‘Now I know my E-T-As’

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Roger VanHaren

Authors who wish to try to ink an opinion may find it hard to do so if arbitrary constraints obtain which limit normal writing. My point is this: If I may not apply my usual supply of alpha marks, it disallows virtually all my vocabulary and scripting skills and I can’t publish my opinions succinctly; my capability will diminish significantly, allowing for no normal communication. I’m advising you not to try to do this; it isn’t worth all your machinations …
I give up! Does the paragraph you just read seem weird to you? Look at it again. Does anything strike you? Probably not. But I was attempting to write without using the letter “e.” Every once in a while when I was teaching, I’d assign my kids the task of attempting to write a paragraph that way, thinking that by doing so, I’d force them to substitute synonyms for words that contained e’s, maybe help them to build better vocabularies.
It was usually a disaster. It was frustrating for the kids to have to write without using “the,” for example, or “are.” And you can see if you read my first paragraph again, that writing gets stilted and formal-sounding when the purpose is to avoid using words with e’s in them instead of actually trying to communicate.
For the last 50 years or so, I have worked the Daily Cryptoquote in the newspaper almost every day. It’s a simple letter substitution cipher (the letter substitutions change every day), and one of the principles that makes solving the puzzle possible is the knowledge of frequency of letter usage and patterns. For example, if the cryptoquote word is NONT, I’m going to guess that the word is EVER, or if the word in another puzzle is XREX, I’ll guess that it’s THAT, and I’ll usually be right. Sentence patterns and punctuation can be helpful, too.
The same knowledge applies to playing “Wheel of Fortune” on TV, or the old children’s game of Hangman (“Wheel” is basically just a glorified Hangman game, isn’t it?). R-S-T-N-L and E. Aren’t those the letters which are always used first? The ones that are given away in the final round? Actually, the order ought to be E and T-N-S-R-H. In a study of 90 million English words (known as the National Corpus), a group of language scholars determined the frequency of letter usage. How’d you like to have a job like that?
The internet is an amazing place, isn’t it? I went surfing a while ago and found out that in that study of the National Corpus, the scholars discovered that the vowels E-A-O-I were more frequently used than any consonant except T, which was second to E. Would you like to see the order of frequency? Just in case you ever get to be a contestant on “Wheel”? Well, here it is; start memorizing: E-T-A-O-I-N-S-R-H-L-D-C-U-M-F-P-G-W-Y-B-V-K-X-J-Q-Z.
Maybe we should teach kids the alphabet in that order! Yeah, but then we’d have to rewrite that song, wouldn’t we? Come on, sing along: “ETAOINS, RHLDCUMFP, GWY-BVK, XJ, Q and Z. Now I know my E-T-As; next time won’t you sing with me?” … Uh … maybe not! Fascinating stuff for me, probably boring for you, right?

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.