Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In The Devil's Dictionary (1911), Ambrose Bierce defined orthography as "the science of spelling by the eye instead of the ear.". (Skopein/Getty Images)


Orthography is the practice or study of correct spelling according to established usage. In a broader sense, orthography can refer to the study of letters and how they are used to express sounds and form words. Adjective: orthographic or orthographical.

"Prosody and orthography are not parts of grammar," Ben Johnson wrote in the early 1600s, "but diffused like the blood and spirits through the whole."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "correct writing"

Examples and Observations

  • "Some people have an idea that correct spelling can be taught, and taught to anybody. That is a mistake. The spelling faculty is born in man, like poetry, music and art. It is a gift; a talent. People who have this talent in a high degree need only to see a word once in print and it is forever photographed upon their memory. They cannot forget it. People who haven't it must be content to spell more or less like thunder, and expect to splinter the dictionary wherever their orthographic lightning happens to strike."
    (Mark Twain at the opening of a spelling contest in Connecticut in 1875; quoted by Simon Horobin in Does Spelling Matter? Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Graphology
    "In linguistics, . . . the name for the study of the writing system is graphology, a level of language parallel to phonology. The earlier, prescriptive sense of the term [orthography] continues to be used, but the later, more neutral sense is common among scholars of language."
    (Tom McArthur, Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)
  • Spelling Variations
    "Even in orthography, the area that is often said to have become completely standardized by 1800, we find a remarkable amount of variation, as Sidney Greenbaum established in 1986. He carried out a survey to estimate how much spelling variation there was in Modern English. . . . He found an average of three variant forms per page [of a dictionary]--296 entries. . . . As a percentage of all the entries in the dictionary, this was a remarkable 5.6 per cent."
    (David Crystal, The Stories of English. Overlook, 2004)
  • Ben Franklin's Warning
    "[Benjamin] Franklin felt that the ever-widening gap between spelling and pronunciation was leading the language down a denigrating path toward a logographic orthography, in which symbols represent whole words, not a system for producing sound units, as in c-a-t. He considered languages like Mandarin ghastly for their memorization requirements, an 'old manner of Writing' that was less sophisticated than a phonological alphabet. 'If we go on as we have done a few Centuries longer,' Franklin warned, 'our words will gradually cease to express sounds, they will only stand for things.'"
    (David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. Harper, 2010)
  • Spelling Reform
    "Like such ideological forefathers as George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, [Edward Rondthaler] wants to clear up the whims of spelling by adopting a more phonetic version of English, one where words are written as they sound and pronounced as they are written. . . .

    "'The kee to ending English iliterasy is to adopt a speling that's riten as it sounds,' he writes in his fashion."
    (Joseph Berger, "Struggling to Put the 'Ortho' Back in Orthography." The New York Times, Apr. 23, 1994)
  • The Lighter Side of Orthography

    If you've grown weary of hearing that you need to improve your spelling skills, consider these options.

    #1 Boost your self-esteem and baffle your acquaintances by insisting that you're a specialist in cacography. You don't need to tell them that cacography is nothing more than a fancy term for bad spelling.

    #2 Blame the English language. Compared to German, for instance, English spelling is unquestionably haphazard, eccentric, and sometimes downright perverse. Need an example? In English, cough, plough, rough, and through don't rhyme. (Of course, despite all the vagaries of English spelling, millions of people have figured out the system.)

    #3 Remind your teachers and friends that not all great writers have been great spellers, and then as evidence point them to Shakespeare's Sonnet 138 in its original form:

    When my love sweares that she is made of truth,
    I do beleeve her, though I know she lyes,
    That she might thinke me some untuterd youth,
    Unlearned in the worlds false subtilties.

    But be careful: some wiseacre might remind you that Shakespeare wrote in an era before English spelling had been standardized. In fact, Will died 40 years before the publication of the first comprehensive English dictionary (Thomas Blount's Glossographia in 1656).

    #4 Work on improving your spelling skills. Seriously--spelling matters. According to a report from BBC News, three-quarters of employers say that they would be put off by a job candidate who had poor spelling or grammar.

    Pronunciation: or-THOG-rah-fee