[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1983 pp2-6]
[Ayb Citron: see Journals, Newsletters, Anthology, Bulletins.]

SSS conference 3: Implementing Spelling Reform.

"Spelling reform as a redistribution of power;

by Abraham F. Citron, Ph.D.,

Director of Better Education thru Simplified Spelling, Bloomfield Hills, MI.
Presented at the Third International Conference on Reading and Spelling, Edinburgh, July, 1981.


Spelling reformers have assumed the movement for reform was an academic discussion, a question of psycholinguistics, a pedagogic decision in curriculum, or an educator's debate.

Members of the reading establishment have done and are doing all in their power to encourage this view.

As long as reformers, under this impression, discuss, debate, conduct experiments, expend energy looking for "that perfect system," and attempt to convince educators, literati, intelligensia, professors, pundits, that our system should be reformed, practically an progress will be made.

in our society, control of language by groups contributes directly to their power. Also, individual skills in language, spoken and especially written, lead to income, influence and power. The movement for the simplification of our spelling should be seen as essentially a struggle for the wider distribution of power.

The movement for spelling reform is actually a section of the general democratic movement of the Western World, during which, ever since the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, power, educational and economic, has been more widely distributed in the population.

This paper (a) places spelling reform in the background of the development of writing, (b) points out some of the irrational supports of the present antiquated system, (c) given the nature of the struggle, outlines a strategy of practical reform. It identifies those institutions whose interests might direct them into the movement for spelling reform: (1) business and industry, (2) newspaper publishing, (3) Department of Defense, (4) science, (5) organized labor.


The inconsistencies and absurdities of our spelling are notorious and need not be documented here. We are interested in how such a cultural lag can continue to exist in our society.

Irrational support of an Irrational System in the Schools.

Our spelling is an antiquated, wasteful, and inefficient, so out of place in a practical, technological, market-oriented society which needs to save energy and time, that there must be deeply-set, irrational forces holding such a system in place. It is the identification of these forces and some of the forces making for reform which is the subject of this paper.

First, consider what a marvelous subject spelling is to a school bureaucracy and to an educational establishment. Here is the chief jewel in the diadem of automatic, grind, drill, and memorize subjects.

Spelling organizes itself; it may be pounded, drilled, marshalled, and memorized. It organizes itself into a neat progression from little words to bigger words, and from letters, sounded as spoken to silent letters or letters sounded differently. Spelling may be taught by persons lacking in innovation or creativity; indeed, a case can be made that teachers who threaten tots out of their wits may turn out better spelling grades (perhaps not better spellers) than more subtle teachers, aware of inconsistencies and difficulties. To budget-beleagured bureaucracies, these are splendid advantages.

Further, spelling, as usually taught, has no grey areas; words are either "right" or "wrong". Spelling can be simple to grade, progress or lack of it easy m measure. To an extent, words may be analyzed by type. The workbooks do this, aiding professional feelings of the teachers.

Best of all, to the minds of many, spelling demands effort, care, memory, perseverance. Spelling is a ruthless identifier, revealing to the teacher who's who and what's what in a class and providing a basis for an academic hierarchy. This is a source of security to many teachers and to the system.

How splendid a jewel for the school - to push this drill and memory system on children while parents and public applaud. In presenting this subject, administrators and teachers find themselves draped in the mantles of guardians of a priceless cultural heritage.

Spelling has been and remains a large part of the curriculum of elementary schools. Thus, spelling is to many elementary teachers, (by no means not to all) a basic element in their professional way of life. Threaten traditional spelling and you threaten their professional identification. Many teachers enjoy the quirks of our spelling; they relish the role of the all-knowing. Aware of the curves, most teachers feel some of the power of their profession in leading children thru the labyrinth of traditional spelling. ("Of worse some fail; that's life.")

There are many exceptions; some of the leadership in spelling reform is furnished by teachers, but in general, teachers feel that simplified spelling will greatly reduce their professional role in what they perceive as a key subject. It does not reduce their defensiveness to talk of the superiority of simplified spelling from the point of view of students and from the point of view of functionality. This only increases their foreboding.

