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English

Spelling is simply how we order letters to create words in an accepted and conventionalized form. By using standardized spelling, we can easily recognize words that we read and mitigate the potential misunderstandings that might occur between words.

Why is Spelling important?

Spelling is a vital piece of orthography that allows us to communicate successfully and effectively through writing. This is because spelling allows each word to be uniquely coded so that it can be understood when reading, minimizing any potential confusion (such as those between homophones).

Orthography is a term that refers to the rules that affect the way a language is written down.

Concepts of good and bad spelling are also tied to various cultural and social values. This can lead to bad spelling being interpreted in a negative way, especially in formal writing contexts such as essays or job applications which we will explore below.

Later on, we will look at how some authors purposefully incorporate non-standard English spelling into their works to explore (and challenge) these cultural and social values.

In formal writing contexts:

Bad spelling can undermine the content of the text it is in, as it may be seen to reflect an author's carelessness or lack of effort in their work. Because of this, an author may also be seen as unreliable.

If someone has misspelt a piece of writing that has authorial powers (such as a traffic sign) its authority may be undermined. It may even become comical if it fails to command someone to do or not do something due to a spelling error.

If someone misspells a piece of writing that is intended to be educational, the authority of the author as a trustworthy source of information may be damaged. Because of how fundamental spelling is in written work, any poorly proofread writing becomes questionable in its reliability.

If there are misspellings in a job application, the candidate's desire to enter into the career path may be questioned owing to the carelessness of their submission. A lack of proofreading in this context may cost the applicant the job.

What is a misspelling?

A misspelling is a word that is written so that its letters are not in the accepted order. This can happen for a number of reasons such as the examples listed below:

If 'like' is misspelled as 'leik', it still contains all the correct letters, but they are in the wrong order so it looks and sounds incorrect.

If 'hear' is misspelled as 'here', the intended meaning would not be conveyed. This is caused by the two words being homophones (words that sound the same but aren't).

If 'practice' is misspelled as 'practice', although this would sound correct due to the words being homophones, the meaning would be incorrect. This is because, in British English, 'practise' is a verb (e.g., to practise a dance) but 'practice' is a noun (e.g., the doctor's practice).

If 'commitment' is mispelled as 'committment' or 'commitment', this would be correct, but there would be too many or too few repeated consonants.

If 'definitely' is misspelled as 'defiantly', the intended meaning would not be conveyed as, despite their similar spellings, these are two different words with different meanings.

If 'mischievous' is misspelled as 'mischievious' it would have too many vowels.

If 'receive' is misspelled as 'recieve' its vowels would not be in the incorrect order.

How can I improve my Spelling?

There are currently over 170,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary. But, according to a 2010 study completed by Harvard University and Google, there were around 2,000,000 words in digital books. With this in mind, it would be almost completely impossible to learn how to spell every word!

There are, however, techniques and ideas that we can look at to help us learn the correct spellings of words. One of these techniques is developing an understanding of phonics, etymology and morphology.

Phonics

We can use an understanding of phonics to help with spelling, as many words in the English language are spelled as they sound. There are two building blocks we use to write words in this way:

Phonemes - The smallest unit of sound we make when speaking a word.

Graphemes - The letter(s) used to translate these phonemes (or sounds).

When we want to translate spoken words and thoughts into writing, we can break the words down into phonemes (or sounds). From there, we can use the graphemes that represent these sounds to write them down.

For example, the word 'said', might have been spelled as 'sed', if it were spelt as it sounds. Unfortunately, it is not spelt like this and so we use our knowledge of graphemes to think of ways we might intuitively pronounce the letters.

We might then be able to reverse this phonetic spelling to spell the word correctly. Being able to manipulate the sounds into various graphemes is a key way to make spelling easier.

Morphology

We might be able to also use an understanding of morphology to make accurate spelling easier. To understand morphology, however, we must also understand what a morpheme is:

A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning that cannot be broken down into another meaning.

We can use morphemes to expand and break down other words.

The word 'bound' is a morpheme that can have prefixes and suffixes added to it, to alter the meaning of the root itself. We might add the prefix 're-' to make the word 'rebound' or perhaps a suffix of '-ed' to make the word 'bounded'. As a result, the morpheme changes tense and meaning but the root of the word is still maintained.

It is also possible to combine multiple morphemes.

The word 'graph' can be combined with other words such as 'photo' or 'auto' or 'geo' along with prefixes and suffixes to create new words. Using these morphemes, as building blocks, we can make the words 'auto-graph', 'photo-graph-er' or 'geo-graph-ical'.

