John Larrysson Column: 26 Alphabets

A very important Hong Kong person once said,


"95% of the university's first-year students could not accurately pronounce the 26 alphabets of English."


This quotation is an example of Hong Kong English. Using the word "alphabets" to mean letters or sounds is common here in Hong Kong, but is wrong outside the SAR. Alphabet is a group word, not an item word. An alphabet is a set of letters. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta ( α and β ). (example = παράδειγμα) There are many others, The Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet. (пример) Modern English uses the Latin alphabet as do most other modern European languages, such as French and German. (example, exemple, exempel) Old English used the Runic alphabet. These other alphabets are sometimes used in English as symbols. For example in maths and science, Greek letters are often used to represent different concepts, such as the structure of organic chemicals. In English these Greek letters are being used as symbols, not letters.



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These different alphabets are related. All letters are a special type of symbol in languages that descend from the Phoenician language. Phoenicia was an important ancient civilization on the coastline of what is now Lebanon. They were great traders and travellers, and the business empire of the early western world. They invented a type of writing where each sound had a symbol which is the ancient ancestor of our modern letters.

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Another issue the quotation about alphabets raises is the number twenty six. Modern English actually uses more symbols than the standard twenty six letters. For example here are the more common English symbols.


$    ¢       %      &     *   ?    ©    ®     @  


Symbols are not letters, but they do look like extra letters. Letters are phonetic symbols that represent sounds; although not always the same sound. Symbols are more like Chinese characters because they represent a specific meaning. There are many symbols in our life. Company trademarks are also symbols, such as the MTR sign. In Hong Kong there are some special symbols, such as the typhoon warning symbols. (

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There are two important style suggestions about symbols in sentences. It is not good style to begin sentences with a symbol. If you are writing an article about symbols it might make sense to ignore the normal style. (Also quotations must keep the original form.) This question of style is not strictly an error, but ignoring it makes your writing look unusual and it should be avoided.

So, the sentence:


% is used more often in tables and charts.


It is better written as:


The symbol % is used more often in tables and charts.




Tables and charts more often use %.


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The second suggestion is more flexible than the first. It is better to use the full name in a sentence, rather than the symbol. Use and instead of &. Use percent instead of %. Use dollar instead of $. Use one instead of 1. As the example sentence above suggests, symbols are more common in tables and charts than in sentences. Keep in mind this is a style suggestion and not a rule; the writer can choose either. For example large numbers or long sequences of numbers often are not spelled out if it would make the sentence much longer.


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The telephone number for Ming Pao is two eight nine eight three seven eight three.(Fax number)


Symbols are an important part of any language and need to be understood. However outside of Hong Kong, English uses one alphabet of twenty six letters. But then English speakers will raid other languages' alphabets to create symbols we need.

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by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.