[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J21, 1997/1 pp33-34]
Also on this page: Letters and Literature received.

Spelling advice column.

The idea for a 'Spelling Advice Column', regular or occasional, arose from the following letter (13 January 1997) received from SSS member A E Relton. Readers are invited to send in their reactions to this innovation. Is a Spelling Advice Column a promising road for the SSS to pursue? Is the approach adopted below a good one? Is the advice sound?

A E Relton of Ilford, Essex, UK asks:

I read with much interest Matthew Thommen's article in JSSS 20, 1996/1, particularly his conclusion that "now it may be time for business people to move in".

I have long held that spelling change must come about from common useage. Fortunately, the dictionary publishers hold to the view that their dictionaries record useage, and they do not purport to lay down 'correct' spellings. Thus any new spellings which appear in a properly published work should eventually find their way into the Oxford English Dictionary, and others.

I am the proprietor of a small publishing house which is currently working on a transport gazetteer covering North America. As such I have seen to it that several reformed spellings have been used in the proof: alinement, strait, thru, all being words which occur frequently in a book about transport. The book will be sold in Britain, but sales in the USA are likely to be five times greater.

Part of the proof has been seen by an expert reader in the USA, an educated Chicagoan, who immediately took objection to these spellings. Thru is all right as an abbreviation in timetables, but cannot be used in running text, he opined. Alinement? - is that spelling correct? - he asked. Strait - spelling error!

I am therefore seeking some expert guidance on which spellings to use. Should I stick to my guns and use reformed spellings, on the basis of the 'useage' argument? Or should I accept the inclusion of orthodox spellings in order to avoid any adverse criticisms in this respect - but in the process lose the opportunity to promote a little reform?

Christopher Upward replies:
General comments.

First, congratulations on your initiative in challenging orthographic conventions. Perhaps you will set a precedent that will encourage others and start a trend!

Probably your ultimate decision on these spellings will be based on commercial considerations: how far dare you push your proofreader in Chicago, and might your sales be affected? We may think the answer to the latter question is probably "not at all", if only 3 spellings are involved, but your relations with the proofreader may be trickier to handle.

Here are some arguments that you might think worth putting:

1. English spelling is in a mess, with much uncertainty as well as absurdities that afflict writers and publishers (as well as, in a quite different way, learners).

2. It behoves all involved (eg, writers, editors, publishers) to do what they easily can to resolve spelling problems by principled criteria.

3. The overriding criterion in cases of doubt must be the alphabetic principle, which reminds us that alphabetic writing was first designed to represent the pronunciation of words.

4. The more closely the spelling of words matches their sound, the less the danger they will be missprinted, misspelt or mispronounced, and the more easily they will be learnt.

5. When writers, editors, publishers are confronted with spelling dilemmas, that is the basis on which they should make their choices.

Comments on alinement, strait, thru.

1. alinement. The first edition (1928, 1933) of the Oxford English Dictionary gave alinement as its standard form, saying: "The Eng. spelling alinement is preferable to alignment, a bad spelling of the French"; and of align it said "there is no reason to retain the unetymological G". The second edition inexplicably changed to alignment as its standard form - but left its original criticism standing!

Underlying this uncertainty is a widespread problem of English spelling, that it cannot make up its mind whether to use the Latin or French spelling of words derived from those languages (that is why, eg, consistent has -ENT as in Latin, but assistant has -ANT as in French), and many anomalies result. In this case we have Latin linea (originally meaning 'a linen thread'), adapted by the Anglo-Saxons to line, and often spelt lyne in Middle English. However French adapted Latin linea as ligne, and that form competed with line/lyne around the 15th century in English. The words align, alignment were borrowed more recently (17th century) from French aligner, alignement, hence the G, but they have often also been spelt aline, alinement (sometimes with LL, eg, allinement; cf Italian allineamento).

It is today obviously confusing and absurd that we should write line, but the same root in align(ment) with G. The alphabetic principle (and the OED's recommendation) require aline, alinement. So go for it!

2. strait for straight. These two words are easily confused, both because they are heterographs (same sound, different spelling) and because their meanings are not always easy to distinguish. Among the many spellings for these words used in Middle English, several served to represent both words. In Modern English, confusion arises in the biblical expression strait/straight and narrow: the Bible has "strait is the gate and narrow is the way" (Matthew 7:14), but the reduced formula strait and narrow appears tautologous (strait means narrow) and the rather different meaning of straight may seem more appropriate in the context. Similarly, for the garment straitjacket/straightjacket the qualities of straitness and straightness may seem equally constraining and therefore appropriate. The two words derive from different sources, straight from the Germanic root of 'stretch', and strait from Old French estreit 'narrow', and the latter in turn from Latin strictus; connected with this root are also such words as strain, strangle, stress, strict, stringent.