Thus, we can use an understanding of morphemes to help with spelling, as it allows us to combine morphemes we are already familiar with to spell more complicated words.

Etymology and history

Although it may sound bizarre, we are also able to consider the etymology of English words (or the linguistic and historic origins of them) to understand spelling. The English language has experienced great periods of change in its development into its present state, that might influence the way words are written and pronounced:

Late Modern English (c. 1800 AD - present)

This is the way that we describe the version of English we speak today. It has evolved over hundreds of years through the involvement of many different languages of both Germanic and Romantic roots.

Early Modern (c. 1500 AD-1800 AD)

The Great Vowel Shift occurred during this time causing the long Middle English vowel sounds to evolve, resulting in the beginning of standardized spelling during the 15th and 16th centuries.

During this time, Shakespeare had a great influence on the development of vocabulary and is credited with the creation of over 1,500 words.¹ He did this by altering the state of words (such as shifting nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives), adding prefixes and suffixes to various words, connecting words together and also creating his own words entirely.

Some words that Shakespeare contributed to the English language include, 'bizarrely', 'skim milk' (in Henry IV ), 'beached' (in Midsummer Night's Dream ) and 'caked' (in Timon of Athens ).

Middle English (c. 1100 AD-1500 AD)

The Norman Conquest occurred in 1066. With this, a greater influence of the more poetic Romantic languages, such as French and Latin, was introduced into English.

Geoffrey Chaucer was an author during this period, and remains famous today for writing The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), a text in Middle English.

Words we use today that developed from Middle English include:

  • 'Ynogh' (enough)
  • 'Coy' (quiet)
  • 'Shaltow' (you shall)
  • 'Fetter' (shackles)

Words we use today that demonstrate French influence include:

  • 'Money ”(from' monnaie ', when it was originally' schat 'in Old English)
  • 'Luminary' (from luminaire)
  • 'advice' (from the phrase 'c'est m' est avis', to mean 'in my opinion').

Old English (c. 450 AD-1100 AD)

Initially, the English language was formed by various Celtic dialects being combined with Latin (because of Roman invaders) which was used in political and military situations by those in higher positions in the social hierarchy. However, owing to various invasions over the next century from Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, the language would develop slightly into being Anglo-Saxon.

Very little literature exists during this period, beyond biblical writings and Beowulf (700-1000) - the oldest surviving poem we have left.

Words from Old English are typically monosyllabic, harsh-sounding and simplistic in meaning such as the words:

  • 'Boar' (bar)
  • 'Baker' (bæcere)
  • 'Father' (fæder)
  • 'Helmet' (helmet)
  • 'Monastery' (mysnte)
  • 'Sword', (sweord)
  • 'Written' (writan)
  • 'Worm / serpent' (wyrm)

How does this help?

An understanding of the history of certain words may help to know how a word may be spelt (whether it has silent sounds as many French rooted words may, or is almost phonetic like many words with Germanic roots).

Similarly, an understanding of etymology helps with spelling because an understanding of etymology may help you to recognize the different roots of words and how they are spelled.

An understanding that 'astronaut' can be broken down into the Latinate roots of 'astra' (star) and 'nauta' (sailor) could help predict the graphemes used and, thus, the spelling of the word.

Learn the most commonly misspelled words

While it isn't necessarily logical to learn every single spelling of every individual word, it is possible to learn the most misspelled words to at least avoid them. Here is a list of 20 of the most misspelled words in the English Language in 2010:

1.

Separate

5.

Occurrence

9.

Broccoli

13.

Questionnaire

17.

Particularly

2.

Definitely

6.

Consensus

10.

Referred

14.

Connoisseur

18.

Liquefy

3.

Maneuver

7.

Unnecessary

11.

Bureaucracy

15.

a lot

19.

Conscience

4.

Embarrassment

8.

Acceptable

12.

Supersede

16.

Entrepreneur

20.

Parallel

What confusions are there with Spelling?

It is perhaps most common to experience confusion when spelling because of the differences between Americanized and British spellings. This is because English maintained the spellings adopted by other languages from Europe, while American English became slightly more phonetic in pronunciation.

Here are some words which differ in British and American English:

British English

American English

Behaviour

Behavior

Theatre

Theater

Sulphur

Sulfur

Recognise

Recognize

Although many will accept Americanised versions of spelling, it is important to try and maintain consistency between spellings.

Why might someone disregard Spelling?

