On other pages: SpellBites 2, MoreBites 2, Media articles 1, SpellBites 1, BulletinBites, Dyslexia items.

MoreBites 1: Contexts of SpellBites 1.

28 Nov 2004. Sunday Times.

Education: Why spell it out? Karen Robinson.

English spelling is fiendishly complicated.

Nicholas Shearing, one of the [Hard Spell] programme's spelling checkers who is a senior editor on the Oxford English Dictionary:
"English is not a phonetic language. So if they didn't know a word they couldn't work out its vowels from the pronunciation. We don't say 'par-lee-ay-ment'."

"English is harder than other languages," says Rhona Snelling, who is one of the programme's "dictionary checkers" and an editor with Oxford University Press who used to teach English to foreign students.

19 Nov 2004. The Independent.

Guy Keleny: Let me spell it out for you: written English is chaotic.

When my Hungarian cousin Zsuzsi was learning English at school in Budapest she used to complain that you had to learn each word three times: first its meaning, then how to pronounce it, then how to spell it.

It is difficult to imagine a spelling bee in Hungary, or any other country where orthography was reformed in the 19th century and nearly all spellings are phonetically consistent. There wouldn't be any problems for the contestants to grapple with.

2 Nov 2004. From several reports.

OCR A-level examiners outraged by 'Fatal floors' in exam scripts.

Frequently misspelt words: Parliament, Puritain, phamplets, vergin, delt, contempory, arguement, concluesion, credable, relivance, biast, counterdition, scepticle for sceptical, Starlin for Stalin, lassie fair for laissez faire, miss be haived, perlight, traphic lights, loveable rouge, arguement, concluesion, credable, relivance, biast, and counterdiction.

Real word confusion: sight/site, theirs/there's, moral/morale; collaboration/corroboration, loose/lose, intermediate/intermittent, navel/naval, steak/stake.

Incorrectly spoken words, leading to misspellings: fief for thief, fought for thought, vexed interest for vested interest, economical policy for economic policy.

23 Sep 2004. The online edition of The University Daily Kansan.

Spelling made 'eezyer' over time.

By April Benson and Lauren Stewart, Columnists.

Why does McDonald's have a drive-thru and not a drive-through? Why isn't Miller Lite spelled Miller Light?

Simplified spellings such as "thru" and "lite" have an unshakable presence in modern English, especially in the commercial world. Nick at Nite, Yello Sub and Sizzors Hair Salon all differentiate themselves by incorporating non-standard words in their names.

This practice makes a business's name unique and reflects societal acceptance of alternative spellings.

After all, couldn't English use a good scrubdown? Maybe some of those nasty 'gh's (though, night, rough, etc.) and silent 'b's (lamb, debt, etc.) could disappear to make spelling more straightforward. The day in the middle of the week could be Wensday instead of Wednesday. Wouldn't that maek speling the werd eezyer for peepl?

The idea of simplifying spelling may entertain a casual English user's mind from time to time, but there are active groups that advocate all-out reform. these groups agree that written manifestations of English words are needlessly complicated and unreasonable.

These aren't new concerns. In the past, noteworthy and influential people have advocated for spelling reform.

During the American revolution, dictionary authority Noah Webster believed that Americans should reform written English to reflect a new identity, one separate from Britain. Webster called for a radical revision of English spelling, for example, using "masheen" instead of "machine," but over time he became more conservative. The linguistic remnants of his reforms show up in words such as "theater," "color," "music," and "check," which retain separate, American spellings.

In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt challenged the traditions of the written language by ordering the official use of 300 new simplified spellings in executive documents. Within four months, Roosevelt retracted this order because of much ridicule and opposition.

Today's reformers are just as passionate as those of yesteryear, but they lack the social and political clout to make their message publicly meaningful.

Their cause seems to have advantages, but the movement is generally impractical. The lack of unity among reformers is one of many factors that prevent the movement's success.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing simplified spelling is the actual process of standardization. Language is far from static, but such wide-scale, artificial changes would be nearly impossible to carry out. Language has become so much a part of human identity that people protect and monitor its development. Outside pressures therefore have difficulty instituting change - even when the president gets involved. English does not have one all-powerful authority to demand stasis or transformation. In this text-centered society, linguistic change must happen naturally.

English users have augmented their vocabulary with new spellings, but they retain the capability to alternate between traditional and "lite" forms.

Simplified spellings that have remained in the language have not replaced traditional forms wholesale, but have been alternates. The Department of Theatre and Film's name, for example, retains the older form of today's more Americanized "theater." Illogically, reformers want to erase traditional spellings and rely wholly on new, simplified ways.

Spelling reform seems like a good idea on some levels, but it just wouldn't work.

Mark Twain, though a one-time spelling reform advocate, admitted the idea was inherently flawed, remarking "it seemed to me to merely propose to substitute one inadequacy for another."

Benson is a Grand Island, Neb., senior in English and music. Stewart is a Wichita senior in English.

28 Aug 2004. The Western Mail. What are words worth? Excerpts.

Author, journalist and university professor John Sutherland:

"And the simple fact is that English is a tough language to spell."
"There's no other European language which has what you might call such illogical spelling."

As Sutherland observes, "You could argue that there's something rather beautiful about the illogicalities. All of them have traces of a very interesting kind - but I think the average schoolkid doesn't see it that way."

He says research estimates that getting this right adds six months to a year to a child's education, a time of life when our ability to learn is at its keenest. Might we be better occupied doing something else?

24 Aug 2004. Sun Herald on-line news.

Blogging may make teens better writers, by Jean Nash Johnson.

Someone in the academic world finally said it. Blogging, e-mailing and instant messaging among teens pay off.

Despite punctuation lapses, grammar shortcuts and creative spelling, online communication invites critical thinking and better writing, says Purdue University English professor Samantha Blackmon.

"Who cares if a student, to save time, types 'u' for 'you?' I want to see them writing more and if that means breaking a few rules, that's OK."

Students now come to college with years of online writing experience, putting them ahead of the game for research papers, says Blackmon, who studies computers and writing as well as minority rhetoric.

26 Aug 2004. Issue 0334 of the Hook.


Q. "I before E except after C." What thanks do school kids owe the originator of this famous mnemonic device for spelling words like 'receive,' 'deceive,' 'conceive,' conceit,' 'ceiling'? - J. Brinkley.

A. No thanks at all for this ancient, unscientific, inefficient, insufficient and deficient rule! Neither should kids try to rule-spell 'financier,' 'society,' 'juicier,' nor anything in the group of 'eight,' 'beige,' 'neighbor,' codeine, 'protein,' 'reign,' 'seize,' 'their,' 'weigh' and 'weird.'

There are well over 100 such exceptions, says [David] Crystal ... citing The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, with IE following C, or EI following just about anything it chooses. The only way to impose a degree of order on this muddle is to relate spellings to grammar and pronunciation, such as exceptions involving affixes (agencies, seeing, absenteeism) or proper names (Einstein, O'Neill, Leicester), or how the IE/EI is sounded, such as in an unstressed syllable of 'ancient.'

[See the 'when pronounced /ee/' part of the rule in the next item.]

30 July 2004 Tri-Valley Herald on-line news.

'i before e' rule.

... you mentioned the 'i before e' rule in spelling, and said there were too many exceptions to make it a worthwhile rule of thumb. The following sentence contains all the exceptions:
"Neither sheik seized either form of weird leisure."

Article writer: Thank you. It would be the height of presumption to argue with that.
[The 'i before e except after c' rule only applies to words with an /ee/ sound,
e.g. piece, chief, & receive, conceit,
not to height, eight, rein, their, science etc.
Real exceptions: protein, caffeine.]

27 Mar 2004. Toronto Globe and Mail.

Old and can't spell by Stephen Strauss.

For all those who fret that the number of times they spell "slough" as "slew" and "kohl" as "coal" is ballooning as they age, new research has a balm: Don't worry. What is happening is perfectly normal - at least if you are an English speaker.

