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Many languages don't have a word for "spell". In Spanish and Italian, for example, it is almost a meaningless concept, because the way words are written corresponds exactly to the way they sound. English is different. A single sound may take a dozen or more forms when written down. The short "i" in fish can be represented by every other English vowel (orange, pretty, women, business), and it doesn't stop there – think of myth, sieve, and marriage, to name just a few.
It's this mismatch between what we say and how the words are written that makes spelling in English such a challenge. There have been many (unsuccessful) attempts to regularize English spelling, and for over a hundred years, advocates of reform have claimed, jokingly, that you could spell fish with the (non-existent) word ghoti. (The gh- is like the /f/ sound at the end of enough, the -o- is like the sound in women, and the -ti is the "sh" sound you find in words like ration or motion.) But language is rarely random, and although our spelling system looks chaotic, there are regular patterns lurking under the surface. Understanding these "rules" can help you become a more confident speller.
A good place to start is knowing some language history. English words come from three main sources:
Old English was a Germanic language and most of our basic vocabulary comes from here – words like head, house, cold, and eat. Until about 500 years ago, the spellings of Germanic words matched the sounds: so sight (like German Sicht) would have been pronounced pretty much as it looks, and in words like kneel, wrist and sword, you would hear the "k" or "w". But as the spellings became fixed (partly due to the advent of print), the sounds continued to evolve. Consequently, many words of Germanic origin are no longer pronounced the way they are spelled.
Words from these classical European languages first came into English with the Norman conquest, and there was another big influx at the time of the Renaissance. So while Spanish has no word for spelling, English has two: spelling (a Germanic word), and orthography (from Greek).
English has always borrowed words from other languages, such as bungalow (from Hindi), ketchup (Chinese) and graffiti (Italian).
As we will see later, a word's origins will often affect the way it is spelled.
Thanks to language technology, it's much easier to identify the words people have most trouble with. When you look up a word in an online dictionary like Macmillan Dictionary, the software keeps a record – so if you put "harrass" in the search box, the dictionary not only shows you the correct spelling (harass) but also logs the incorrect one. This means that lists such as this list of common misspellings are based on hard evidence of words that users have actually searched for but spelled wrongly.
Lists of frequently misspelled words often include the following types:
These are less scary than they look if you break them down into their component parts. The well-known antidisestablishmentarianism is just the word establish surrounded by a number of equally familiar English prefixes and suffixes. Most longer words work like this, and many are scientific or medical terms made up of Greek roots – words like pneumoradiography or polyneuropathy. If you learn the most common Latin and Greek roots (there are plenty of lists on the Web such as this one), you'll have a head start.
Here's another case where it's useful to know if a word is Germanic or Latin in origin:
Most spelling differences between these two varieties are regular and well-known – things like humour (British) and humor (American), meagre and meager, traveller and traveler. Some supposedly "American" spellings are now common in British English too – notably the -ize words (emphasize, organization) and words like medieval and encyclopedia (mediaeval and encyclopaedia are now rarely seen). A couple of special cases are install and program: in computer-speak, British English favours these (originally) American spellings.
The familiar rule is "i before e, except after c": so it's believe but deceive, and piece but ceiling. But the rule only applies when the sound is "ee" /i:/. In other cases, an "e" quite often comes before an "i": beige, height, foreign.
Some words end in -able and others in -ible, some end in -ent and others in -ant. How do you know which is which? The sound of the words won't usually help: for example, innocence and ignorance both end with the same sound but they are spelled differently. There are no straightforward answers but here are a few guidelines for these and similar cases where there is a choice of endings:
In many cases, loanwords keep the sounds and spelling of their original language, even when these don't conform to English conventions: pizza, fajita, chutzpah, grand prix, ennui, facade, machete.
These guidelines are well worth knowing, and they show some of the underlying systems at work. But English spelling remains erratic, and none of these "rules" will help you with words like yacht, colonel and hiccough, or with "homophones" like discrete/discreet, ascent/assent, and martial/marshal. Some things you just have to memorize.
This will help you to spot whether a word has Germanic or Romance origins, and that can often help you spell it. It's often said that Germanic words (like water, house, or bread) refer to concrete things, whereas Latin or Greek words are more abstract (evidence, justice, philosophy). This isn't always true: for example, the -ness suffix makes abstract words like happiness and kindness, and it's Germanic in origin. Still, this is a useful rule of thumb. When you know a word's history, you'll understand why we write forward and full (Germanic) but philosophy and metaphor (Greek), or pith (Germanic) but myth (Greek).
They're not very smart because as long as you've written a valid word, they won't complain. A sentence like "I sore there plain over their" (I saw their plane over there) will get the green light from most spellcheckers.
The more you read, the more confident you'll be about spelling.
When Dr. Johnson compiled his dictionary in 1755, English spelling was all over the place, and there was, he said, "still great uncertainty among the best criticks". One of his objectives was to pin down a single spelling for each word. He was largely successful, even if (as he said) he often had to "decide between custom and reason".
Try these two quizzes to see how good your English spelling is:
Read more about spelling on the blog:
These pages give more information about features designed for language learners: