Spelling quiz? Why sointenly

Welcome to another edition of ASK ET (Ask the English Teacher), the place to find answers to your language questions, as well as a site where you can commiserate with a kindred soul who puzzles as much as you do about the necessity of exclamation marks on a sign that reads: “Tomatoes” for Sale, or the reason for an apostrophe in a sign that reads: Tomatoe’s for Sale.

Our question for today comes from a Mr. M. Howard who writes:

Dear ET,

My two sidekicks (C and L) and I seem to find ourselves in ridiculous situations quite often. If one of them is carrying a ladder on his shoulder, you can bet that he will turn suddenly and bonk me on the head. After I recover, I tend to grab his nose with pliers and start twisting. (Curiously, the sound of the ladder hitting my head sounds like a wood block; twisting his nose sounds like a ratchet; and what I hear while I am recovering from the bonk sounds exactly like a cuckoo clock. But I digress.)

Anyway, we three have been getting in sticky situations for so long, we have developed our own lingo and use many words, phrases and even sounds that others sometimes find hard to understand.

Just the other day someone we were talking with asked C how he would spell the word “certainly” which he had just pronounced in his unique way. Actually, the questioner said, “How do you spell that?” and the wise guy replied, “T-H-A-T,” followed by a “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” which is another of his signature sounds. (Just to show him that I was aware of his poor etiquette, I pulled his ear lobe which made a sound just like a rubber balloon being stretched.)

The gentleman’s spelling question got me thinking. I have tried writing it as “sointainly” as “sointenly” and even as “soytenly,” but none of those spellings seems unambiguously correct. My question for you, ET, is how should “certainly” be spelled if you were to write as C pronounces it? I have sent along some old black and white film footage of the three of us that might assist you in your decision. Thanks in advance for your help.

Dear M. Howard,

Yours is not the first letter with questions about the spelling of words that are commonly heard but rarely printed. Just a few weeks ago ET received a letter from someone named Sylvester who wondered about the phrase, “I thought I saw a pussy cat,” which when utter by his housemate came out, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat.”

Another query came from a W. Woodpecker who wondered about how to spell his distinctive laugh. We worked together to establish “Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh” as a reasonable approximation.

As to your particular question, it may come as a surprise to learn writers and copy editors disagree about the pronunciation of this very word. The editors of Rolling Stone magazine as well as The Globe and Mail and the Chicago Tribune prefer “sointenly.”

On the other hand, The New York Times spells it “sointainly.” Interestingly, the Times had originally spelled it “cointainly” in a headline until objections from readers caused them to change it in later editions. Just looking at that spelling makes ET wonder what the headline writer was thinking.

The answer to your question, it seems to me, is that both “sointenly” and “sointainly” have the backing of authority, and it would be acceptable to use either spelling. However, I would certainly advise against “cointainly.”

Well, that’s it for this edition of ASK ET. I hope you enjoyed the show. I thought it went well. As a matter of fact, I thought it was nearly poifect.