Academic Writing

Spelling

It is often suggested that the English spelling system is illogical, irregular and out of date. It is true that there are some idiosyncratic features of English spelling - often with historical explanations - but in general, most English words are spelled quite logically. It is only if an attempt is made to draw a 1:1 correspondence between sound and spelling that these features seem to be irregular. English spelling is not a direct representation of sounds. Some features of English spelling are only irregular when attempts are made to relate letters to sounds. If other factors are considered they are much more regular. Here are some examples:

The English spelling system is related to grammar.

The words "dog", "cat" and "horse" can all be made plural by adding an "s" - "dogs", "cats" & "horses". But if the words are spoken, then the plural "s" is pronounced in different ways - /dɒgz/, /kæts/, /hɔ:sɪz/. The written plural "s" is pronounced in a different way - /dɒgz/, /kæts/, /hɔ:sɪz/.

Should they therefore be spelled differently?

The written "s" might not tell you how to pronounce the words, but it does give you important grammatical information. In this case it indicates that the word is a plural.

Similarly, the words "walk", "show" and "want" can all be put into the past by adding "ed" - "walked" "showed" & "wanted" but again these words are then pronounced differently - /wɑ:kt/, /ʃəʊd/, /wɒntɪd/. The written past tense "ed" is pronounced differently - /wɑ:kt/, /ʃəʊd/, /wɒntɪd/. Once more, the "ed" might not tell you how to pronounce the words, but it does give you important grammatical information.

English spelling also gives grammatical information. For example many abstract nouns are spelled with "tion" - "imagination" and "pronunciation".

The English spelling system is related to meaning.

If we take related words like "medicine" and "medical"- /medsɪn/ and /medɪkl/. Both of these words have a "c" in them: "medicine" and "medical". However in one case, the "c" is pronounced /s/ and in the other /k/ - /medsɪn/ and /medɪkl/.

In English, words that look the same tend to mean the same, even if they are pronounced differently. Other examples are the "a" in "nation" and "national"; the "i" in "crime" and "criminal"; the "o" in "democrat" and "democracy" etc.

There are also pairs of words like "sign" and "signal", "knowledge" and "acknowledge", "academic" and "academy", "tutor" and "tutorial", and "bomb" and "bombardier". Being aware of the relationship can help spelling.

Conversely "there" and "their" have different meanings. "There" and "their" are homophones - same pronunciation but different meanings and, therefore, spellings. Other examples are: "pare", "pair" and "pear"; "male" and "mail"; "cue" and "queue"; "ewe" and "you"; "plane" and "plain"; "summery" and "summary"; "formerly" and "formally" etc. In English words that look different tend to have different meanings.

Click here for a homophone exercise.

The English spelling system is related to position in the word.

George Bernard Shaw argued that the word /fɪʃ/ could be spelled "ghoti" in English. /f/ could be spelled "gh" as in "enough"; /ɪ/ could be spelled "o" as in "women", and /ʃ/ could be spelled "ti" as in "nation". Was he right? No. 'gh' is only pronounced /f/ at ends of words - "tough" "cough" etc. or after vowels as in "draught." At the beginning of words "gh" as in "ghost" and "ghetto" can only be pronounced /g/. "o" is only pronounced /ɪ/ in "women" and "ti" is only pronounced /ʃ/ with "on" in /ʃn/ as in "nation". It cannot be separated.

Therefore /fɪʃ/ could not be spelled "ghoti". It can also be argued that "fish" cannot be spelled any other way.

These are a good example of how the spelling of English words is more closely related to aspects of language other than the pronunciation. It is related to meaning and grammar. Taking this into account can help with spelling in English.

However, if you can pronounce a word but do not know how to spell it, when you have thought about the meaning, click  Pronunciation→Spelling for some help.