latin separately. Both come from the same Latin, but that's not the same as saying "definite" originates from "finite".

  35. Jen said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    The point isn't that "definately" is right; it's wrong. The point is that no English teacher should be surprised to see students making that mistake.

    I disagree. As a former Ivy League instructor, I was shocked to see students commonly misspell words such as "privilege", "a lot", "separate", and yes, "definitely". I also was disturbed to see "cuz" used instead of "because". I understood why they would misspell them that way, but was surprised that Ivy League students of today did not learn to spell common words in middle and high school, as I did back in the 80's. Students today are definitely not as intelligent or studious as they were back in the 80's, and this is coming from someone who did not attend an Ivy League school.

  36. outeast said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    Spellcheckers can help to cement these silly little spelling errors (at least, they certainly have in my case). It was only relatively recently that I noticed that I'd been consistently writing 'definately': it 'looks wrong' when I read it, of course, but I never saw that I'd been writing it because dear old Word had invariably been autocorrecting my mistake. It was only after I caught myself making the same error multiple times in emails (with no spellchecker enabled) that I realized that I'd been doing so consistently for years. I've been watching myself since then and have picked up on a few other such ingrained misspellings – including, yes, the 'seperate' which has so shocked Jen.

    However, what surprises me about that article is that even professional journalists seem unable to recognize that spelling is not grammar, and that style is a different issue yet again (I'm being charitable and assuming that the teachers themselves did not make this mistake). Journalists today are definitely not as intelligent or studious as they were back in my day.

  37. Robert said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    When I was taking physics as an undergraduate, one of the professors consistently referred to "definate" and "indefinate" integrals.

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