It may also be noted that early retirement is a desired budget item which can be stimulated by the adoption, nationally, of a program of spelling reform. Seeing this on the horizon, a number of additional teachers may make the decision to retire. Some teachers feel as did a graduate student of mine who made no bones about it. Said he, "I've worked hard to learn one system and I'll be damned if I'll learn another."

Another group is anchored to traditional spelling by professional pride. Department heads, administrators, curriculum specialists, professors of education, find themselves in a difficult position in regard to simplified spelling. How can they approve it without admitting at the same time that, up to that point, they have been somewhat blind and misguided all their professional lives? This is a difficult admission to make. It is much more comforting to oppose simplified spelling on every possible ground, and to claim that one was right, is tight, will always be right, at least on this subject.

A third source of powerful irrational forces holding out spelling system in place is the economic basis of the school systems. They exist on taxes hard to come by in times of falling enrollment and economic retrenchment. Budget dollars are scrutinized as never before.

The school systems have invested heavily in materials and curricula designed for traditional spelling, including the training the teachers have received. The school, possess a vast supply of dictionaries, work-books, texts, flash cards, teachers' guide, projector materials, and so on, all designed to aid in teaching the present system. If simplified spelling were adopted, even on a gradual, step-by-step basis, this equipment would have to be scrapped. Some, or later every book, pamphlet, and piece of printed material in the school system would have to be replaced. if one speaks of the wastes of the present system and the great sums to be saved in the future, administrators and taxpayers are unmoved, for they regard such savings as pie in the sky. They see materials for which they paid good money going on the scrap heap. They see the high cost of replacement. They feel they must face costs of re-training teachers.

Fourth, among the irrational school-related forces holding our traditional spelling in place are the publishing houses which sell to the schools millions of dollars worth of materials designed to aid in teaching the traditional system. They see that sensible spelling will reduce the time and energy given to spelling by between 70 to 90%, with corresponding drop in the need for materials. Hence the publishing houses can be expected to oppose simplified spelling with every means at their command.

Irrational support continued: Spelling & class identity.

We now turn to the more formidable of all the irrational supports of our traditional spelling system, the pride, prudery, and class identification of the public.

In understanding these motivations, we must mark the route by which our spelling has come down to us. Our spelling, essentially fashioned during the sixth thru eighteenth centuries, has been for most of its existence an expression of the needs and life styles of churchmen, nobility, and aristocracy. During the feudal thousand years of its beginnings and growth, hardly anyone dreamed that common folk should read and write. One's letters were an unmistakable sign that one was gentlefolk.

Thorstein Veblen (1899) rightly pointed to English spelling as a classic example of conspicuous consumption, since it is so well suited to display that its users were members of the leisure class, so rich that they never worked, and with time to idle in conspicuous ways.

Our spelling has come down to us as a matter of grace and style in which ladies and gentlemen had the time and were happy to take the time to perform the niceties of gracious written forms.

We may observe in retrospect the obeisance pair: by the new middle classes to the upper classes as the new people emerged into positions of some power and influence during the merchantile and industrial revolutions. Members of the new middle classes were deeply concerned that they be accepted as ladies and gentlemen - they and especially their children. To this end, they aped the manners dress, attitudes, speech, style of residence, recreation, written forms, of upper classes. They struggled mightily to cast off every sound and sign in speech and writing that indicated they were not to the manner born. They knew that they could not possibly be taken for ladies and gentlemen unless they spoke and wrote like ladies and gentlemen.

These aspiring, and insecure folk, as they achieved positions in business, industry, publishing, government, civil service, schools, in the professions, assumed written forms, not only modeling upper class forms, but assumed attitudes of championship and guardianship of the forms they deemed would mark them as worthy. Desiring to be the purist of the pure, they became extra sensitive and extra demanding of the propriety of written forms.