In a recent article, psychologists Deborah Burke of Pomona College and Meredith Shafto of Oxford University documented what is known about aging and language production. To begin with, there is no indication that vocabulary decreases as you age. Rather, it increases until you are 40 and then levels off without much noticeable decrease into very old age.

What does decrease is an ability to spell - but apparently only in hard-to-spell languages such as English. "I have done research in Spain and the Spanish don't even understand what spelling problems are," Prof. Burke says. One of the ways this difference plays itself out is that Spain has such lower levels of dyslexia than English-speaking countries, she says.

In English, as you might suspect, the more irregular a word's spelling is - "yacht" is a classic example - the greater the likelihood that you are going to make a mess out of the order of their letters as you get older.

Moreover, if you misspell a word, you are likely to mispronounce the word to correspond to how the misspelling sounds to your brain. Think about U.S. President George W. Bush and his famous "nucular" pronunciation.

While there is no easy way to counteract the decline in spelling, research Prof. Burke has done shows that your spelling accuracy improves, no matter your age, if you are reading or writing a word more often.

Unfortunately, if you are constantly misspelling a word or seeing it misspelled, your error rate goes up. "That's the reason that teachers who see a lot of misspellings from their students tend to make more errors themselves with the words," Prof. Burke says.

So, what to do? Accept that things change as you age, she counsels - and play Scrabble.

24 Nov 2001. Daily Telegraph. Comment.

Frank Johnson. Notebook.

Downing Street claimed that the Prime Minister's handwriting was responsible for that "toomorrow". the rest of us did not believe it, and jeered on. I certainly did. But how many of us jeerers are good spellers? I suspect few.

This week I was walking into the Commons when I encountered Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton....................................

Mr Kaufman is also renowned for his incandescent wardrobe. He immediately referred to my recently describing a tie of his as "bilious". It was bilious, I insisted. "That's not the point," he said. "Bilious has only one 'l'. You spelt it with two."

I was horrified. Naturally, I blamed the editor. The broader issue, however, is: how did Mr Kaufman know how to spell bilious and I not? It is not a word he would use all the time, so far as I know. Why are some people good spellers and others not?

Education? But apparently Evelyn Waugh was not a good speller. And who, in any case, decided spellings? Some experts say it was printers only a couple of hundred years ago. In early copies of Shakespeare's plays, going well into the 17th century, the printing is all over the place.

Above all, how do people become good spellers? Waugh had a good education, if he did indeed go to that Stratford grammar school, so did Shakespeare.

The answers to these questions are important to me - and to Mr Blair.

A final question concerning the above subject: why is English spelling so illogical? One example among thousands: when "skill" and "full" are put together, the word is spelt "skilful". Naturally, I had to look that up.

Also see New Scientist report and Radio National, Australia, intervew with Philip Seymour.

5 Sep 2001. Daily Telegraph. British Association.

Why pupils are slow to learn English.

English is such a difficult language that British children take twice as long to master basic reading skills as pupils on the Continent.

While most primary schools in Spain, Italy and Finland learn basic reading within 12 months, children learning English typically take two and a half years.

Researchers who carried out the study say that the arcane rules of the English language, and not the quality of teaching, are to blame.

Prof Philip Seymour, of the University of Dundee, who presented the findings, fell short of calling for spelling to be simplified, but suggested that parents could help children overcome the extra difficulties of English.

They could encourage them to "decode" new and made-up words at home, he said.

The study investigated the literacy skills of about 600 primary school children in 15 countries, including Britain.

"Mastery of the basic foundation elements of literacy clearly occurs much more slowly in English than in many other European languages," said Prof Seymour.

"It seems likely that the main cause is linguistic and derives from difficulties created by theh complex syllable structure and inconsistent spelling of English."

Complicated syllables - such as the "shr" sound in shrink and the "umph" in triumph - add to the difficulty as do the different pronunciations of "ough" as in cough, plough, through.

Back to the top.