The Power of Possibility

At the beginning of my tutoring sessions, I try to always invite the child/parent team to share any questions or observations about words or spellings that they might want to begin with. 

A while ago a student responded to this invitation by saying that he had stumbled with the spelling of the word <possibly>. When he tried to work out the spelling he tried a number of versions but didn’t know if any were right. The mom knew the attested spelling, but neither of them were able to understand the spelling. 

I asked the student to share some of his hypotheses so that I could get a window on what they were thinking. I noticed right away that of his spellings used a single <s>. That struck me as a likely rich thread to pull on to see what unravelled! Also, looking only at these spelling attempts by my student highlighted my own history as a poor speller. My knee-jerk assumption was that the word had an <ss>, but I now realized -- and shared with my colleagues -- that I was not 100% sure.

How I experience uncertainty of a spelling now is so different for me now compared to my pre-Real Spelling days. Now when I am not certain of an attested spelling I know that I don’t understand the meaning and structure of that word clearly enough. I also know that there s a clear path forward for me and my student to seek that understanding. 

That difference is so important. 

Before I was exposed to the understanding that English spelling makes sense and learned how to use tools to analyze the spellings of words, I would just flail around like my student trying different spellings hoping that one “looked right” with no way of understanding which was the accepted spelling. This is why I love it when I “the spelling expert” in a tutoring or workshop context am hit with a spelling that I don’t automatically know just because I’ve seen it before. It gives me the opportunity to model how I use my own uncertainty of specific spellings as a way to move my understanding of the spelling system and the deeper meanings of families of related words forward. 

One key message that surfaces for me here is the fact that there is nothing generative about being able to guess the right spelling if you don’t understand why it is the attested spelling. Without understanding spelling, I would wonder about the same spellings over and over no matter how many times I saw the standard spelling in print. Another key message is that since guessing isn’t the point -- when we realize that we don’t know a spelling, we can find the attested spelling through a spell checker or dictionary. Not to find the “answer of how it is spelled” but to have the attested spelling in front of us so that we can investigate the spelling and meaning of that word so that we can understand it. Once we really understand it -- we will not need to memorize it -- and we are likely to learn so much more than one spelling. 

Before I go to a dictionary, I like to have a hypothesis in mind if I can. I shared my hypothesis about why I now thought the word needed a <ss>. If it had a single <s> the only word sums I could imagine was *pose/ + ible ➔ posible.

I know of a base <pose>, as in “to pose a question” but I didn’t think it had anything to do with the idea of “possible”. 

A quick dictionary check identified the attested spelling as <possible>. So now we could hypothesize these potential word sums:

poss + ible ➔ possible

or if there were a final, non-syllabic <e>, 

posse/ + ible ➔ possible

I had never knowingly worked with a base with either of these spelling so I suggested that we go to the word searcher to look for a bank of potential relatives. I recommended that we type <posse> as the initial search. That way, if the base had this final <e> and there were any cases in which it had no vowel suffix, we would be able to confirm that potential <e>.

Here is what I got:

Search Results for "posse"

(27 matches)




























I was surprised that the first hit was exactly what I had typed. What fascinates me now is that I did not even recognize this word at first! My mind was so focused on the possibility of this being a bound base with a final, non-syllabic <e>, that I didn’t even perceive this word that I would have read automatically if it were in a sentence like “The sheriff gathered his posse and they went off after the bad guys.”

I had to take this spelling and go over to etymonline to find out what this word was!

posse (n.)

1640s (in Anglo-Latin from early 14c.), shortening of posse comitatus "the force of the county" (1620s, in Anglo-Latin from late 13c.), from Medieval Latin posse "body of men, power," from Latin posse "have power, be able" (see potent) + comitatus "of the county," genitive of Late Latin word for "court palace" (see comitatus). Modern slang meaning "small gang" is probably from Western movies.

We laughed when we now recognized this word. It seemed ironic that this word that I associate with macho dudes in old Western movies -- and which most young people today probably associate with a kind of urban slang for your gang of friends -- goes back to a “hoity-toity” sounding Latin phrase “posse comitatus”. It was also interesting that the word <posse> was related to <potent>. 

Regardless, I was almost certain that the word “posse” -- that I now understood as a direct loan word from Latin -- had nothing to do with <possibly>. Mainly to model good scientific practice, I typed in <possibly> into Etymonline. This would model for my mother-son team how I confirm my hypotheis that these words were unrelated -- by showing that there was no common root between <posse> and <possibly>. Etymonline pointed me from <possibly> to <possible> where I found this entry:

possible (adj.)

mid-14c., from Old French possible and directly from Latin possibilis "that can be done," from posse "be able" (see potent).

Wait a second! there is the link to <potent> again! Following that link I find:

potent (adj.)

early 15c., from Latin potentem (nominative potens) "powerful," present participle of *potere "be powerful," from potis "powerful, able, capable; possible;" of persons, "better, preferable; chief, principal; strongest, foremost,"

The asterisk before “potere” told me something was going on here beyond my understanding of Latin, but there was no doubt that, according to Etymonline <posse> and <possible> and <possibly> were all from the same etymological family. But how does this inform the word sum for <possibly>?

Well the <ss> certainly made more sense now. And of course the final <e> of <posse> is not only not a ‘non-syllablic’ <e>. And critically, <posse> is not even An English word. 

A later search of Latdict and discussion with other friends clarified that there is something non-standard about this particular latin verb listed as “possum, posse, potui, -” with no attested 4th part of the verb. I’ll leave that for the moment and return to the discussion with my student and her mom.

We hypothesize that the English base was indeed <poss> which can build <possible> and many other familiar related words. The mom then asked, “but what does <possibly> have to do with ‘power’. My student didn’t hesitate and suggested, something along the lines of, “Well, if you have the possibility of something, it signals the power for that thing to happen.” When that seems like a good analysis! And then we thought of the phrase “the power of possibility” that signals that link directly.

A while later, I was discussing this story with Gina Cooke of LEX.  She shared the fact that a similar semantic pairing is marked in a word we get from Old English. The word <might> signals both “possibility” (I might go to the party) and “power” (He used all his might to move the car out of the snow.)

Wow. That’s cool. 

The final question from the mom is also an important to consider what all of this kind of analysis is about. She asked, OK, but how does all of this help my son spell <possibly>?

It’s a fair question. But it also highlights a distinction in how I think about this work now and how I first started looking at Real Spelling. I started being excited about Real Spelling as a way to make sense of spelling and to build vocabulary. But over time I realized it is never about the particular word or words studied -- but what studying any given word i this way offers in terms of understanding of the system. So whether or not my student has totally fixed this spelling in his memory is not actually my own prime driver. The discussion, the finding of surprising connections between words etc. That is what makes all of this exciting. At the same time, I suggested to the mom that clearly previous encounters with this word had not been enough for her son (or me) to memorize the spelling perfectly. Now that this word has been attached to such a rich investigation is the best way I can think of to start the process of fixing this spelling in her son’s mind. To go to the next step and “fix this spelling” into the mind of the student, some practice writing-out and spelling-out word sums to make a matrix (always announcing “double S” when spelling the bass) is the best way I can think of achieving that limited, but important goal of fixing the attested spelling in the mind of a student who has always built in a false spelling memory.  

I know I will never have a moment’s hesitation about the spelling of this word now that my student helped me realize what I didn’t know so that I had a good reason to investigate. 

I hope the sharing of this investigation of <possibly> offers you some power to do more investigations yourselves.

Many thanks to my team of co-learners in my own on-line tutoring session for letting me share this powerful story of learning!

I'm sure some of our community has the power shed still more light on this investigations -- at least it's a good possibility!