This sense of the close connection between gentility and proper form in speech and in writing is very much with us today. We may not have knights, nobles or knaves, but we have our classes and class distinctions; we retain a sharp sense of class identity. We depend more than we like to admit on our language habits to judge ourselves and others. We have critical ears and sharp eyes for the give-away error. We often bolster our security by being somewhat contemptous of another's language style. We depend on our ability to use language, more than we are aware, for a sense of who and what we are.

Thus, the great dread is among us, the dread that should our language habits fail, our masks will be torn away and we will be exposed as not gentle people at all, but as common clods, as ignorant nobodies, as miserable imposters, with only a thin sheen of polish over a crude, unlettered core.

This is why ridicule is the first and most basic weapon against sensible spelling forms; this is why ridicule bubbles up so quickly among middle classes when they encounter examples of simplified spelling. They laugh at these forms as a means of defense, to prove absolutely to themselves and to others that they have the instincts of gentlefolk. To those of real breeding, the natural reaction to something as efficient and as practical as phonemic spelling is laughter. To those springing not so far back from common folk, sensible spelling must be seen as ludicrous, for to take it set ous y is to demonstrate instantly that one lacks breeding, manners, poise, taste, sensitivity, tradition, and gentility.

Thus, asking speakers of English, especially those who feel they belong to the middle classes, to spell sensibly is to ask them to abandon a basic support of their sense of worth. It is to ask them to risk slipping into the category of the unwashed masses. No one, whatever his or her class identity, wishes to be thought ignorant and crude.

Further, many people feel that they have expended much effort to learn the forms and to achieve the rewards of lettered persons in our society. They are not eager that the price of admission to their status be lowered or that the status be cheapened. If others want the rewards, they feel, let them earn them.

The above are only some of the emotional foundations connected to our sense of identity, which hold archaic and inefficient spelling forms in place in our society. For we not only maintain these absurd forms, we hug them to our hearts.

If teachers, in general, will oppose simplified spelling; if administrators will oppose it; if, altho some will support it, the vast majority of professors of education, of English, of linguistics, of literature, will oppose it; if the inteligensia, the literati, the columnists, the pundits, the publishers, and many well known authors will oppose it; if members of government, spurred on by many voters, will oppose it; if we can expect strong and deeply emotional opposition from the public, where will there be any support, and how can spelling reform possibly succeed?

Institutional Sources of Change.

Despite sources of opposition above noted, there is good reason to believe that simplified spelling is an idea whose time has come.

The most powerful current force that can be directed to support simplified spelling is the demand of the economy for better readers and writers. Our increasingly complex society and the direction of the development of our economy require citizens who can read and write at higher levels than in previous generations. School failure and functional illiteracy are becoming too widespread for the economy to bear. Low educational achievement condemns a population to a stagnant economy. A nation containing masses of poor readers and writers will be a nation of losers in the world struggle. The greatest potential force moving toward simplified spelling is the iron demand of our economy for better readers and writers. We cannot continue to load the prisons and the welfare roles with functional illiterates. We must have people who can earn enough to buy our products. Assembly line jobs are drying up; service jobs require higher levels of communication skills.

At least five institutional structures, two of immerse power and prestige, could serve to transfer this economic demand into the movement for spelling reform. These institutions have both the ideological base and the interests to move in this direction.

The first of these structures is the business-industrial complex which seeks always to maximize profits. An important element in this process is indeed the reduction of costs. Leaders of business presently desire that written forms of their companies be thoroughly respectable, and, as has been said, take their models for this from the ruling classes of yesteryear. Presently, they take these forms for granted.

These leaders, however, have strong feelings for practicality and efficiency. They do not permit the inefficiency in other parts of their operations which they overlook in the written communications of their companies. Currently there are excellent prospects to awaken them to this waste not only in extra costs in all written materials, internal and external, but also to the billions in taxes paid to educational systems which squander huge amounts in forcing inefficient spelling on students.

