Page editor: N Paterson. Contact by email or form.
What are the main objectives of the English Spelling Society at the present moment?

The aims of the English Spelling Society are:

  • To raise awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling
  • To promote remedies to improve literacy, including spelling reform

The English Spelling Society considers that the fundamental justification for any reform of Traditional Spelling (TS)  is that it will improve literacy and cut learning costs in English speaking children and adults, thereby opening up education to all disciplines. So the basic requirement for any new system must be that it is faster and easier to learn than TS.  Moreover, in addition to being easier for children and foreign students  to learn, it must not place unnecessary obstacles in the way of those already familiar with TS. Reconciling these two objectives requires compromise and imagination, but the spelling of the written language should as far as possible conform to its pronunciation.

What is the attitude of the English Spelling Society to the various alternative spelling systems that have been produced over the years? Is it promoting any specific scheme?

For a number of years, the Society did not support any particular alternative to TS, preferring to concentrate on raising awareness of the costs of TS. However, in 2018, in a desire to open up the debate to the wider English Speaking World (ESW), it organised an International English Spelling Congress (IESC).  The purpose of this gathering was to find a scheme that might eventually become acceptable to the wider world. After several sessions, the Congress voted in 2021 to approve Traditional Spelling Revised (TSR), a scheme designed to improve access to literacy while avoiding unnecessary change.

The Committee of the Society has agreed to offer a degree of assistance to the dissemination of TSR, subject to some qualifications. These caveats include a review of its support after five years to assess the degree to which TSR has become acceptable; the Society will also continue to allow other alternative schemes to be submitted for publication and peer review on its website in the Personal View series

What is our response to the proposition that TS will never be reformed because: it is too difficult, English speakers are too conservative, or there is no academy concerned with English spelling worldwide.

There is a misconception that TS is set in tablets of stone and never changes. The history of English spelling shows this to be untrue. Spelling has been constantly changing and evolving from Old English through to the twenty-first century. Admittedly, English spelling was codified in an unsatisfactory manner in the eighteenth century, and this has acted as something of a restraint on further development, preserving a high degree of irregularity and inconsistency. But this restraint has not been absolute and English spelling has in fact evolved somewhat, even since the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, the English Spelling Society believes that it has not evolved fast enough, and in the interests of improved literacy wishes to accelerate the process.

On the international scene, there are many instances of spelling reform in other languages (eg Dutch, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish). Some of these are relatively recent. The English Spelling Society believes that the English Speaking World (ESW) may now be more receptive to spelling reform than in the past. One major factor is the growing realisation that English speakers have a significant disadvantage compared with speakers of other languages in learning to read and write, and that this is the case regardless of the country concerned. There is also the factor of the millions learning English as a second language who find TS an obstacle to mastering the language.

What is the Society’s view of the differences in British and American spellings?

Noah Webster’s reforms only went so far - he would have liked to promote additional changes, but his further proposals were not implemented. Those reforms that were adopted in the USA did not do a great deal to simplify TS and consequently have not had much effect on literacy in the USA or other countries that use the system. The English Spelling Society would not oppose adoption of some American spelling in the UK, Australia or other English speaking countries, but would hope that such a development might form part of a wider move to a common system of reformed English spelling.

What is the attitude of the English Spelling Society to the argument that regional differences in pronunciation (British, American, Australian etc) make it impossible to develop a common alternative system, or even an agreed list of relatively minor changes of general application?

Although there are differences of pronunciation throughout the ESW, English in broad terms is still mutually intelligible wherever it is the maternal language of the majority. The danger of promoting radically variant spelling systems for different regions is that this might reinforce differences in accent, vocabulary and grammar, and thus hasten the divergence of regional dialects into separate languages that were mutually unintelligible. The history of language is full of such divergences born of geographical distance and separate development - we would not wish to see English go down that route.

So essentially we would tend to favour one reformed spelling system for all English speakers. And we note that TSR clams to be capable of being interpreted by all the main dialects of spoken English.

Texting: Are we for it, against it, or neutral?

