Grammar Moses: To be a good speller, don't memorize - analyze

How do people learn good grammar? Likely the same way people learn to be good spellers.

I just read a piece in The Washington Post by ninth-grader Dev Shah of Largo, Florida, in which he talks about how he managed to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year.

In his essay, Dev writes about how reading dictionaries is one way to win, but with more than a half-million words to memorize, intuition is key.

He didn't expect to win, the contest. He failed to qualify last year and has lost more than two dozen bees in six years.

But he knew this year was his final shot, because he'd age out of the competition.

Of the millions of competitive child spellers out there, just 200 make it to the national bee.

Looking for patterns in pronunciations is key, he says:

• "The letter G can mimic a J sound, but never the reverse."

• Adverbs tend to use "ous," while nouns use "us."

• Words derived from French often use "ch" to make a "sh" sound. Think "chevre" and "champagne."

Come to think of it, that's why I'm a pretty good speller. I look at the mechanics of it, the same way I look at the mechanics of a sentence or a machine - to better understand why something is constructed the way it is. Think language derivations, roots, parts of speech.

The derivation and definition given to spellers in a bee open up avenues for deductive reasoning.

Dev's winning word was "psammophile."

"The definition offered more clues to the right root in question," Dev wrote. "A psammophile is an organism that lives in sandy soils. Remembering the language of origin, I thought of Greek roots that mean 'sand.' This type of linguistic deduction takes practice, and the best spellers can perform it instantly."

This is why I obsess so much about the etymology of words. If you know something was derived from Greek or Latin or whatever, you can narrow the possibilities.

I'm sure Dev will grow up to be vice president some day, as long as he learns how to spell "potatoe."


I started writing this column the other day about Merriam-Webster's word of the year, but it ended up being an editorial.

However, there is more to say on the subject.

The word of the year, based on surges of lookups on the Merriam-Webster online dictionaries, is "authentic."

This is natural for a variety of reasons, including the explosion of artificial intelligence tools, social media and self-identity.

That one word really talks to the zeitgeist.

Here are some of the runners-up:

• Deepfake - What's worse than being inauthentic? Using technology to create a fiction for the purpose of swaying public opinion.

• Coronation - This one is rather mystifying, but I'm glad that when Charles became king people who didn't understand the word or its implication had the good sense to look it up using a reputable source.

• Dystopian - This ties in neatly with "authentic" and "deepfake" in conjuring our collective state of mind this year. "Dystopian" is also on the minds of those of us who believe the world will turn into an inhospitable hellscape in coming generations because of climate change.

• Implode - Remember when that submersible went missing en route to the Titanic wreckage? Once parts of it were discovered, it was determined that the pressure was too much and crushed the thing and the people inside. An implosion is the opposite of an explosion.

• Indict - I'd hasten to say that when former President Donald Trump was indicted earlier this year, people turned toward a dictionary to see just what that meant. But after four indictments and 91 charges, I imagine the world has a pretty good idea for what it means.

• Kibbutz - Here is one that I admit I was a little fuzzy on. A kibbutz is a communal farm or settlement in Israel.

• Rizz - This one is entirely new to me. As a noun, it amounts to romantic appeal. As a verb, not surprisingly, it is applying that charm for the purpose of seduction.

While I'm not a fan of reality television, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest this word has not made its way to "The Golden Bachelor."

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at

and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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