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More Commonly Confused Words: Y and Wherefore

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April 16, 2022
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The art of editing is a tug-of-war between prescriptivism and descriptivism (i.e., between imposing a set [often arbitrary] rules and reflecting the living language as it’s spoken and written). The goal is always clear communication. In some situations this is best served by adherence to an imagined standard, whereas in others it’s better to adopt the vernacular.

But there are occasions when the living language is unsettled; no firm rule guides us, and confusion reigns. And for some peculiar reason, these occasions tend to crop up when the letter Y is involved.

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On the Wings of Confusion

In English, a terminal Y often becomes an i when a word changes form, as when a noun becomes plural (spy/spies), or when a verb changes tense or person: “I deny,” “she denies,” and “they denied.”

As always, there are exceptions. Take the verb “to fly.” It follows the familiar pattern in the present tense (“I fly,” “they fly,” “he/she flies”) but has an irregular past tense and participle: “I flew,” and “I have flown.”

Confusing enough. But what about a person or thing that flies, say, an aviator? Would that be a “flyer” or a “flier?” And what about the word’s other, unrelated meaning, a handbill or advertising circular? Are there different spellings for the different meanings?

Even the authorities do not agree. The Chicago Manual of Style takes no position whatever. The AP Publications Handbook preferred “flier” for both pilots and advertisements until 2017, when it abruptly reversed course; it now recommends “flyer” in all cases (well, nearly; but we’ll get to that). The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, by contrast, prefers “flier,” but notes “flyer” as an acceptable variant, but for the advertisement sense.

Just to muddy the waters further, there’s the expression (now uncommon) “to take a flier,” meaning to take a chance or make a wager. It’s still used occasionally in finance to refer to a high-risk investment; in this context only, AP spells it with an i.

AP takes a descriptivist approach here, responding to common usage. In an unscientific survey (i.e., a quick Google search) “frequent flyer miles” returned nearly nine times as many hits as “frequent flier miles,” whereas “advertising flyer” outnumbered “advertising flier” twenty to one. (Interestingly, “take a flyer” also edged out “take a flier,” though by a smaller margin; so the AP isn’t completely consistent in its descriptivist stance.)

And even though Webster holds the prescriptivist line for “flier,” it makes exceptions for proper names: the Philadelphia hockey team, for instance, or the Flexible Flyer brand of sled, or certain express trains, such as the Heartland Flyer.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

Other uses of Y vs. i tend to follow the pattern of transformation that occurs in a verb. I deny, he denies, and if I deny consistently, I can fairly be called a denier. Similarly, it was the town crier (not “cryer”) who called people to assembly or read announcements aloud; the profession has died out, but the expression survives as the name of many a local newspaper.

One very common source of Y/i confusion comes from the word “dry,” which is both a verb and an adjective. When used comparatively in the latter sense, we use the i form: When my sister and I are caught in the rain, she gets wetter and I stay drier. A device that performs that action of drying, though, uses the Y: a hairdryer, a clothes dryer, a wall-mounted hand dryer.

Give ‘em Enough Rope

The reason it’s important to internalize these usages, of course, is because you cannot rely on spellcheck to catch them. If you’re writing for an appliance catalogue, for instance, you might rarely if ever use “drier” in the comparative sense; but it’s still a valid English word; even though today’s high-end spellcheckers are a bit more context sensitive than their predecessors, which relied on brute computational force, they too can be blindsided by nuance.

This is English, after all, the language in which it is possible to construct the sentence (attributed to Groucho Marx) “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” This yokes together two clauses with apparently identical construction that are nonetheless entirely unrelated in meaning, where “flies” serves as the verb in one and the noun in the other, with “like” doing double duty as a preposition and a verb, respectively. Context is everything, and frankly it’s a wonder we can communicate at all.

A big part of the problem is that we have so many words with multiple meanings, and some of those meanings are extremely, almost obsolete, but not quite, extremely useful within a very limited sphere of subject matter, but a source of bafflement outside it.

There are seven dictionary definitions for the transitive verb “pay,” for example. The first six are all related in some way to the idea of giving: exchanging money for goods or services, compensating someone for work, settling a debt, bestowing a compliment, gracing someone with a visit, and so on. In all these senses, its past tense and past participle forms follow the familiar Y/i transformation to become “paid.”

The seventh definition is highly specific: “pay out” means to let out slack from a coil or spool of rope, chain, or wire. It mostly persists as nautical jargon but is also used professionally by installers of telephone and IT hardware as they lay the miles of cable that form the backbone of our information infrastructure.

And in this sense (and only according to some dictionaries and style guides!) the past tense and past participle is “payed.”

So if you took a flier on a risky bet, it may have paid out handsomely, but if you took a flyer that crashed in the ocean, a sailor may have payed out a rope to rescue you.

Groucho would be proud.

Jack F.

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