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.
For the opposite problem of decoding a written word into sounds see Sounding out words.
An urban myth – often repeated by teachers and students alike – is that English spelling has no rules, is chaotic, at best irregular and so on. However, as David Crystal points out, there are only around 400 everyday words with totally irregular spelling – and it is precisely the fact that they are so frequently encountered that is the origin of the myth. One particular computer analysis of 17,000 words showed that 84% were spelled according to a regular pattern – and only 3% were so irregular that they have to be learned by heart.
Crystal points out that children at school are rarely taught how to spell, even though they are "rigorously tested" in spelling.
Many of the words that do not conform to spelling rules are among the most commonly used in modern English. Consequently, words such as do, done, give, said, of, people and have, though irregular, are so frequently used that even people with difficulty in spelling have no problem learning to write them correctly.
Where does this myth come from? Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Thomas Sheridan, the 18th century elocutionist and campaigner for the standardisation of the English language in education, and father of the rather more famous R. B. Sheridan. Apparently more motivated by the need to improve the art of preaching than any other consideration, Sheridan stated that the English spelling system was worse than "the darkest hieroglyphics or the most difficult ciphers which the art of man has hitherto invented". Mind you, given that Sheridan was also a playwright, married to a playwright, and had to compete with a son who was an even more successful playwright, his theatrical rhetoric is only to be expected.
The myth was further stoked with the following amusing ditty from the 19th century, wrongly attributed to the 20th century author George Bernard Shaw, as it first appears in a letter dated a year before Shaw was born, claiming that the spelling for fish could quite easily be ghoti according to the following "rules":
- gh, pronounced [f] as in tough [tʌf];
- o, pronounced [ɪ] as in women [ˈwɪmɪn]; and
- ti, pronounced [ʃ] as in nation [ˈneɪʃən].
However, as Crystal points out, the combination gh is never used for that sound at the beginning of a word, and ti is never used for that sound at the end of a word. A far more ingenious, or dare one say witty, ditty is Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through, I ought to cross the lough.
Some common spelling rules
"i before e except after c"
Although many native English speakers confuse the combination ei and ie in words such as believe and ceiling, the UK government report, Support for Spelling (2009), states that "The i before e except after c rule is not worth teaching... There are so few words... that it is easier to learn the specific words: receive, conceive, deceive..., perceive and ceiling". David Crystal, however, points out that there are, in fact, more words than the few suggested by the report.
- "ie": believe; chief; piece; etc.;
- "ei": ceiling; deceive; perceive; receive; etc.;
- ei followed by –gh and pronounced /eɪ/ as in ‘day’: eight; weigh; weight; etc.;
Note the following exceptions:
- "ei": caffeine, either, foreign, height, leisure, neither, seize and weird.
- "ie": flies, science, tried, etc.
See main article Silent e
Before suffixes that begin with a vowel (e.g. -ing; -able; -y; -ous), we usually drop the final -e of a word ending in -e: have - having; hope – hoping; sample - sampling; write – writing; note – notable; recycle - recyclable; shade – shady; fame – famous;
Before suffixes that begin with a consonant (e.g. -ment; -ness; -ly; etc.), the final -e is not dropped: excite – excitement; definite – definitely; late – lately; complete – completeness; trouble - troublesome;
Exception: words ending in Cle (where C is a consonant) instead of adding -ly replace the e by y. possible - possibly; simple - simply; variable - variably;
y and i
When we add an ending to a word that ends in -y, we usually change -y to -i: hurry – hurried; happy – happily; busy – business; easy – easier;
Except for endings beginning with -i (e.g. -ing; -ism; -ish): try – trying; baby – babyish
We do not change -y to i after a vowel: play – played/playing; buy – buying; enjoy – enjoyment
Exceptions: say – said; pay – paid; lay – laid;
We change -ie to -y before -ing: die – dying; lie – lying
A matter of opinion
Apart from the obvious differences in spelling reflected by British English and American English dictionaries, newspapers' and publishers' style guides may also differ. Thus, in the UK, while The Times style guide favours moveable and The Guardian's favours movable, both recommend judgement. Curiously, this is in disagreement with both the Cambridge University Press' and the Oxford University Press' judgment. Judges, by the way, always use judgment.Reference needed
American spelling v. British spelling
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 *); 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
Students might also need to be shown what Larry Trask refers to as "joke spelling", 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.
There are several exercises and games which practise spelling, including:
- American English v. British English
- Consonant cluster
- Latin alphabet
- Silent e
- Silent letter
- Spell checker
- Spelling reform
- Vocabulary ELT games
- "A brief history of English spelling" The English Spelling Society. Retrieved 12th October 2012.
- Crystal, D. The English Language Penguin ISBN 0-14-100396-0
- Crystal, D. Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling Profile Books ISBN 978-184668567 5
- Zimmer, Ben. "Ghoti" before Shaw Retrieved 25th September 2012.
- Trask, R. L. Mind the Gaffe (2001), ISBN 0-14-051476-7
- Some phonetics rules
- Oxford Dictionaries: Spelling rules and tips
- Oxford Dictionaries: "i before e except after c"
- "The Classic Concordance of Cacographic Chaos" The Simplified Spelling Society
- Oxford Dictionaries: Are there any English words containing the same letter three times in a row?
- Twelve Top Spelling Tips The Collins English Dictionary