The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > The Alphabet > Other Letters, Marks, and Symbols > Ligatures
What are ligatures?
In writing, a ligature is a combination of two or more letters joined into a single unit. There were many ligatures used in English at one time, formed to make typesetting easier (known as typographical ligatures), but these were all discarded as printing became easier and less expensive. However, there are two other ligatures that originated in Latin and were carried over into English as distinct letters: Æ (in lowercase, æ) and Œ (in lowercase, œ).
While these two letters were eventually divided in modern English (and eventually reduced to just E/e in American English), there is another Latin ligature that is used in English today: & (known as an ampersand).
Finally, there is one other ligature that arose as Latin evolved over time and is now a part of the modern English alphabet: W.
Æ/æ and Œ/œ
Not counting W (which is now considered a single letter) and & (which is a stylistic representation of a specific word, rather than just two conjoined letters), the two ligatures that survived in English until relatively recently are Æ/æ (a combination of A and E) and Œ/œ (a combination of O and E). Over time, they were divided back into separate letters, creating the vowel digraphs AE and OE.
In American English, however, most of the words featuring these divided ligatures dropped the A and O, leaving just the E behind. (In most cases, the pronunciation is the same in both American and British English, though in some words beginning with “e-/oe-,” the pronunciation varies slightly.)
Spelling with ligature
Words spelled “ae” and “oe” in both regions
Not many words retain the Latin-based digraphs in American English, but there are a few words that do:
Words with “ae”
Words with “oe”
Note that all the words featuring “ae” (and the word amoeba) have variant spellings with just “e” (egis, esthetic, archeology, pean, and ameba), but these are far less common.
Words with single letters in both regions
While American English much more commonly drops the additional vowel in the Latin digraphs “ae” and “oe,” there are some words in both American and British English that only retain the E:
- chimera (derived from Latin Chimaera)
- demon (though daemon is sometimes used in stylized writing)
- ecology (originally oecology)
- economy (derived from Latin oeconomia)
- ecumenical (derived from Latin oecumenicus)
- enigma (derived from Latin aenigma)
- homeopathy (still spelled homoeopathy in British English, but less commonly)
- hyena (less commonly, hyaena)
- fetid (less commonly, foetid, derived from the incorrect Latin term foetidus)
- medieval (less commonly, mediaeval)
- primeval (much less commonly, primaeval)
Using “-ae” to form plurals
Nouns taken directly from Latin that end in “-a” are made plural using “-ae” in both American and British English. (Note, however, that the Latinate “-ae” ending has been replaced in modern English by the standard plural suffix “-s” in many common, everyday words.)
- antenna→antennae (more commonly antennas)
- aorta→aortae (more commonly aortas)
- copula→copulae (more commonly copulas)
- cornea→corneae (more commonly corneas)
- formula→formulae (more commonly formulas)
- hernia→herniae (more commonly hernias)
- hyperbola→hyperbolae (more commonly hyperbolas)
- retina→retinae (more commonly retinas)
The symbol & (known as an ampersand) is used in writing to represent the word and. The symbol is actually a stylized ligature that combines the two letters of the Latin word et (also meaning “and”) into a single symbol. (The term ampersand is actually a contraction of the phrase and per se and—a blend of English and Latin meaning “and (the symbol &) by itself means and.”)
The ampersand is especially common in commercial names of companies and brands, and it is often featured in logos and graphic designs. Commonly recognized abbreviations that feature the word and often use ampersands as well. For example:
- “Daniels & Jones Insurance Co.”
- “I just need some R&R [rest and relaxation].”
- “My brother loves hip-hop, but I’m more of an R&B [rhythm and blues] fan myself.”
- “During the course of the audit, we will need P&L [profit and loss] reports for the last three fiscal years.”
In more formal or academic writing, some style guides also recommend using an ampersand for parenthetical citations of sources written by two or more authors, as in:
- However, the authors assert that reliance on “antiquated methodology and outdated preconceptions” is still rampant in many government agencies (Smith, Burke, & Robertson, 2002).
However, other style guides recommend spelling out and completely, so check your school’s or employer’s preferred style guide to be sure which you should use. If in doubt, use and instead of &.
Finally, because the ampersand represents et, it was formerly used to write the abbreviated form of the Latin phrase et cetera (meaning “and so on”), appearing as &c.. For example
- “Various contracts, receipts, invoices, &c., were strewn about the office.”
In modern English, though, this looks rather peculiar, and it is much more common to write the abbreviation as etc.
In Classical Latin, the letter V was originally used to represent the /w/ sound at the beginning of a word, or the /u/ sound in the middle of a word. Therefore, the Latin noun via would have been pronounced /ˈwia/, while the Latin preposition cum would have been spelled cvm and pronounced /kum/.
Over time, the sound /w/ associated with the Latin V at the beginning of words shifted to that of a voiced bilabial fricative—essentially the /v/ sound we now associate with the letter V (as in vest, /vɛst/). In the Late Middle Ages, the shape of the letter V was rounded to a U when it appeared in the middle of a word; by the mid-16th century, V was used to represent the consonant sound /v/, while U was used to represent the vowel sound /u/.
Eventually, the vowel digraph uu (hence the name, “double-U”) began to be used to represent the /w/ sound to distinguish it from the letter V and the newly formed U. This digraph was also written as VV, which was eventually combined into a ligature that resembled its current typographical shape, W.
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