The absurdity of English spelling and why we’re stuck with it



Ghoti. How would you pronounce that? According to urban legend, it was George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, who coined the term in his quest for spelling reform. He pronounced it “fish” because of the sounds touGH; wOmen; and naTIOn. It probably wasn’t Shaw, but it does make an interesting point about the absurdities in English spelling. Do we need to fix it? Can we fix it?

English spelling can present problems for writers, even for those who are born into English-speaking cultures. Other languages, such as Italian or Korean, by comparison are quite phonetic (most letters are pronounced, and most letters are pronounced in a consistent way).

There are a number of letters in English that are not pronounced or pronounced differently in certain words. This pattern of irregularity affects about 25% of English words, but within that 25% are about 400 of the most frequently used words.

People who have difficulty spelling might draw little comfort from the fact that, had they lived prior to the 18th century, their “poor” spelling might have gone unnoticed. Until that time, there was considerable flexibility in the way people spelt words.

Shakespeare, for example, spelt his own name in several different ways and did not think this was remarkable. The invention of dictionaries in the 18th century “froze” the language. Thereafter, a line was drawn between “correct” and “incorrect” spelling.

Spelling errors: where do they come from?

There are other causes of spelling error apart from the irregularities of the language itself. People misspell for a variety of reasons. They may not understand the parts of speech or word classes. For example, they might mistake the verb advise for the noun advice.

It could be the result of mispronunciation. If, over a long period of time, enough people say goverment instead of government or vunerable instead of vulnerable, then the words may eventually be spelled that way.

Spelling errors can be the result of typing or writing errors. Typing errors that occur when people are using word processing programs on computers can be partly corrected by computerised spell checkers; but be warned: spell checkers are far from perfect and are not a replacement for the hard grind of improving your spelling. The same goes for predictive text on mobile phones and some keyboards.

Or perhaps the person simply does not understand the correct meaning of a word, and mistakes it for another word.

Eggcorns” are a type of language error, usually based upon a mishearing of the original word, sometimes leading to unintentionally hilarious effects, but which still make sense at some level.

Eggcorn Original meaning
Lame man’s terms Layman’s terms
Kill over and die Keel over and die
Cutting off your nose despite your face Cutting off your nose to spite your face
In high dungeon In high dudgeon
With flying collars With flying colours
To name a view To name a few
Giga counter Geiger counter
In times of trial, we must rest on the pillows of our faith. In times of trial, we must rest on the pillars of our faith.

Eggcorns are close relatives of mondegreens and malapropisms. A mondegreen is a word or word group based upon a mishearing of texts such as poetry or music, so that the Scottish ballad The Bonnie Earl O’Murray’s final lines

They hae slain the Earl Amurray/and laid him on the green

was misheard as

They hae slain the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen.

A malapropism is named after a character — Mrs Malaprop — from the 1775 play The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, where words are comically mispronounced. Thus Mrs Malaprop announces at one point:

If I reprehend [apprehend] any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular [vernacular] tongue, and a nice derangement [arrangement] of epitaphs! [epithets].

Other malapropisms are also used to humorous effect in modern television programs, usually to show — as with the original character — that the person uttering the lines is not terribly bright and thus is an object of ridicule for us, the audience:

Examples of malapropisms

Television program Malapropism Original meaning
Kath and Kim ‘I want to be effluent mum!’, ‘You are effluent Kimi . . .’ Affluent
The Sopranos ‘Revenge is like serving cold cuts’ . . . Revenge is a dish best served cold — proverb
‘prostate with grief’ Prostrate
‘Quasimodo predicted this’ Nostradamus
‘Create a little dysentery among the ranks.’ Dissent

Problems can also arise when different words sound the same. Certain words are confused because of particular similarities, such as:

  • shared elements (syllables, stress patterns) — militate/mitigate
  • transposable or exchangeable elements — calvary/cavalry, accept/except
  • words mistaken for phrases and vice versa — all ready/already
  • semantic proximity — baroque/rococo, nadir/zenith, acid/alkali

Homophones are words that have different spellings and meanings but the same pronunciation, such as:

  • Altar/alter
  • Site/cite/sight
  • Bow/bough
  • Assent/ascent
  • To/two/too
  • Awe/oar/or/ore
  • Right/rite/write/wright
  • Vein/vane/vain
  • Stationery/stationary

Be careful also of contranyms or autoantonyms. These are words that can take at least two, usually opposite, meanings.
Examples of contranyms

Contranym Different meanings
Oversight – close supervision
– ignoring something important
Moot – something not worth arguing about
– an arguable point
Sanction – endorse, approve
– disapprove, punish
Inflammable – liable to catch fire
– not liable to catch fire
Citation – an honour, award or commendation a summons to appear in court
-written notice of traffic violation
Table – to put forward for discussion (British usage)
– to postpone discussion on (American usage)
Scan – to read carefully
– to skim over
Cleave – to separate (cleaver, cleavage, cleft palate)
– to bring together (cleave to my principles/wife/the past)

Source: Author provided
Get the data

There are many spelling rules – not all of them consistent – but always keep in mind this good old prompt:

\’i before e\’ rule example

Rule Example
I before e belief, relief, thief, chief, hygiene, piece, friend
Except after c receipt, deceit, conceit, perceive, ceiling
Or when sounded like ay neighbour, weigh, vein, sleigh, eight, beige
Exceptions either, neither, foreign, forfeit, height, leisure, seize, sleight, weird

Source: Author provided
Get the data

Perfect spelling, vocabulary, usage, grammar, punctuation and style do not necessarily correlate perfectly with intelligence and competence, but most people infer that they do. Perception is reality. One typo is enough to consign a resume to the dustbin.

Spelling reform: the impossible dream?

There have been many attempts throughout the history of the English language to rationalise it, making it more or even totally phonetic. While such reform efforts seem to have common sense on their side, the sheer success of English in becoming a global language, together with the conflict between orthography (spelling) and phonology (pronunciation), make such reforms unlikely.

As American author Bill Bryson points out:

if we decide to standardise the spelling of words, whose pronunciation shall we use?

When looked at globally, most of our spellings cater to a wide variation of pronunciations. If we insisted on strictly phonetic renderings, girl would be gurl in most of America (though perhaps goil in New York), gel in London, gull in Ireland, gill in South Africa, garull in Scotland. Written communications between nations, and even parts of nations, would become practically impossible.

Thus, we are probably stuck with the inanities of four/fourteen/forty and debt and island (with the b and s inserted by 17th-century scholars who were trying to copy what they imagined to be more prestigious Latin spellings).

Unfortunately, there is no other way of learning English spelling than by reading as widely as possible (and even then, by not trusting everything you read). Use, but do not depend upon, software spell checkers that simply use a dumb algorithm that looks at its own dictionary and then tells you if the word exists, not if it is the right word. Spell checkers, at their current stage of development, cannot read context — only you can do that.

Author Bio: Baden Eunson is an Adjunct Lecturer, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University