Question 1

I ask about merely reading and writing here. Do human readers take longer to distinguish between stems (and bases) that share the same root, even if merely picoseconds?

For example, do bookworms distinguish climb vs. descend faster than ascend vs. descend?

Question 2

What can writers learn from Question 1? How can writers prevent these processing delays by their perusers? How can writers improve bibliomaniacs' readability and reading comprehension? Does this processing delay suggest shunning stems that share a root?

Should writers shun ascend, in favor of climb? Should writers prefer synonyms that don't share roots and stems — like drop, lower — over decrease?

Afterword and Context for my questions

Aviation forbids quasi-homophones and rhymes like ascend vs. descend, because these are stems that share the same root -cend from Latin scandere. Similarly, increase vs. decrease are quasi-homophones, because they share -crease from Latin crescere. But Germanic Minimal Pairs are quasi-homophonous too — like

  • farther which stems from further.
  • the participles of lay vs. lie.
  • lose vs. loose (from Proto-Germanic *lausa-).
  • than vs. then.
  • through that stems from thorough. though doesn't etymologically relate to through, thorough — but all three are confused, because they are spelled so alike.
  • to vs. too.

I am not a linguist. I cannot distinguish between base vs. stem vs. root. If I mistake linguistics terms, just edit and correct my post. Thanks!

  • 1
    There is no such category as human readers. Humans have no biological adaptation to reading, the way they do to speaking. Consequently there is no reason to suppose that any group of humans displays significant behaviors, certainly not that they are consistent enough to time experimentally. All kinds of external variables would have to be ignored -- what language are they reading? does it have an alphabet? are they native speakers or students? If you don't understand what bases, roots, and stems are, maybe it's premature to plan research on them.
    – jlawler
    Jul 31, 2022 at 22:37
  • 3
    @jlawler "Human readers" seems like a fine category to me. Plenty of research has been done on how humans read.
    – Draconis
    Aug 1, 2022 at 0:04
  • Indeed, but it's mostly been about Western educational systems. And the results are, to say the least, mixed.
    – jlawler
    Aug 1, 2022 at 0:37
  • None of this is linguistics. "excise a word" from their vocabulary? No writer does anything like that. The idea that readers distinguish or do not distinguish climb vs. descend faster than ascend vs. descend contains invalid presuppositions. In moutain climbing, ascend and ascent and descent and descend are de rigueur.
    – Lambie
    Aug 1, 2022 at 15:04

1 Answer 1


Question 2 is fairly easy to answer: "Nothing; you can't; no". Low-level parsing of written language, and the time needed to do so, has no effect on comprehension. Writers should be more concerned with the logical structure of their writing (unless the goal is to be obscure for art's sake).

Question 1 relates to something potentially researchable, but before you start researching, you have to define your goal more precisely. You want to "distinguish ascend vs. descend", and we are dealing with writing rather than speech. Presumably there are other pairs of words that you would want to know about English speakers distinguishing, for example donkey vs. monkey, dunk vs. dung, mantis vs. grasshopper, sofa vs. couch, beige vs. brown, calm vs. flat, seven vs. four, light vs. lite, bus vs. buss, pit vs. pitt and so on. The first step would be to define what you mean by "distinguish", which lets you measure how long it took a person to "distinguish" two words. Perhaps your test might be to present two words visually, then give the subject the two options "the words are the same" vs. "the words are not the same" (measure response time). Possibly, there could be a difference in response time for pink vs. sink, compared to dunk vs. dung.

There are many kinds of "distinguishings" that can be done with written words. You have to pick a kind of distinguishing between words, and then you might see if certain word pairs are easier to distinguish in that sense. A propos question 2, if it turns out that people are slower to "distinguish" dunk from dung, that does not mean that you should avoid using the words dunk or dung, but you might want to avoid contexts where the word "dunk" is as likely to be the next word as "dung" is. Which brings us to unasked question 3: "What influence does context have on word parsing?". Briefly, "A huge effect". This is why Google's voice dictation is kind of lousy: it doesn't resolve pronunciation ambiguities by reference to "what the heck I was talking about in that sentence".

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