Question: “I have a Facebook friend who constantly mixes up ‘aisle’ and ‘isle’ in his posts. Can you write a column I could (subtly) link to him?”
Answer: The grammar confusion I can address – but I’ll leave it to you to find a tactful way to show it to your friend. Subtlety isn’t always my strong suit.
Both “aisle” and “isle” come to us from Latin through Old French. Interestingly, the Oxford Dictionaries show them briefly coming together in the form of “ile” in Middle English. Their origins and meanings are distinct, though.
“Aisle” derives from the Latin ala, which translates to “wing” in English. This is preserved in one meaning of “aisle,” which is “the side of a church nave separated by piers from the nave proper.” Most commonly, though, the word “aisle” simply means “a passage between sections of seats” or “a passage where people walk,” like in a supermarket.
“Isle” derives from the Latin insula, which translates to “island.” That’s convenient, because that’s what “isle” means in English, too. It doesn’t have any other meanings either, to my knowledge.
This one is really simple: “Aisle” with an “A” is what you walk down and what politicians (theoretically) reach across. “Isle” with an “I” is an island. Since “isle” and “island” both start with “I,” it should be a simple thing to remember.
As always, thanks for writing in. I’m always looking for new grammar issues to tackle, so please keep the letters coming!