Texting, which has become so popular throughout the world due to the development of mobile phones, is essentially a form of shorthand, or telegraphese and one which does not follow particularly consistent conventions. So on both counts we do not see it as a potential replacement for TS per se. However, it can be argued that some of the devices used in popular texting (eg the reduction in the number of unnecessary consonants) reflect consumer impatience with the irregularities of TS and at the same time an openness to experiment and change.

Are we in favour of freedom to spell as we wish (Free Spelling)?

We wish to encourage a move to more regular spelling conventions rather than allow a free for all, which would probably lead to no overall improvement of literacy and might even impede written communication throughout the ESW. So the short answer is that we do not favour totally free spelling. At the same time it is important to remember that English spelling is continuously evolving. We hope that educational and other authorities will not penalise English speakers who wish to simplify irregular and unnecessarily complicated spellings.

What is the attitude of the English Spelling Society to teaching methods aimed at improving spelling (eg i.t.a, look-see, phonics, synthetic phonics). Don’t these remove the need for spelling reform?

Various teaching methods have been invented over the years in an attempt to reduce the problems faced by those learning to read and write English, on account of its irregular spelling structure. Such methods appear to be peculiar to English. Other major languages do not need them because their spelling is far more regular. There is little evidence that any of these methods has so far achieved a major breakthrough on a national scale in any country of the ESW, although there have been some local successes (often assisted by additional teaching resources). We appreciate that teachers want to find better ways of helping children cope with the learning difficulties which are caused by English spelling irregularities. But our concern is that the never-ending advocacy of new teaching methods for reducing literacy problems detracts from the fact that spelling reform is the only certain means of making a substantial reduction in the persistently high rates of literacy failure in all English-speaking countries. They stop people paying attention to what is really needed.

Did You Know:

• Ask your friend what Y-E-S spells. They won't have any difficulty saying yes. Then ask what E-Y-E-S spells. It's easy when it's written down, but surprisingly difficult when it's spoken. See a YouTube video of this.

• Who has not heard i before e, except after c. A University of Warwick statistician put it to the test. He plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to see if the math checked out. It didn't.

• When Adam met Eve for the first time, he said Madam, I'm Adam. This is a palindrome — a phrase or sentence in which the letters, words or even lines read the same in either direction. Adam hoped to impress the most beautiful woman in the world, but she more than matched him by replying simply, Eve. Not bad given that writing, and therefore palindromes, and English ones in particular, had not yet been invented! More palindromes, and a wonderful palindromic poem.

• How would you pronounce ghoti? Pronounce it like this:

and you get ... fish! Thanks to Charles Ollier for writing this in 1855 — and for showing that English spelling has been ludicrous for quite some time.

• One of the arguments in favour of keeping English spelling unchanged is to show the etymology of words. For example, the silent s in island shows the link to the Latin insula. But island actually derives from the Old English íglund, not from the Latin at all. More examples at Mental Floss.


Page editor: N Paterson. Contact by email or form.

​Spelling reform is not a new idea!

Benjamin Franklin "The same is to be observed in all the letters, vowels, and consonants, that wherever they are met with, or in whatever company, their sound is always the same. It is also intended that there be no superfluous letters used in spelling, i.e. no letter that is not sounded [...]"  Franklin proposed a spelling scheme with 6 new letters. (Franklin 1806 p359)

Theodore Roosevelt "It is merely an attempt [...] to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic." Theodore Roosevelt promoted the Simplified Spelling Board's gradual reform (see Twain below). (Roosevelt 1906, p3)

Mark Twain "It is my belief that an effort at a slow and gradual change is not worth while. [...] It is the sudden changes [...] that have the best chance of winning in our day. Can we expect a sudden change in our spelling? I think not. But I wish I could see it tried. [...] By a sudden and comprehensive rush the present spelling could be entirely changed and the substitute spelling be accepted, all in the space of a couple of years; and preferred in another couple. But it won't happen, and I am as sorry as a dog." (Twain 1997, pp208-212)

Page editor: N Paterson. Contact by email or form.