Monday, December 7, 2009

Plain English: Who Can Be Blamed for All the Poor Spelling?

Why can’t some people spell? Lousy spellers may have undiagnosed learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Others may not have been taught the basic rules of spelling. The main excuse, however, is simply that there is not much emphasis on spelling these days. The stigma of being a poor speller has been minimized thanks to advertising. We see “light” spelled as “lite”, and night spelled as “nite.” Spelling corruptions become brand identification jokes like “Duck Tape”, a kind of duct tape. Then there is the cutesy spelling as in Kountry Kafe, or the Weigh of Life Clinic. Creative spelling got the upper hand once parents embraced the right to spell their child’s name any way they wanted. Katy, Katie, Kati, Katee, and K.T. are all pronounced the same. So are Joany, Jonie, Jonee, and Joni.

Text messaging and email also contribute to the demise of spelling. Playing around with language and keyboard symbols defines electronic communication. In cyberspace we are forever young, writing like teens. Just take the spelling from those inscriptions in your high school yearbook (love ya, luv, cuz, wanna, gonna, gotta, or gotcha), add a few :-), :-/, and some IMO, BTW, BFF, LOL, and you’re speaking online lingo.

At the root of the problem is the fact that English is a really tough language as far as spelling goes. English has 90 basic spelling patterns. 84 of the 90 patterns have exceptions. In other words, groups of letters form the same sound, but are spelled differently. Examples: cat/plait; pet/threat; mum/some/country; seen/lean/thief; awl/all; play/they/weigh/matinee; daddy/monkey/coffee; sight/site/cite; meet/meat/mete.

English was not difficult in the beginning because it followed the regularity of Latin. The problems with English began when French became the official language of England during the 200-year Norman occupation that started in 1066. Imposing French on English formed a whole new language – a kind of Frenglish. English was further complicated from 1476 on by printers who got paid by the line of type. To make more money, they doubled the consonants in the middle of words, especially f, g, l, m, n, r, s, and t, and the vowels e and o. They also inserted letters, many of them silent, at the beginning and end of word (olde shoppe). Greed corrupted English spelling over 500 years ago, and it hasn’t changed much since 1755.

Do other countries have the same problems with their languages? Yes, but unlike English-speaking countries they do something about it. Writing reforms in other languages have taken place in at least 21 countries since 1900. Recent reforms were made in Chinese (1956), Danish (1999), Dutch (1995), Finnish (1999), French (1990), German (1998), Italian (1996), Japanese (1995), Portuguese (1997). Some reform in America in spellings such as “theater” instead of the British “theatre” and “gray” instead of “grey” were adopted around 1900. Otherwise, both the English and Americans are stuck with two/to/too, threw/through, lie/lye, see/sea, they’re/their/there, and many other words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently.

The Simplified Spelling Society, an organization in England that advocates language reform, makes the following claim: “Italian children can spell accurately after just two years at school. Italy has only half as many identified dyslexics as England. Even after 11 years at school, barely half of all English speakers become confident spellers.”

At last we have an answer to why Americans can’t spell. It’s not us, it’s our language. The Simplified Spelling Society would make us all better spellers by eliminating the exceptions to the spelling rules. In the future, we may have no trouble whatsoever spelling and reading the sentence: “There parking there car over there.” Most people, according to The Simplified Spelling Society, write the sentence like that already.


Mary Jane McKinney is the creator and owner of LLC, publisher of grammar, style, and proofreading exercises that use sentences from literature. She is a former high school English teacher and dedicated grammarian whose column Plain English appears in several Texas newspapers. LLC, P.O. Box 299, Christoval, TX 76935,, 325-896-2479,

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