When we furthermore consider that the word strait is now rather rare (straight occurs about 27 times more frequently), being used chiefly as a plural noun as in 'dire straits', 'the Straits of Malacca', etc), there seems no point in trying to maintain an unnatural distinction between the two words. The simpler spelling strait may therefore be recommended for both senses in preference to straight, with its anti-alphabetic, archaic digraph GH. Paradoxically, by merging the two forms, we ensure greater clarity and accuracy of usage.

3. thru for through. The form thru has been used continuously since the 14th century, by which time various other spellings without -GH show that the final consonant letters were increasingly falling silent. The form through actually appeared in the following century. The shorter form clearly has the advantage over the complex non-phonetic through that it unambiguously represents today's pronunciation, enabling readers to pronounce it and writers to spell it correctly and without difficulty.

The form thru is encountered regularly in America, as has been documented by SSS member Cornell Kimball, especially in certain hyphenated contexts, eg, drive-thru, pass-thru, thru-hiker and in expressions of duration such as Monday thru Wednesday.

The trend toward wider use of thru is to be encouraged as a significant improvement on the generally still dominant form through.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J21, 1997/1, pp35-36]


Letters are welcomed on any matters raised by items appearing in JSSS, or on any observations or experiences relating to spelling that readers may wish to report.

Comparative Literacy.

Couldn't the SSS pursue the matter of wether pupils make better progress as regards literacy in Welsh or English? Perhaps this could be taken up with the Welsh Office, or directly with the educationalists in Wales.

Wales might be seen as an ideal laboratory for this with Welsh speaking communities alongside English speaking communities subject to very similar outside influences. The findings of studies could also be tested in, say, New Zealand with English speaking and Maori children.

Robert Craig, Weston-super-Mare, UK.

Non-native speakers' needs.

I read an article in Cut Spelling which I found interesting, although a bit difficult to read. I think once you have struggled a lot to learn English spelling you are not so ready to accept changes, especially a non-native speaker. On the other hand I believe in a gradual simplification.

Virginia Pulcini, Turin, Italy.


We shud emfasize th relationship between th visul and auditry senses. A comn problm for many peple is th "I have to see it written down to know if it's the right spelling" syndrome. In othr words, peple ofn rite down al th posbilitis, and then decide wich one looks ryt. Or, to put it anothr way, peple seem to bypass th alfabetic principl.

An exampl of this ocurd with my secnd-year fonetics class. I was givng a lectur on th relationship between pronunciation and spelng. Th main point I wantd to make was that ther ar two main problms: (i) inconsistncis in th spelng systm, and (ii) mispelngs caused by mispronunciations (eg, typicl singaporean pronunciation featurs). So I startd th lectur by givng th class a spelng be with twelv words: height, separate, business, sincerely, accommodation, necessary (ie, from th 1992 ALBSU survey); humorous, questionnaire, idiosyncrasy, diarrh(o)ea, harassment, indispensable. Tru to form, nobody got al twelv ryt. I didnt embarass anyone by askng exactly how many they got ryt, but my gess is that most peple only got half. In particulr, by far th majority wantd to spel accommodation with a singl M.

Then, in my tutorial for that class, I had set an exrcise wher they produced miniml pairs for fonemes that they comnly confuse, eg, feel, fill. Th next part of th exrcise was to determn how those vowls ar representd in spelng (to sho that, for these singaporean pronunciation problms, th spelng is in fact a reliabl indication). This flord most of them, ho didnt realy seem to undrstand wat I was askng for. In othr words, they didnt seem to undrstand th principl of letrs and letr combnations representng vowl and consnnt fonemes.

I also had som stranje ansrs. Wen askd how th vowl is spelt in scene, somone said CE. This showd (i) not only did they not hav any idea of 'majic E', (ii) but also they seemd to asociate th C with th vowl rathr than th preceding S. They took som convincing that th C, wile silent, is conectd to th S rathr than th E, as mor clearly in, eg, science, scent.

It has been sujestd to me that th reasn for this is perhaps that th name of th letr C contains th same vowl as in th word scene. That is, th name of the letr is being confused with its sound valu. A similr mistake is aparently that children mispel farm as frm, since th vowl in this word coresponds in sound to th name of the letr R.

I hav also been intriged by a recent advert for Microsoft Office software, shoing a secretry lamentng "My boss spells phonetically". Wher dos th falt lie? With th boss ho over-aplys th alfabetic principl of english spelng? Or with th english spelng systm wich itself departs from it?

