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English Spelling

November 17, 2021

Spelling is an important skill for appearing to be intelligent and educated. Notice I said “appearing.” Being a good speller doesn’t prove intelligence. But readers can be harsh about bad spelling, even for the most “innocent” errors—perhaps especially for the innocent errors. Example: it’s does not equal its. Mixing these up in certain circumstances makes readers think the writer is ill educated. No writer wants that.

Checking documents for spelling is a must. I’m amazed at the people who leave the most obvious spelling errors in important documents simply because they forgot to run spell check. Of course, we all have to remember that computer spell checkers are not foolproof. Only good spellers can make proper use of computer spell checkers!

As a boy, I was taught to read by the “see and say” method. I never learned  phonics. Actually, knowing phonics won’t automatically make anyone a good speller either. English has a complex pronunciation system. What we see is not always what we say. Many English words have surprising pronunciations.

English does have some handy guidelines for spelling. Potatoes: -es after an o and a consonant. Or churches and foxes. When we emphasize a pluralized syllable, we usually add –es. Nouns and their related adjectives often  have different spellings. See callus and callous.

Modern English is a tough to spell because of its historical development from at least three languages over time. In American English today there are 40 sounds, but 200 pronunciations of those sounds. English is a highly conservative language because we keep the same spelling even though pronunciation changes. In the 14th C the word knight was pronounced “kuh-nee-guh-tuh.” We are stuck with the old spelling, but that’s good. The word knight, the way it looks, has garnered a ton of significance.  

Simplify English spelling? Forget it! We’ve grown used to the look of the word knight. We have an emotional attachment to the word. Consider the same sound, night. Same sounds, completely different emotions. Each word could be simplified to nite. But this change would be revolting to experienced English readers!

If we modernized English spelling, we couldn’t read older books. Remember too that English is a world language. There are more ESL speakers than native speakers of English. That’s amazing.

If we changed spelling, it would have to change for all speakers around the world. But each group of English speakers pronounces words slightly differently. But English spelling is still amazingly uniform.

Before 1755, there was a lot of variation in English spelling, but in that year the English author Samuel Johnson published the first great dictionary of the English language. From that point on, English spelling has tended to standardization. And that’s good for the whole world!