While this entire article has been discussing the importance of spelling, there are times when experimental forms of literature might entirely disregard it.

For example, the British poet Benjamin Zephaniah frequently writes his poems in a way that expresses a greater sense of identity. This is deeply reflected in the language used within his works which allows him to convey his Caribbean roots and exemplify the severity of his dyslexia.

Zephaniah's incredibly intimate poem that explores his childhood experiences with racism: 'No Problem' (1996):

I am not the problem

But I bear de brunt

Of the silly playground taunts

At racist stunts,

I am not the problem

I am born academic

But dey got me on de run

Now im a branded athletic

I am not the problem

If you give I a chance

I can teach yu of Timbuktu

I can do more dan dance

I am not the problem

I greet yu wid a smile

Yu put me in a pigeon hole

But i am versatile

These conditions may affect me

As I get older,

At I am positively sure

I have no chips on my shoulders,

Black is not the problem

Mother country get it right

An juss fe de record,

Sum of me best friends are white.

What other types of Spelling are there?

While you can write words using the English language, there is also a separate way to display which particular sounds to use, using the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). This allows people of any language to be able to pronounce any word, provided they understand the symbols. There are around 107 symbols that are used in the IPA. Yet, in the English Language we only use around 44 of these, some of which are listed below:

IPA symbolSoundsExamples of sound
bb, bbbug, bubble
dd, dd, eddad, add, milled
Gg, gg, gh, gu, guegin, logger, ghoul, Guernsey, rogue
j, ge, g, dge, di, gginjury, judge, giraffe, ledge, soldier, suggest
kk, c, ch, cc, lk, qu, q, ck, xkipper, call, Christmas, accentuate, chalk, bouquet, queer, rock, ox
ch, tch, do, ti, techap, witch, futuristic, action, righteous
ʃsh, ce, s, ci, si, ch, sci, chshimmer, ocean, surety, special, pension, machine, conscience, stationary
jy, i, jyour, onion, hallelujah

By using these sounds, we can make it clear how words should be pronounced through the unique coding of each phoneme.

We are able to write the French word for 'bird' as oiseaux, in a way that we can understand. Out of the 7 letters in the word, none are individually pronounced as they should be, making it harder to read it as a non-learner and non-native speaker. However with the IPA symbols: /wa./zo/. it is easier to pronounce.

Spelling - key takeaways

  • Spelling is the conventionalized order of letters to form words.
  • Inaccurate spelling can undermine pieces of writing.
  • An understanding of phonetics morphology and etymology/history can make spelling easier.
  • Americanised spellings are often more phonetic than British English spellings.
  • While spelling is important, sometimes writers (like Benjamin Zephaniah) may choose to spell things differently.
  • There is also a universal way of spelling words using the IPA system that focuses on the sounds made by a language.

¹ 'Shakespeare's Words.' The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2021.

Spelling

Spelling is the conventionalised order of letters to form words.

Poor spelling can undermine a piece of writing.

Correct spelling allows for more successful written communication by minimising confusion.

An understanding of phonemes, morphemes and the etymological history of words are fundamental for good spelling.

Final Spelling Quiz

Question

What is spelling?

Show answer

Answer

The way letters are ordered in an accepted and conventionalised way.

Show question

Question

What is the impact of poor spelling?

Show answer

Answer

Poor spelling can undermine a text's authority, seriousness and purpose as it may cause a reader to question how much effort was truly put into the piece of writing.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between a phoneme and a grapheme?


Show answer

Answer

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound, while a grapheme is the depiction of a phoneme using letters.

Show question

Question

What is a morpheme?


Show answer

Answer

A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning (i.e., the word 'cat' cannot be broken down into another meaning, but the word 'cats' can be).

Show question

Question

What is etymology?


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Answer

Etymology is the study of the historical roots of words.

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Question

What is the most common misspelling?


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Answer

'Separate' is the most commonly misspelled word.

Show question

Question

How do you spell the word that is a verb for the habitual process of doing something for improvement?


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Answer

Practise

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Question

What are homophones?


Show answer

Answer

Homophones are words that sound like eachother but have different meanings (ie: there, their and they’re)

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Question

How do you spell the word that is a noun for the name of an ancient Egyptian ruler?


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Answer

Pharaoh

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Question

What is the main difference between American and British spellings?


Show answer

Answer

American spellings are typically more phonetic than British spellings.

Show question

Question

What does IPA stand for?


Show answer

Answer

International Phonetic Alphabet

Show question

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