Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

I recently had the pleasure of working with PYP co-ordinator, Jacqui Ellison at Plenty Valley Christian College near Melbourne. During that time she became veryinterested in an investigation of the word <transgress> that she wanted to study with a Grade 3 class. Preparing for that study has already led Jacuqi to many rich insights. She recently emailed me with some questions that I am sharing here. How wonderful for Jacqui to share her own learning with her class and the fact that she is seeking guidance from a wider community of scholars as well. I'll share her email  and some thoughts I have along the way.

In our grade three class we were looking at the word <transgress>. We discussed the meaning and came up with the hypothesis that <trans-> was a prefix (which we proved correct) then <-ion> was identified as a suffix. So we realised that the base had to be <gress>.


[I'd love to know what word sum evidence from other word families your team came up with for the <trans-> prefix and the <-ion> suffix. I know there is lots of evidence to be found for these morphemes, but that process is always so rich not only for encountering interesting vocabulary, it also models to process of finding evidence for our conclusions. It is common for people to offer me words to me as evidence of a prefix or suffix that turns out not to be great evidence.]


The students came up with other words with <gress> in them such as <progress> and <regress>.

[Excellent! Here I get to see your studnets solid evidence. And just to nail down the fact that these words do infact offer evidence that <gress> could be a base, we should see these words in the context of a word sum:

pro + gress --> progress

re + gress --> regress

With these word sums we can see that the hypothesized bound base <gress> is being fixed to known prefixes <pro-> and <re->.]


After this we got into groups to do the following:

1. Find out the meaning of the word I gave them, and 

2. To make some word sums

I gave out the following word teams:




I also threw in a red herring: <tigress>/<tigresses>

Our next lesson will be presenting these and I know that the student will ask me "Why, if <tiger> is the base (a male tiger) then why not just add <–ess>?" 

Apparently the vowel <e> disappears. Why? 

Pete suggested a link to real spellers blog where I read of another question that had come up in regard to masculine feminine forms such as <actor> / <actress> and <waiter>/<waitress>.


[The way I found a related post was by typing "ess" in the search engine, as I was sure someone had investigated this suffix before. That search led me to this excellent discussion that I recommend you explore as well.]

Someone answered her with an idea that there is a <–ress> prefix which would possibly mean that the sum is <tiger + ress> is rewritten as tigeress still.

Does anybody have some ideas?


First of all I was so pleased with the detail in Jacqui's question and clear desire to understand when she runs into spellings she can't work out on her own. Notice the utter lack of any assumption that there might be exceptions. Instead, she has shared what she has been able to work out on her own, and when she dosen't get to a resolution, she asks for guidance to help her understand rather than assuming that there is something wrong with these spellings!

I'm also particularly pleased that Jacqui explained her understanding of the related string by showing that thinking in a word sum! Jacqui writes:

Someone answered her with an idea that there is a <–ress> prefix which would possibly mean that the sum is <tiger + ress> is rewritten as <tigeress> still.

Ah ha! This is the beauty of word sums. They are self correcting devices if we let our selves use them. I note Jacqui's use of the word "possibly" when she suggests that maybe the word sum is this:

tiger + ress --> *tigeress

But Jacqui catches one of the problems with her hypothesis. What happened to that other <r>? 

Also, I don't know if this is true, but it may be  that when she wrote out the result of her word sum, she pronounced the final result rather than spelling it out. When she wrote this word earlier, she used the attestes spelling <tigress> with the <r> immediately following the <g>. So even if there were a convention for "dropping <r>s" in suffixing, (which there is not!) this word sum is still showing us that we need to reject the hypothesis that the word for a female tiger has a base spelled <tiger>. 

We may want it to be so, but unless we can make a word sum work, we have to give up on our hypotheses of word structure. So what are our options???

One thing to do is to remind ourselves of the rock solid definition of a base element. 

A base element is what is left when you have removed any affixes in a word. 

We have the word <tigress> that we are trying to analyze. If I cannot construct a word sum to analyze this word into a base and affixes, there is only one safe holding position I can take on the status of this word. If I cannot demonstrate that this word has any affix with a coherent word sum, I have to conclude that the whole word is a base!

I can hypothesize that the final <ress> in <tigress> is signalling "female something" but I don't get to conclude that it is a suffix in this word unless I can show a coherent word sum.

The only other word sum I can construct for a hypothesis that <tigress> is a complex word is this one:

tig + ress --> tigress

But do I have evidence of a base <tig>? Not yet. 

So my holding position until somone offers me a deeper, coherent analysis has to be that <tigre> is a base and <tigress> is a base. Surely these words are related in etymology, so they can be of the same etymological family. But so far I don't have evidence that they are in the same morphological family. I am quite happy with remaining with that analysis until somone shows me a better analsysis. 

At worst my current understanding of <tigress> as a base is an incomplete analysis. There is nothing "wrong" about an incomplete analysis. In fact, I think they are great! I think of incomplete analyses as invitations to later learning. What I have learned after years of this work is that the key is to avoid false analyses. 

When we find oursleves ignoring disappearing <r>s in a word sum we are clearly drawing conclusions that go beyond the evidence. Once we ignore an <r> for one word sum, we allow "exceptions" to become a part of our analysis, and we leave science. 

So I am so thankful for Jacqui's excellent work here. Because she was willing to take the time to do this work on her own and to share her thinking, I was able to identify the most important lesson available for her -- and the general community in this investigation:

We simply have to be willing to not draw conclusions deeper than we can prove!

There is no harm in working with a "holding position" conclusion about a word as a base until we have evidence that we can understand that shows a deeper analysis. Never be afraid of incomplete analysis -- at all costs avoid false analysis. 

And with my own holding position of <tigress> as a base, I can share with Jacqui and her students that this is an excellent foil for the word family of the bound base <gress>. I say it is an excellent foil for two reasons. 

1) The structure test:

That strict, straight, uncompromising orthographic word sum will not let me construct a coherent structure with the <gress> letter sequence as a base: 

*ti + gress --> tigress

I have no evidence of a <ti-> prefix.

(Notice, I can not use the structure test to disprove that hypothesis if in other cases I just fudge word sums to make them work in other cases where I want them to work!)

2) The meaning test

There is no evidence that the words <progress>, <transgression> and <congress> share a meaning connection with <tigress>. I can easily test that hypothesis by checking with an etymological reference. 

Next steps...

Questions for further study. 

The word pairs <waiter> / <waitress> and <actor> / <actress> certainly suggest the existence of an <-ress> suffix for marking female gender. 

wait + er --> waiter   wait + ress --> waitress

Both are workers who "wait on tables".

act + or --> actor    act + ress --> actress

But if there is an <-ress> suffix marking "female" in some words, how do I understand the <ress> letter sequence in a base <tigress> since I don't have evidence of a <tig> base for <tiger>?

Can a letter sequence within a base that does not currently work as a suffix still signal meaning like "female gender"?

I know about US and British spellings with final <re> vs. final <er>. Is there something more to know about these final letter sequences that will help me with this and many other spelling questions?

So with that, I have shared how far I can go with this question. I would love to know if others out there can help Jacqui and I and her students understand these questions better or whether there are better questions out there to ask!



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