Business leaders and industrialists will be interested in the information that each time someone in their enterprise writes or types "are" rather than "ar", 33% of the effort is wasted; each time "through" is written rather than "thru", 43% of the effort is wasted; each time "have" is used rather than "hav" 25% of the time and effort is wasted; each time "though" is written rather than "tho", 50% of the time and effort and space is wasted. Business people will be quite interested to learn that the same content can be delivered at a considerable saving of time and money. Further, business people should be given the information that children learn more quickly to spell, to write, to read when more rational spelling systems are used, and with such systems there are much lower failure rates.

The business world is not aware that our atrocious spelling system is seriously impeding the progress of English as an international language.

A large portion of the energies and efforts of spelling reform groups should be directed at business and industry. Here are the big consumers of written communications in our society, and here are the most powerful agencies in our society, agencies which have a great stake in efficiency and in cutting costs.

Spelling reformers have not attempted at any time to reveal to business leaders the facts about the written forms they use. They need to know that the idols they have been following in written forms are false. They need to know that the so-called etymology of our spelling is often false; that the "s" never belonged in "island", the "gh" never belonged in "delight", the "i" never belonged in "friend", the "h" never belonged in "ghost", the "ph" never belonged in "phone" or "phrase" or "graph", and so on for hundreds of errors which simplified spelling would correct.

Businesses pay taxes which support schools. Business leaders should be shown the tremendous waste in trying to teach the present spelling system. Savings of 70 to 80% in the spelling curriculum could be realized while at the same time academic achievement would increase.

At the present time it is probable that business leaders can be convinced that if they act in concert and procede gradually, support will gather for the new forms because they will be found to work better than the old. For example, many teachers will join in advocating the dropping of final e's where they are unnecessary and misdirective, which is the case in words such as "are' , "have", "give", "live", "there", "where", "twelve", "objective", "directive", etc. (The final, silent "e" is supposed to signal that the preceding vowel is long, but in the above cases the vowel is short, hence the final "e" is misdirective.) There are other simple, common sense changes that could minimize objections and maximize support.

If business and industry would begin to use some of the simplest of the new forms, perhaps at first only is internal communications, and if business organizations would suggest to boards of education that they have some responsibility in this matter, the schools will listen. The schools are ever conscious that they are preparing students for jobs and careers in business and industry.

It is probable that if schools begin teaching some of the simplest of the new forms, a number of influential newspapers would follow the lead of business and industry on the one hand and the schools on the other. Newspapers have a direct stake in enlarging the public in this country which can read at the level needed to become newspaper readers.

For the next step, some of the new forms might be: dropping the final, misdirective e 's, which have been mentioned above; changing "ph" which is sounded as "f" to "f" (fone, graf, fonic, fosfate, etc.); using "e" for the short "e" sound (hed, sed, ded, helth, welth, eny, meny, etc.): change "gh" sounded as "f" to "f", drop the silent vowels in these words (ruf, tuf, enuf, etc.)

Four principles should guide these beginnings: (1) use the simplest changes which drop letters; (2) numbers of large institutions along with the schools should use them in concert; (3) changes should be introduced gradually, one group at a time; (4) institutions using new forms should be prepared to hold them long enough so that their practicality and workability can be demonstrated. As soon as their "newness" wears off, many will begin to ask why they ever used the old, clumsy, misleading forms in the first place. Newspaper usage is crucial to spelling reform.

Some persons will object, especially at the outset, but the practicality and simplicity of the new forms, together with the power and prestige of business and industrial organizations, plus the beginning participation of the schools will probably prevail. Do you ever hear any objections to "thru", used on freeway signs?

Gradually a coordinated program could take form. In the United States the fifty state boards of education could set up, with business encouragement, a national commission which would orchestrate the change process over the twenty or thirty year change period. These changes will cost industry nothing in retraining since the number of re-spellings introduced in any one year will be so small and so simple as to be easily learned by personnel in day-to-day usage.

The third institution, also of considerable power, which is a potential ally in the movement toward spelling reform, is the Department of Defense. This is the case because the armed services have been experiencing increasing difficulty in obtaining recruits who can handle written communications at levels required by complex equipment and operations.

