Q&A: “Wonderous” vs “wondrous” vs “wonderful”

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, wonders will never cease…

Q: Hi AWC, is there a difference between “wonderous” and “wondrous”?

A: Yes.

Q: Oh. Because I’m always using “wonderous”…

A: Yeah, you might want to stop. 

Q: Why?

A: Because only “wondrous” is an actual word.

Q: Whaaaaaa?

A: Sorry to be the bearer of such awkward news.

Q: But but but… “wonder” and “wonderful” and “wonderland” and “wonderment” and “wonderwall” and “Wonder Woman”…

A: Your point?

Q: Well they all have the full word “wonder” in them.

A: Not a very sharp point. 

Q: Why would English just DROP the “e” to create “wondrous”? I don’t understand.

A: English does what English wants.

Q: Ugh.

A: Seriously though, you might be pleased to know that “wonderous” WAS a real word for a few centuries. But “wondrous” won out and remains today.

Q: But why would it be the one to win?

A: Well, the noun “wonder” is pretty old – dating all the way back to the 13th century, from Old English with German influences.

Q: Wunderbar!

A: Exactly. Anyway, “wonder” had a lot in common with “marvel” – which, along with its adjective “marvellous”, came from Old French. “Merveilleux” meant both marvellous and full of wonder.

Q: Hang on, side question… is it “marvelous” or “marvellous”?

A: British English (including Australia) is two Ls, like the original French. America spells it with just one.

Q: Okay.

A: Where were we? Ah yes. By the 16th century, “wonder” needed its own adjective, and it initially just used “wonders”. But eventually, it combined this short form with the suffix style of “marvellous” and somehow the result was “wondrous”.

Q: It still seems very strange…

A: There was actually a lot of this kind of shortening going on at the time, typically with French words. Take for example, “disaster” – arriving in English in the 1560s from French “désastre”. It’s adjective followed shortly after – “disastrous” from the French form “désastreux”.

Q: Ah, well, THAT makes a bit more sense.

A: A similar thing happened with the adjective of “monster” – another French word (“monstre”) that kept its form when becoming “monstrous”.

Q: But you said “wondrous” WASN’T French in origin?

A: That’s true, it wasn’t. However, it was influenced by the French “marvel” words. You might even say it became part of the Marvel Semantic Universe.

Q: Haha, cute. Don’t tell Wonder Woman.

A: Anyway, whatever the case, “wondrous” took on this French-style form, and as we noted earlier, despite “wonderous” kicking about for a few centuries, by the 1800s, the absent “e” form had won out.

Q: Yeah, but then you have “wonderful” – what’s the difference there?

A: Good question. “Wonderful” came along after “wondrous” had already set up shop. Essentially, they are synonyms – although there are some subtle differences.

Q: Examples?

A: Wondrous describes something that inspires awe – a thing to be “marvelled at”. Meanwhile, “wonderful” excites wonder from the observer, literally filling them with wonder. It’s subtle, but “wondrous” is the thing and “wonderful” is the viewer’s reaction to that thing.

Q: Um, so… examples?

A: Ah right. Well, you might say, “It’s wonderful to see you” rather than “It’s wondrous to see you”. However, “the clouds glowed with a wondrous light” feels more appropriate than “a wonderful light”. 

Q: So “wondrous” is more magical, while “wonderful” is more exciting?

A: Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it. Just remember, there will also be times when either could work, so that’s your job as a writer to pick the best one.

Q: But just don’t pick “wonderous”, right?

A: That’s right, don’t do that. Some corners of the internet might call it a ‘variant’ of “wondrous” but we recommend steering clear of “wonderous” altogether.

Q: Well, you’ve given me a lot to ponder. Some might even call it ponderous…

A: Yes, we get it. English is horribly inconsistent!

Q: Cue the thunderous applause…

 

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