spelling

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

spelling and vowel sounds
Although good and food contain the same vowel letters ( oo), in most dialects of English these two words aren't pronounced the same. English has 20 vowel sounds but just five proper vowel letters. This discrepancy, says linguist David Crystal, "underlies the complexity of English spelling.". (James A. Guilliam/Getty Images)

Definition

In written language, spelling is the choice and arrangement of letters that form words.

"English spelling," says R.L. Trask, "is notoriously complex, irregular, and eccentric, more so than in almost any other written language" (Mind the Gaffe!, 2006).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology
From Middle English, "reading letter by letter"
 

Examples and Observations

  • "[S]pelling is not a reliable index of intelligence. . . . Many intelligent people struggle with English spelling, while others will find it comparatively easy to master. Learning to spell correctly requires remembering numerous unusual and peculiar spelling forms. Some people are just better at this form of rote learning than others. . . .

    "One of the reasons why English spelling is so unpredictable is because its vocabulary consists of many words derived from other languages, which have been adopted with their original spellings intact. Understanding the origins of these words and the languages they have come from will help help with spelling them."
    (Simon Horobin, Does Spelling Matter? Oxford University Press, 2013)
     
  • A Mutt of a Language
    "That English is such a mutt of a language only served to make the resulting spellings that much harder. Old English had already been borrowing from, and interbreeding with, Dutch and Latin before the Norman invasion. The arrival of Norman French opened the floodgates for more linguistic mixing and orthographic variability."
    (David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. Harper, 2010)

     
  • Spellings and Respellings in Early Modern English
    "The high status accorded to the classical tongues in the Early Modern period meant that Latin and Greek words were adopted with their spellings intact--so we find Greek 'phi' spelled with a 'ph' rather than an 'f' in philosophy and physics. A reverence for Latinate spellings prompted the respelling of a number of words previously borrowed into English directly from French, whose origins lay in Latin. A silent 'b' was added to debt and doubt to align them with the Latin debitum and dubitarer; a silent 'c' was inserted into scissors (Latin scissor); 'l' was introduced into salmon (Latin salmo), and a silent 'p' into receipt (Latin receptum). In most cases these silent letters drove spelling and pronunciation further apart, though in some instances, like perfect and adventure (Middle English parfait and aventure), the inserted letter is now sounded."
    (Simon Horobin, How English Became English. Oxford University Press, 2016)

     
  • A Spelling Challenge (Canadian Edition)
    "[I]t remains unlikely that most of us could spell the following sentence correctly on the first attempt, without a computerized word-check, and without reading it over first: 'We should accommodate the possibility of unparalleled embarrassment occurring in an eccentric physicist who endeavours, though harassed by diarrhoea, to gauge the symmetry of a horse caught gambolling in ecstasy within the precincts of a cemetery wall.'"
    (Margaret Visser, The Way We Are. HarperCollins, 1994)
     
  • Standardization of English Spelling
    "For most of the history of the language, English speakers took a lackadaisical approach to spelling; the notion that a word should always be spelled the same way is a much more recent invention than the language itself. The standardization of English spelling began in the 16th century, and although it is unclear at exactly what point our spelling became set, what is certain is that ever since it happened, people have complained that the rules of spelling, such as they are, just don’t make sense."
    (Ammon Shea, "The Keypad Solution." The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 22, 2010)
     
  • American Spelling and British Spelling
    "George Bernard Shaw once defined the British and Americans as two peoples separated by a common language. Not just in accent and vocabulary but in spelling, too, this is true.

    "Like the spelling of 'honor' versus 'honour' and 'defense' versus 'defence,' the use of one L versus two in certain positions in words is a sure sign of American English. Classic examples include American 'traveled,' 'jewelry,' 'counselor,' and 'woolen' versus British and Commonwealth 'travelled,' 'jewellery,' 'counsellor,' and 'woollen.' Yet American spelling may sometimes take two L's, not only in obvious cases like 'hall' but in 'controlled,' 'impelled,' (from 'control' and 'impel') and elsewhere.

    "Most of our specifically American spelling rules come from Noah Webster, the Connecticut-born educator and lexicographer whose magnum opus was his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language."
    (David Sacks, Language Visible. Broadway, 2003)
     
  • Reading and Spelling
    "There is no necessary link . . . between reading and spelling: there are many people who have no difficulty in reading, but who have a major persistent handicap in spelling--this may be as many as 2% of the population. There seems moreover to be a neuro-anatomical basis for the distinction, for there are brain-damaged adults who can read but not spell, and vice versa."
    (David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2006)
     
  • Belloc on the Worship of Spelling
    "What fun our posterity will have with our ridiculous worship of spelling!

    "It has not lasted very long. There has not really been such a thing as spelling for much more than two hundred years in English, and there was no religion of it till perhaps a hundred years ago. . . .

    "Our fathers cared so little for the ridiculous things that they did not even spell their own names the same way throughout their lives, and as for common words they seem to have had an instinct which I cannot but applaud for ennobling them with repetitions of letters and flourishes, with the pretty trick of using a 'y' for an 'i' and doubling consonants. In general they were all for festooning and decorating, which is a very honest and noble taste. When they said of a man 'I esteam hym ne moore than a pygge' one knows what they meant and one feels their contempt vibrating. Put into the present stereotyped form it would far less affect, or effect, us."
    (Hilaire Belloc, "On Spelling." New Statesman, June 28, 1930)
     
  • The Lighter Side of Spelling
    - "'A very pretty speech--s-p-e-e-c-h,' sneered the bee. 'Now why don't you go away? I was just advising the lad of the importance of proper spelling.'

    "'BAH! said the bug, putting an arm around Milo. 'As soon as you learn to spell one word, they ask you to spell another. You can never catch up--so why bother? Take my advice, my boy, and forget about it. As my great-great-great-grandfather George Washington Humbug used to say--'

    "'You, sir,' shouted the bee very excitedly, 'are an impostor--i-m-p-o-s-t-o-r--who can't even spell his own name.'

    "'A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect,' roared the Humbug, waving his cane furiously."
    (Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth. Random House, 1961)


    - "Somebody who’s working for the city should learn how to S-P-E-L-L.

    "A slew of officials have failed to report a humiliating spelling error--'SHCOOL X-NG'--plastered on Stanton Street outside a Lower East Side high school for months."
    (Jennifer Bain and Jeane Macintosh, "In for a Bad Spell." New York Post, Jan. 24, 2012)

     

    Pronunciation: SPEL-ing

    Also Known As: orthography