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Macmillan Dictionary's guide to spelling

Why is English spelling so difficult?

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 bit of history

A good place to start is knowing some language history. English words come from three main sources:

  • Germanic words
  • 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.

  • Latin and Greek words
  • 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).

  • Loanwords from other languages
  • 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.

Common spelling problems – and what to do about them

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:

  • Very long words
  • 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.

  • Single consonant or double?
  • Here's another case where it's useful to know if a word is Germanic or Latin in origin:

    • Germanic words rarely have double consonants in the middle, except when they're formed from a base word and a suffix such as -er, -ing, or -ed: so kidnap and worship get an extra "p" in kidnapper and worshipping, and big gets an extra "g" in bigger and biggest
    • Latin-based words often have double consonants in the middle: this usually happens when a prefix like in-, con-, or ad- has been attached to a word which starts with the consonant that the prefix ends with: adduce (from ad- and ducere), innocent, connotation. These Latin prefixes also change when the word they are attached to begins with a different letter: in-(=not) + relevant becomes irrelevant, and con-(=with) + location becomes collocation.
  • British or American?
  • 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.

  • Words with silent letters
  • These include:

    • the "p" at the start of many Greek words: psychology, pneumonia, pteranodon
    • the "kn-" and "wr-" at the start of many Germanic words (as mentioned earlier)
    • the "b" that follows "m" at the end of words like limb, comb, and climb
    • the "h" in words like rhinoceros and rhythmic (from Greek) or in heir and honest (from Latin via French)
    • the "h" in words like chemistry, monarchy or technology. These words all come from Greek, and in this case "ch" is pronounced /k/. But in Germanic words, "ch" creates the sound /tS/ – as in child or church.
    • the "n" following "m" at the end of words like autumn and condemn. The "n" sound reappears when the word acquires a suffix, as in autumnal and condemnation.
    • the "a" in adverbs many ending in -ally, like basically, logically, and critically
  • Is it -ie- or -ei-?
  • 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.

  • A choice of endings
  • 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:

    • -able or -ible: -able is more likely to be tacked onto a complete word (payable, readable, adaptable). But -ible typically follows an incomplete word of Latin origin (audible, tangible, eligible).
    • -ary, -ery or -ory: words ending in -ary often start with something that is not an English word, eg library, temporary, anniversary; conversely, those ending in -ery tend to start with recognizable English words (brewery, slavery, mockery, blustery); words ending in -ory sometimes come from French words that end in -oire (victory, laboratory), or from nouns ending in -or that refer to people (predatory from predator, or contributory from contributor).
    • -ance or -ence: there are two regular patterns which will help you, and these usually apply to words ending in -ant or -ent, and in -ancy or -ency.
      • When the last sound before the suffix is /k/, /t/, or /g/, the ending is usually -ance (or -ant or -ancy): significance, vacancy, reluctant, distance, consultancy, elegant, extravagance.
      • When the last sound before the suffix is 's' or 'sh', the ending is usually -ence (or -ent or -ency): accent, absence, decency, proficient, efficiency.
  • Loanwords
  • 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.

All is not lost: a few general tips

  • Get to know the common Greek and Latin roots
  • 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).

  • Don't rely on spellcheckers
  • 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.

  • Read!
  • The more you read, the more confident you'll be about spelling.

  • Remember, it could be worse
  • 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".

Spelling practice & resources

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:

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