Why Spelling in English Is a Minefield and How You Can Learn to Spell Easily, Even So
Why care if you can spell words in English properly? What difference does it make now that you aren’t in school anymore?
In fact, there are a multitude of advantages to spelling well, to knowing how to do it yourself and not relying on a review service to do it for you, for how can you tell if they have done it correctly? Computers are not perfect.
In addition, spelling errors can suggest a person is less credible and intelligent than they actually are. Did you know that resumes are thrown out or dismissed if there are just a few misspelled words? For some companies and businesses even one misspelled word is a problem. Are you aware that everywhere you message on social media reflects the quality of your ability to communicate, and that misspelled words are noticed?
Yet spelling in English is far from easy!
When asked why English was so hard to spell and why bother, anyway, the American humorist Mark Twain said he could invent his own words and would that help? So he wrote this, a phonetic version. It makes perfect sense read aloud: “Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.”
However, if we all did this on our own terms we would never be able to communicate in writing…:-). There is a powerful reason for adhering to spelling rules. They give us coherence and continuity and a shared way of relating to one another on paper and on-screen.
This is especially true because our spoken English is not a reliable measurement. Dialects and regional differences change how words are pronounced. The sentence “I am quite skilled at discovering where missing objects have gone” would sound something like this in Scots English: “A’m ferr skilled at discovering whaur missing objects hae gaen.” In Ireland it could sound like this: “ I am quite skelled at descahverin where messin ahbjects ‘ave gahne.” In the American Southern accent some vowels shift, dropping the “e” so that “I like fine wine” might sound like “ ah lak fan wan.”
Without the written words being available and spelled the same way for everyone, it would be rather difficult to know the meaning of what was being conveyed if the dialect or regional accent were also transcribed into the written form.
BUT…when it comes to spelling words the right way in English, there are some twists and turns along the way! Why is that?
Long ago in the British Isles, English evolved as a language shaped by many other languages, the legacy of one invader after another. The power of English to survive over the centuries lay in how it could absorb words from those languages and re-fashion them into its own. It is a fascinating subject where you can trace how words have morphed into being written like the ones we use today. The journey of doing that is like following clues in an intricate mystery.
This is why it is a rich language now, filled with subtle meanings that underlie other meanings of most words, layers arising out of our ancient past and literally from other civilizations.
Very often, a word can have so many definitions it takes a full page of the dictionary to display them all. It is a wondrous thing! Have a look at this article showing how the word “run” has 645 different meanings, the word “go” has 368, and the word “turn” has 288. It is astonishing that so many people are able learn English really well as a Second Language — they are managing to outwit what is viewed as one of the most impossible languages to adapt to!
But it is not necessarily wondrous to us when we are trying to remember how to spell many of the words we have, because the rules that come out of that mysterious morphing process make little sense, and even linguistic scholars have to admit this fact. These rules have often derived from carryovers from previous stages of written English across the centuries.
There was an event now called The Great Vowel Shift beginning in the 15th century that changed and standardized how words were intended to be spoken officially for the first time (though the variants of accent would always remain). But alas, there was no comparable process developed and codified to ensure the new sounds were spelled in new ways to match. In fact, there was no consistency in spelling at all. You could take your own name and spell it several different ways on legal papers you signed or receipts you handed over. Shakespeare famously did this. Any word could appear in various forms — spoken the same way, but spelled differently. Even wills and deeds of land had no consistent form for the words in them.
To compound this inconsistency, objects could be spelled multiple ways to indicate different uses. Samuel Johnson, who created our first comprehensive dictionary in 1755, changed the spelling of many words that sounded the same in order to distinguish their meaning. So thanks to him we have the exact same sound for words like these, meaning we have to be sure what it is we mean to convey so that we use the right spelling:
allowed — aloud
sheer — shear
ate — eight
fair — fare
seen — scene
board — bored
pear — pair — pare
whether — weather
peer — pier
dissent — descent
pallet — palette
stationery — stationary
and a thousand more…!!
(Just a quick note: British spelling and American spelling of English words can be different, especially in the use of the letters “s” and “z”. That also is a whole other subject.)
Probably the greatest puzzle lies in the silent “e”, the letter “e” being part of the spelling of the word but not pronounced. It is often called the “magic e” in schools. What is it for? Logic does not really apply here, either. Middle English, the language of Chaucer shown in the photo above, had double e’s often for words and they were actually both pronounced. But when our modern English was codified, there were rules set up to retain one “e” but keep it silent in certain words, ostensibly to control how other vowels and consonants were pronounced (a linguistic debate still ongoing). For this reason among many others, spelling English phonetically is a futile task, as Mark Twain showed. Here are some familiar examples of the silent “e” where logic most definitely does not apply:
Words ending in “ble” like audible, capable, unthinkable…
Words preceded by the letter “u” like subdue…
Words with “e” at the end, like spoke, loose, wine, hope…
And more: gauge, knowledge, route, mile, notice...
(Note: Though I won’t go into it here in depth, in modern English when these same words have a suffix added like “ing,” sometimes the “e” stays in the word, still not pronounced, as in “noticeable” and “mileage,” and sometimes it is left out, as with “noticing” and “routing.” Whose idea was that??)
One very familiar spelling rule is also, against common belief, not always true: the “i before e except after c” adage doesn’t explain words like “height” or “science” or “foreign” or “weird” or “weight.”
I could go on (and on… :-) with many more inconsistencies of spelling that have created English into the complex, intricate, and, it must be said, magical language it is today. The history of the evolution of the English language and how to spell its words is fascinating.
But while that may inspire you to want to spell well, it doesn’t necessarily help you do so.
So What CAN You Do?
The standard answers given by professionals on how to improve spelling are good ones, rightful ones, for if followed they do bring awareness of spelling correctly to a high level of skill. You are encouraged to:
- Read a great deal more than you are doing now.
- Keep a dictionary near and use it constantly to look up every word you don’t recognize.
- Make a list every day of words new to you that you want to spell correctly.
- Create mnemonics — which means to create a verse or memory to associate with a spelling rule. A popular one for hear/here, for example, is “You hEAR with your EAR.” Another one reminds you “Your princiPAL is your PAL; a principLE is a ruLE.”
But what is the most effective thing you can do? This:
- Write the word slowly five times in a row in a vertical column. Look at the column when you are done and say one word loudly: “YES!”
- Write down that word just once in a sentence below the column.
- Say that sentence aloud three times.
And there you go.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet you will be astonished at how it changes your perception of the word, and how you never forget how to spell it afterwards. It’s a part of your psyche now.
Try it. See what happens.
I taught English as a language for many years at the university. Yet I am still discovering something new and intriguing about its layers of meaning all the time.
Words are our greatest practical achievement. Owning them for ourselves by spelling them the way they are meant to be spelled will enhance your life, and bring you a greater awareness of this remarkable English language you’ve been using all your days. Yes, it really will.
See also my article on how Old English words are still in use today, over a thousand years later: Why Do English Words Have So Many Meanings? Consider “Macbeth”…