Posted by: episystechpubs | April 25, 2019

Editor’s Corner: A long E for Edith

My dear friend Edith, whose first language is German, always has a new question about English for me when I see her. During our last dinner, she asked me why the “eo” in people and the “oe” in subpoena were pronounced with a “long e” sound, but the “o” is there without a squeak.

I looked around for some helpful hints on spelling and pronunciation, and I found this: “When there are two vowels together in a word, and they are immediately next to each other, you usually pronounce only the first vowel, which is their long vowel sound.” Here are a few examples:

  • Boat: only the “o” is pronounced (with a “long o” sound)
  • Bait: only the “a” is pronounced (with a “long a” sound
  • Increase: only the “e” is pronounced (with a “long e” sound)

Unfortunately, there are a zillion exceptions to that rule. English is a combination of so many languages that we have the same sound for many combinations of letters. So, rather than get too far afield from the original “eo” and “oe” that sound like a “long e,” let’s look at something else I found.

I saw an article in Daily Writing Tips called The Six Spellings of “Long E.” While this didn’t address either of Edith’s examples, it did show six other combinations of letters that make the “long e” sound. Instead of pasting it all here, I have digested it, and now I am returning it to you (like a mamma bird) in a tabular format, with examples of my own. We will call this The Eight Spellings of “Long E.”

Letters Examples Sentence
e me, he, she He is a very angry little caterpillar.
ee heel, see, feel, tee, kneel, wheel When you see Jose, tell him he owes me a lunch.
ea heal, meal, read, lead, appeal, zeal, real It is with vim, vigor, and zeal that I approach the upcoming weekend in Aruba.
ei conceit, ceiling, receipt, receive I was staring up at the ceiling when the phone rang.
ie believe, brief, chief, retrieve, reprieve, priest, siege I went into the confessional, kneeled, and said, “Forgive me father for I have sinned.” The voice on the other side responded, “I’m not sure who you are, but I am not a priest.”
eo people, feoff My dog Bella prefers hanging around people more than she likes spending time with other dogs.
oe subpoena, phoenix, amoeba, onomatopoeia In high school, teachers always read Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Bells” to demonstrate onomatopoeia.
ey valley, key, alley, galley The stench coming from the alley was almost unbearable.

And lastly, this little bit on the word subpoena: some say the “b” is silent in American English but pronounced in British English. The “oe” is left over from the Latin. And from Merriam-Webster, we have this etymology:

If you think you recognize the sub- in subpoena as the prefix meaning "under, beneath, below," you’re on target. Subpoena arrived in Modern English (via the Middle English suppena) from the Latin sub poena, a combination of sub and poena, meaning "penalty." Other poena descendants in English include impunity ("freedom from penalty"), penal ("of or relating to punishment"), and even punish. There is also the verb subpoena, as in "Defense lawyers have subpoenaed several witnesses to the crime."

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

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