Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

I just received a wonderful email from the mother of a mother-daughter team that I am tutoring on-line at the moment and asked permission to share here on Real Spellers. Yen was happy for me to share in this public forum. I hope that her question and my response sparks an interesting conversation that the community can learn from and add to...

I've made minor edits to the text for clarity -- and if in reframing it I thought of new ideas. Here is the result:

Yen's question isn't a spelling one, but it is one that gets at how words evolve in a language, and a special feature of the matrix that I remember being very important to me when I first encountered it. (I also realize that I needed to use spelling in the matrix to helpl respond to the question.)

Yen also addresses some interesting observations about the evolution of words in Malay. I'm guessing some of you will be able to offer more on her observations in that realm than I. First Yen's question, then my attempt at a brief initial response...

Hi Pete,

There was a recent debate between US/UK folks on one of the listserves that I belong to on the use of the word 'inferencing'. It seems to be used a lot in academic circles like my profession. However, I am wondering if this is slowly becoming more acceptable in the English language in the US. We use words like 'referencing' and 'conferencing' even though the latter is less commonly used unless it's 'video/tele conferencing'. Otherwise I typically hear lawyers say 'conferring'.

Similarly with referencing, it's used in academic circles when you are referring to your references. So with that logic, you could use the word inferencing I suppose. But my husband who is from England, would typically correct me and say 'you meant to say inferring' if I happen to use the word 'inferencing' skills.

Interestingly, you cannot find the word 'inferencing' in word searcher but you can find the words 'conferencing and referencing'. But just from a teaching standpoint, if you have a child that draws such conclusions that the word inferencing exists, how would you explain this?

I am leaning towards the explanation that certain slang words like inferencing or conferencing or 'googling' become accepted over time since language is constantly evolving.

When I was back in Malaysia, I could not help but notice how the Malay language has not evolved much in terms of expanding their language from the Malay base words but instead continue to 'borrow' English words and convert them by adding a suffix 'i' to represent many different English suffixes. Eg: community --> komuniti, communication --> komunikasi. They have their own version of prefixes and suffixes in 'older' vocabulary words but they are not applying them to these more modern words which I thought was interesting as there is a lot more fusion going on with English words. You see a lot of odd translations as well. Eg: Grand Hall means 'Dewan (hall) Besar (big)' in direct translation. I came across a sign over a town hall that said "Dewan The Grand" to mean "The Grand Hall". I couldn't help but cringe at the sight of such Manglish advertised in bold print in a small resort town that we had visited. Thank you in advance!

Yen Walter

From my response...

Wonderful wondering you are sharing here Yen.

To start my response, let me pull out a couple of section of your first paragraph...

So with that logic, you could use the word inferencing I suppose. But my husband who is from England, would typically correct me and say 'you meant to say inferring' if I happen to use the word 'inferencing' skills.

One central issue that runs through your question is distinguishing between individual's opinions about what is "correct usage of words" and the existing usage of words by English speakers regardless of anyone's judgement.

When speaking or writing in a given formal situation, there may be well or poorly chosen words for a given group at a given time. However, linguists and lexicographers (dictionary writers) are supposed to be interested in "what is" not "what should be". There's a great TED talk in which a lady describes this difference by describing lexicographers as fishermen casting a net, not traffic cops.

So you may have use the word "inferencing" where he would have used "inferring" but as you show, there appears to be -- whether anyone likes it or not -- a perceived need of the word "inferencing" by user's of the language. It appears that you did not use this word for this purpose in a vacuum. Like all English speakers you are being influenced by, and you are influencing the use of our language.

Interestingly, you cannot find the word 'inferencing' in the Word Searcher but you can find the words 'conferencing and referencing'. Of course the Word Searcher (when using the standard version, rather than the BSD version) has a limited bank of 60 000 words. So, failing to find a word in this bank, may be a kind of indicator of usage -- presumably it targets more commonly used words when it was originally compiled -- but it should not be taken as evidence of whether or not something is a "real word" or not. No dictionary or reference should be treated as the arbiter of that question.

I notice that I could not find <inferencing>  Etymonline either. I did find many examples of this word used in electronic sources at a great site for looking for interesting words, You might like to explore the sources it finds with this word in use at this link.

But just from a teaching standpoint, if you have a child that draws such conclusions that the word inferencing exists, how would you explain this?

Whether this word came up in a teaching, tutoring, or any other context, my response would be essentially the same. We can investigate its meaning, structure, history and see that without doubt it certainly exists! We can also explore interesting questions about what it is that the word offers English speakers that was not being provided by.

I think it is safe to say that those that are using the word in oral and written language are typically aware of the word <inferring>, so there must be something about this newer construction in the family that is leading it to grow in usage. If it wasn't useful, we wouldn't be using it!

We don't have to like it, but liking or disliking a word has no relevance to statements about "existence" of a word. I'm going to share a little matrix I made on this base, and then compare that to what I learned about something matrices can do with another word family, that applies here too...

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 9.43.47 AM

From this matrix I could make the word sum:

re + fer + ence/ + ing --> referencing

I don't think there is any question about the "existence" of this word. By switching the prefix with the prefix, I end up construction the word that started this topic:

in + fer + ence/ + ing --> inferencing

Notice, I did not need to hypothesize the word <inferencing>  in order to construct this matrix. The prefix could have been selected specifically to represent the word <referencing>. What we encounter here is something I find truly mind-blowing about the matrix.

  • The matrix does not only represent attested words (words for which we can find written evidence), but it also represents potential words.

I think that is so cool! And I have a wonderful story of how I was first introduced to this idea.

I was at a school in Beijing working with a matrix on the word <friend> at the centre. It might have looked something like this:

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 10.51.18 AM

At one point, a teacher raised their hand and commented that there seems to be a problem with my matrix. She argued that "it looks like it builds "unfriend" but there is no such word."

It is important to recognize that this conversation occurred before the invention of Facebook. Thus the word had never occurred to me, nor likely, had it occurred to anyone else in the room. My response was something like this:

"Well, I don't know if I've ever heard the word before, but if you told me that you were going to "unfriend" me, I would certainly now what you meant -- and it wouldn't be very nice! I don't know if this is an attested word -- but we clearly all understand what it means, and how it must be spelled, so it seems to me that it is a word now!"

These two two matrices are like any other. The constructor of  matrix never had to think about the word in question in order to represent its potential as a word in the matrix.

When I spoke about this with the Old Grouch at some later point, he made that comment that is still very powerful for me. The matrix doesn't just represent attested words, it represents potential words.

The case of <unfriend> is particularly useful for communicating this fact about the matrix. At the time, this word was presumably an entirely novel construction to everyone in the room. And yet today, almost any English user who spends time on the internet -- whether they use Facebook or not -- are familiar with the term . Is it really better to behave as if we have to wait for other authorities -- dictionaries or social media companies -- to tell us what words are "real" and which ones are not?

How exciting to grow up in a world were we know that we can introduce new words to our community, and if they serve a need -- they just may be words that survive and continue.

I find your description of Malay word formation totally fascinating, but I'll leave that part for others to respond to. Great stuff!



I hope other members of the Real Spellers community can share thoughts in response to Yen's question, my response and other related issues that come up!



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