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Spelling is the action of forming a word with the necessary letters and punctuation marks in a standardised manner.

Compared to some other languages, English has a somewhat looser connection between the way a word is spelt and the way it is pronounced. There are various historic reasons for these differences and some people have advocated spelling reform in order to regularise the language.

One reason for problems stems from the alphabet itself, a problem for which, somewhat oddly, we can blame the French. Prior to the Norman invasion English was progressing towards a phonetic spelling system with a sign for its many different vowel sounds. Following the invasion the French invaders insisted that only the vowel letters AEIOU should be used and the twenty-plus English vowel sounds had to somehow be shoe-horned into these letters.

English spelling today reflects Old English (12th century) pronunciation and 15th century spelling, not modern pronunciation, which is why there are so many apparent incongruences. One reason for this was the result of printers' - often immigrants who spoke little English - decisions in the early days of the printing press. Paid by the line, they tended to lengthen words to earn more money and/or to make margins look neater.[1]

For the opposite problem of decoding a written word into sounds see Decoding written words.

Very nice site!

Very nice site!

Very nice site!

American spelling v. British spelling[edit]

See main section: American English v. British English#Spelling.

Verbs ending in -ise and -ize

In British English these verbs can be spelt with either -ise or -ize. American English tends to use -ize: realise/realize (BrE) – realize (AmE);

The general rule is that verbs containing the Greek suffix -ize must always be spelt that way in American English but can also be spelt -ise in British English.

Some exceptions – these are written -ise even in American English: surprise (NOT *surprize); exercise; supervise; advise; revise; If in doubt, remember -ise is usually correct in British English.

-re v. -er
-re in BrE (theatre, centre, litre, etc.) but -er in AmE (theater, center, liter, etc.);
-our v. or
-our in BrE (colour, honour, favour, etc.) but -or in AmE (color, honor, favor, etc.);
other words
sulphur in BrE (and sulphuric, sulphates, etc.) but - sulfur in AmE (and sulfuric, sulfates etc.);


Everyday words that are especially confusing for students include the following:

through vs though vs thought

Joke spelling[edit]

Students might also need to be shown what Larry Trask refers to as "joke spelling",[2] i.e. words like lite, thru, nite, etc. Not, obviously, for their active use, but so they understand 'em when they come across up against 'em. Likewise, non-standard contractions like wanna, gonna, etc.

Note 1
The OED records over 60 different spellings for night in Middle English, including the one above and the one that finally prevailed.[3]


There are several exercises and games which practise spelling, including:

See also[edit]


  1. "A brief history of English spelling" The English Spelling Society. Retrieved 12th October 2012.
  2. Trask, R. L. Mind the Gaffe (2001), ISBN 0-14-051476-7
  3. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named out

External links[edit]