Think you’re a grammar pro? Put it to the test in a Syntaxis Grammar Quiz!
Syntaxis logoContact

The Adventure of English Spelling

English is not very user-friendly for the spelling-challenged.

Ellen Jovin

When you consider the radically different pronunciations of similar-looking words in English, it sometimes seems miraculous that people learn to spell at all. On the bright side, the vagaries of English permit writers to produce entire amusing books on the subject of orthography (that’s a fancy word for spelling).

One example on my shelf is Vivian Cook’s humorously titled Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary: Or Why Can’t Anybody Spell? Such works would surely be much less feasible (and entertaining) in highly phonetic languages such as Spanish and Italian.

Consider this little collection of English words: “through,” “thought,” “though,” “tough,” and “trough.” Not very welcoming for newcomers to English, and not very friendly to oldcomers either!

A recent Facebook post of mine about spelling generated what I regarded as a rather astonishing flurry of activity, given the subject matter. Friends and acquaintances offered up numerous examples of English words they find hard to spell.

Here are some of them:

  • accommodate
  • acknowledge
  • across
  • assistance
  • awry
  • beautiful
  • broccoli
  • bureaucracy
  • camaraderie
  • cappuccino
  • Cincinnati
  • column
  • commitment
  • dilemma
  • disease
  • dyslexia
  • eight
  • embarrass
  • exercise
  • harangue
  • harass
  • license
  • lieutenant
  • Massachusetts
  • misogynist
  • Mississippi
  • mnemonic
  • necessary
  • occur/occurred
  • predominant
  • prerogative
  • privilege
  • recommend
  • relevant
  • separate
  • sergeant
  • similar
  • vacuum

See “dilemma” on that list? Until a few years ago, I thought it was spelled “dilemna.” I am not alone, it seems. According to what Michael Quinion wrote on his website World Wide Words, many people were taught the incorrect spelling in school. How very weird (that’s another commonly misspelled word, by the way)!

More weirdness: so is “misspell”! And so is “grammar”!

Everyone knows about spellcheck, but I still believe in the value of being able to spell unaided by machinery. In these days of tech-abetted writing, spelling ability is almost like a superpower.

Suppose you have to scribble something on the front of a document before handing it off to your manager! Or imagine you are writing on a whiteboard or flipchart in front of a couple dozen colleagues! What an advantage you will have if you can spell without resorting to Random House.

Spelling studies are a worthy undertaking, even today. Fight flipchart phobia, I say!