I can read and understand words in English, but often struggle to spell them. Why?

English is not easy to spell. In fact, it is one of the hardest languages to spell. It’s not your stupid brain but rather the stupid language. I know, I am an English teacher and also I have real difficulty spelling. I’m not stupid. I have had my IQ tested several times and I could easily get into Mensa (but don’t see any purpose to joining).

English is a mish-mash of several old European languages. It takes words from German, French, Latin, Greek and many other languages from all over the globe. As a result, English contains the spelling forms borrowed from those various sources.

Within England, there are a variety of spoken dialects and the English language has changed significantly over the last 1000 years. As the language changed and diversified so to did the spellings. Look at old English books and you will see various spellings and adaptations. The language became standardised with the advent of the modern printing press. The publishers of the first books used a spelling based on a South of England pronunciation. This pronunciation no longer matches perfectly with modern accents. As a result, the way you pronounce an English word has little bearing, if any, on how you spell the word.

The Wikipedia page English orthography is a good place to start if you want to understand more deeply.

Take for example the spelling “ough”

  • /ʌf/ enough, hough, rough, slough, tough
  • /ɒf~ɔːf/ cough, trough
  • /aʊ/ bough, drought, plough
  • /oʊ/ dough, furlough, though
  • /ɔː/ bought, brought, ought, sought, thought, wrought
  • /uː/ brougham, slough, through
  • /ə/ borough, thorough
  • /ʌp/ hiccough
  • /ɒk/ hough
  • /ɒx/ lough

In contrast, “to, two, too, true, shoe, flew, through” all contain the same /uː/ sound but are spelt differently. Same goes for /iː/ as in “sleeve, leave, even, seize, siege” or for /oʊ/ as in “stole, coal, bowl, roll, old, mould”. It is left up to the English learner to memorize which spelling goes where. No rules can be followed and when you encounter a new word, you simply have to guess until you have time to consult a dictionary.

Some people have suggested that English spelling should be reformed. However, such suggestions have not been taken up. Differentiated spelling makes words instantly recognisable when reading. Since reading is more common than writing, the language should optimise to make the reader’s life easy. Simplified spellings makes the language easy to write but much much harder to read.

Here is a quotation that illustrates the point. The following is generally attributed to Mark Twain but may, in fact, be by M. J. Yilz.

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Another humorous illustration by an unknown author:

Eye Halve a Spelling Chequer

Eye halve a spelling chequer,
It came with my pea sea,
It plainly marques four my revue,
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word,
And weight four it two say,
Weather eye am wrong oar write,
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid,
It nose bee fore two long,
And eye can put the error rite,
Its really ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore your pleased two no,
Its letter perfect in it’s weigh,
My chequer tolled me sew.

My final advice for you is to make use of the tools on your computer to check your spelling, as the above poem suggests. I suspect, like most Chinese people, you have the Chinese language version of MS Office installed. I strongly recommend you download and English language Office suite. If you don’t want to pay for the MS version, I recommend you download Free Office Suite in English. It will not only improve your spelling but your entire English writing as it corrects punctuation and even common grammar errors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.