If Armed Services Committees in the House and Senate, plus key officers of the administration, including the President, plus top officers of these services, are shown what simplified spelling could do to reduce illiteracy and functional illiteracy, these leaders might well throw their support to the movement for spelling reform. Further, the armed services, thru the defense industries, are closely allied with business and industry, and are likely to follow the lead of business and industry in this matter. Simplified spelling can be seen as a valuable contributing element to the military strength and to the defense posture of all English-speaking lands.

A fourth institution, one which carries great prestige, and which features attitudes and interests which could direct it toward spelling reform, is science.

Science is committed to rationality and to clear communication and description. Scientists value our number system because it is simple, clear, unambiguous - a valuable tool of logic, measurement and mathematical thought.

Many scientists will understand if the irrationality of the present spelling system and the irrationality of the forces supporting it are shown to them. Science thrives on access of the greatest number to education and to learning, to learning about science itself, among other challenges.

Spelling reform movements have never taken their story directly to scientists, to their leaders, their publications, their conferences. If this is done, It is probable that many scientists will see the confluence of the interests of science with those of simplified and rationalized spelling.

Simplified Spelling as Access to Power.

Spelling reform has been seen by reformers in far too limited a role. It has been seen as an academic argument, as a debate in curriculum, as a discussion in linguistics, as a matter of pedagogy. Members of the reading establishment have done all in their power to encourage this view. As long as spelling reform is seen in this narrow perspective, little progress will be made.

Further, no progress whatever will be made thru argument, debate, discussion, experiment or demonstration before audiences and groups traditionally addressed by spelling reform movements (delineated above).

If the development of a written language is observed over its long history, this development can be perceived to follow a persistent trend; it develops from usage by a chosen few, an inner core of the privileged, to more and more common usage, to usage by more and more groups and classes. Second, the history of written communication shows that those who use it have more power than those who do not.

It is probable that priestly groups were the first to use writing. "Hierogliphics" were holy writings, or more literally, "the markings of the Priests." Only the chosen could use this writing; indeed, it was so complex involving so many characters, that only the few could master its use (Hanna, Hodges & Hanna, 1971).

Over the centuries the need for writing spread from the priestly class to ruling classes, to the military, to trading classes. Eventually the characters shifted, little by little, from the depiction of ideas (ideographic writing) to the representation of spoken sounds (alphabetic writing). Finally a fully alphabetic writing was achieved. This represented, from a democratic and humanistic point of view, immense progress, because, in picture writing, thousands of characters had to be mastered in order to read, whereas in alphabetic writing only a few dozen characters needed to be mastered. This marked a tremendous step, a revolution in the democratization or popularization of writing.

But the new alphabetic systems were still the property only of strictly limited groups, upper and ruling classes. It was not until the Reformation brought to the West the duty and right of every person to read the word of God in the Bible that the need was felt to teach every one to read and to write. It was this urge to equip each person to know the word of God directly which gave rise to the common school.

It is important to note, in the long development and spread of the use of written forms, the close correlation between the possession of writing and the wielding of economic, political, and social power. Classes that have power usually have writing, and classes that have writing usually have power. Individuals who write with any skill are rewarded above others who do not.

Spelling reform should thus be seen as a part of the general democratic movement of the Western World, in which, ever since the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, power, educational and economic, has been more widely distributed in the population.

Moving with the religious reformation in Europe were the merchantile and later the industrial revolutions, serving further to break feudal institutions and redistribute power. A fundamental way in which this was accomplished was the spread of reading and writing thru the instrumentality of the common school. A "basic education," for both religious and secular reasons, became the ability to write, to read, and to do simple sums. In this development, there remained a basic holdover from feudal times, in English speaking lands; this holdover is the spelling system.

Our society today runs on four elements and only four: these are raw materials, energy, money or the market, and finally, on words, thru which the other three are organized. Thru our society, each day, there moves a veritable blizzard of paper, and each sheet is covered with words. We are, as much as the market society, and probably more, the word society, the written word society. Power flows to those who select and cause to be printed those words. The pen manufactures and pays for the sword. The rewards of the society flow to the word-masters. Patterns of words control the decisions of the society. The originators of these patterns of words are crucial operators in the day-to-day productivity of the society. The word-wizards are rewarded; to them flows influence, prestige, power.

Every written word, depending on the document and the context of the document, contains and conveys an element of power. When a given mind gains facility with a group of written words, that mind grows in power.

Thus, spelling reform must be seen as Promethian, in transmitting writing and reading to larger groups of Man. The widening of access to written language thru simplified spelling should be seen as a portion of the continuing struggle bringing to the common man more dignity and power. Spelling reform is far beyond a debate about academics or curriculum, far beyond tinkering with the spelling of words; it is an integral part of the long, ongoing struggle for the redistribution of power.

The Fifth Institution.

If this point of view about the repressive nature of antiquated spelling forms, and the relation of complex spelling forms to academic progress is made clear to today's leaders of organized labor, it is probable that large sections of the labor movement in English-speaking lands will advocate spelling reform.

What priority will be given and what energy is expended will vary from union to union. But once labor sees traditional spelling, not as neutral and innocent as a fact of life, but as an instrument to keep the children of working people "in their place," a giant may awaken, and a powerful ally may join the ranks of spelling reform.


Paul R. Hanna, Richard E. Hodges, Jean S. Hanna. Spelling: Structure and Strategies. Houghton, Miflin Co., Boston, 1971, p. 3-29.

Mario Pei. The Story of the English Language. Simon and Shuster, New York, 1967, p. 337.

Thorstein Veblen. Theory of the Leisure Class. Macmillan Co., 1899; reprinted, Mentor Books, 1953, New York, p. 257.

Epilog: How spelling reform will come to the United States.

Spelling reform will not come because phonemic spelling is more sensible, or more rational, or more functional than traditional spelling; it will not come because it will be a blessing for children, and for all those of the English-speaking world.

It will come because it is cheaper; cheaper to teach and cheaper to use. Economy is the driving force of industry, manufacturing and all institutions that spend money for services. Labor saving devices are money saving devices.

Consider the answer to these questions:
a) What is the dominant institution of American life?

b) What institution is the largest producer and the largest consumer of written materials in this country?

c) What institution is driven mainly by considerations of practicality and profit?
The answer to these questions is business and industry (B&I). Since this institution is so dominant, especially over education, we can say that if B&I take up simplified spelling, the rest of the country will probably follow; and if the new spelling is not taken up by B&I, it will probably fail everywhere els.

This means that the key question for spelling reformers is: How can we show B&I that S.S. (simplified spelling) will save them millions of dollars?

The first question business always asks is: How will this change either make or save money? The second question is: What will it cost to make the change? The third is: What at the public relations implications of such a change?

We can thus see that if business is to take up SS, the costs of the change must be minimized, as must the public resistance and shock in the change period.

If reform is to be led by B&I in this country, it will come thru:
1) simple forms, easily adopted.

2) step-by-step, over a period of years, so personnel and public can easily assimilate the changes.

3) along lines alredy popularized by advertizing and public usage [that (way), lite (beer), duz (soap), luv (trucks and diapers), tho (alredy used by meny), R (Toys R Us).,

4) over a change period of 20 to 30 years.
We must show business that it requires 50% less time to write and teach tho rather than though, thru than through. This less teaching time will allow the schools to shift time and budget to writing, reading, arithmetic, science, where additional time is badly needed. We must show B&I how SS will raise confidence, increase academic performance, help cut delinquency rates, help reduce unemployment and welfare costs, help to increase career success.

We want business to realize that the rationalization of our spelling will greatly stimulate the use of English internationally - the better for American business.

Spelling reform will advance on two legs, one of which is usage. B&I must be convinced to begin to use a few simple forms. The second leg is testing the new system on children. These tests will show that children will lern the new system more swiftly and easily than T.O. Thus, usage advances testing, and testing advances usage.

Our slogan: "Simplified spelling is good for business."

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