In short, som peple seem to hav very litl apreciation of th alfabetic principl or of particulr sound-spelng corespondences. Riting in CS wud therfor help them (re)discovr these and scor betr on spelng bes. I dont see, for exampl, how anyone cud posbly claim that diarrhoea is a betr spelng than diarea.

Adam Brown, Singapore.

Backwards compatibility in Chinese.

My reservations against reformed spelling are briefly mentioned in one of your leaflets. Literature not 'translated' could be inaccessible for the young who would have known only simplified spelling until they were old enough to take classes in unreformed spelling.

I suffered the same problem with Chinese. The Communists simplified a lot of characters to improve universal literacy, but there are a lot of components which give clues to the meanings of the characters, eg, the old, complex form of men 'door' actually looks like an old-fashioned Chinese house door.

At Leeds University we learnt to write simplified Chinese characters, while other universities taught the complex forms. When I attended classes in Beijing, most of the articles I studied in Chinese were set in simplified character printing. Back in Leeds we had to study one short early Communist publication written before 1949 which was printed in complex characters. I found very difficult to equate the complex characters most commonly used with the simplified forms I had initially learnt. However, when we had to read a full length classic 20th century novel, we used books imported from Hong Kong printed in complex characters., and I got th hang of them a lot better. Practice made all the difference, but I'm still not comfortable with the complex forms.

I realize this does not have anything to do with phonetic spelling, but it has a lot to do with recognizing patterns on paper.

Margaret Marriott, Birmingham, UK

Spanish reflections.

I have heard it asked whether the problems of english spelling are a deterrent to learning English for Spanish speakers in the US. As an American linguist, translator and teacher who has lived 26 years in Latin America, I can confirm that is so. Indeed, English spelling is a deterrent to learning the language for non-English speakers all around the world.

Last year I attempted to teach English to Guatemalan teenagers. It was actually embarrassing to me to have to stand in front of them and confuse them with the ridiculous skewing of the vowels in English writing. What I wouldn't give for reformed spelling to give them half a chance of learning English! It is hard enough for them to learn the many sounds of English that aren't in Spanish, without their having to wrestle with such a nonsensical,outdated orthography. Spanish Spelling is much easier to teach and to learn. (Now if Spanish would just get rid of the discrepancies involving B/V, C/S/Z and H!)

Even though at this time I can't join your society, I am a staunch supporter on the sidelines. I have family reasons to resent English spelling. Over the years I have observed the struggles of my Mexican husband in his attempts to write English. (He has good speaking ability and great comprehension.) Even harder to take was watching the problems of my son in school over spelling. He has a high intelligence but a faulty retention of the vagaries of written language, which caused some of his teachers to consider him stupid and uneducated just because he writes English phonetically.

More power to you and your associates!

Carol Lynn Barrera, Guatemala.

Despairing desperation.

Which is correct, desperate or desparate?

I looked it up in the dictionary and groaned. Seemed to me that the second speling is more logical, because it comes from despair. Not so. The first spelling is the original, not only in the Latin, but pushing right up thru Old French and Middle English! The A didn't get into despair, according to my 1988 abridged dictionary, till Modern English.

How come they switched? Well, it probably wasn't a unanimous vote. Look at all the trouble they had with there, their and they're! Despair may have gone thru the 'pair/pear/pare' debate. They could have matched it to there/where, and made it despere. But the vote didn't go that way. They already had here/mere that made a different sound, and that would have been confusing. And if they already had were, which makes a different sound again... - they must have been close to despair.

The 'Cut Spelling' committee did not despair. They couldn't do anything with despair either, so they solved the problem by coming in the back door.

They through both desperate and desparate out the window. No more meeny-miny-mo, nor reaching for the dog-eared dictionary. They settled for desprat. Thank you, CS, with all my heart.

Jean Wilkinson, Beaverton, Oregon.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J21, 1997/1 p29]

Literature Received.

In the past 6 months JSSS has received the following publications:

1. BingGo! Bulletin Board No.4, from the American Literacy Council.

2. English Today No.48 October 1996, No.49 January 1997.

3. Language and Literacy News Autumn 1996, Spring 1997, from UK Reading Association.

4. QUEST No.64 November 1996, No.65 February 1997, from the Queen's English Society.

5. Spelling Progress Bulletin/Quarterly. Generously donated by Walter Barbe of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, two sets of the quarterly Spelling Progress Bulletin, edited by Newell Tune from Spring 1961 to Winter 1983 (92 issues), with four further issues dated 1984-85 entitled Spelling Progress Quarterly and edited by Michael Milone. These journals contain a wealth of valuable material relevant to spelling reform which is now available for research purposes in the UK. JSSS is proud to consider itself a successor to the tradition of the SPB.

6. Sprachreport 4/96, 1/97, from the Institut für deutsche Sprache, Mannheim, Germany.

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