Local sustainability

Spelling Change

New ideas are more readily accepted when they solve real problems.

By identifying issues that cause the most frustration, we can start to package solutions to suit the user for maximum satisfaction. If the solutions provided are acceptable and make sense, they will have the most uptake. Here, I am concerned with adults, not children. Children make different spelling errors because they bring a new perspective to language, or a kind of universal, simplifying grammar. Adults who keep making mistakes with their native language, can be reasonably said to be tackling linguistic complications that are characteristic of the language, not the user. Technology such as auto-correcting text and spell checkers are enabling us to live with these complications whilst contributing to the language’s ossification. However, it concerns me that native-speakers’ lack the ability to use their language directly, without technology. Is it not the beginning of a dangerous dependence on artificial intelligence? Here I address the issues of concern to those who experience frustration with spelling difficulties and a sense of stigma, which in my view is unjustified and unnecessary.

English is the product of years of development by the Anglo-Celts and the languages of populations that influenced them. Although it has changed a lot in the past, more recently it has ossified somewhat, despite (or because of) it spreading across the world and becoming the international language of choice (arguably). But it is still a ‘living language’ in that there is no authority, such as the Académie Française, prescribing change and use. I contend that change in English spelling is still possible. We need only regain the courage to toy with it in ways that help us to communicate more satisfactorily. It must also be acceptable, which means we are limited in what we can do in the short term. However, in informal contexts such as personal correspondence we have much leeway. In professional situations, our jobs may be on the line, but the more we make it plain that we act consciously and are able to explain what we’re doing, the better.

One objection you will encounter is that English spelling reflects its Greek and Latin origins. Etymology shows that spellings have changed as words morphed from one language to another across time and space. Why, therefore, should it ossify with us? Often spellings of the past were an attempt to represent the pronunciation of the time. Although we are not sure of the ancient pronunciation of Latin, for example, it has become rather phonetic. Other languages, such as Welsh and Italian, are more phonetic than English.

Another consideration when changing English Spelling is a little known rule that Cut Speling contravenes (this needs researching to check it’s correct); only function or grammar words in English are less than three letters (e.g. I, it, is, on, etc…).

What are your most common spelling mistakes? Which of them are relatively high-frequency words? Which words are misspelled frequently by most people?

High-frequency words, sometimes referred to as ‘sight’ words (because we see them so often) are not the most frequently misspelled, despite often having very strange spelling, such as ‘enough’. The reason is, of course, that we have memorized them. However, words that are relatively high-frequency (words that are regularly used), and difficult to spell, are the most frustrating. This is where the potential for spelling change exits.

Vulnerable Vocabulary

Vulnerable vocabulary are the low-hanging fruit of spelling change. I encourage you to keep a record of the words you have found in this category and how you have spelt them. We can use these words for comparison. Some of mine so far are listed below (my spelling in parentheses) with explanations that will help you remember the traditional spelling or possible alternatives that are easier and more logical:

  • definitely (definitly)
  • diarrhea/diarrhoea (dyarea/diarea)
  • dilapidated (delapidated – an alternative, where ‘de’ = undo, [di = apart], lapid = stone)
  • etymology (etimology)
  • infringement (infringment)
  • intriguing (intriging)
  • plagiarise (plaigerise)
  • (proselytising) prozletizing
  • psoriasis (soriasis)
  • receipt (recete)
  • receive (receve, rcseve – see discussion below ‘taking control’)
  • riveting (rivveting)
  • rhythm (rithum) a word without vowels?! Stuff the etimology, this one needs a revolution!
  • shoulder (sholder)

Here are some of the most common mistakes made by adults.

100 Most Often Misspelled Words

Common spelling errors made by native speakers

unnecessary, embarrassed, separately, definitely, argument, irrelevant, responsibilities, achievement, reference, particularly, occasional, committed, colleagues, liaison…
These words are the most misspelled words made by native speakers according to the Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, and Viviane Cook. And the worse thing is they’re often misspelled on job application forms.

Examples of difficult spellings:

  • unstressed vowels, e.g. separately, definitely, -able/ible endings, French spellings (amateur) 
  • double consonants, e.g. accommodate, useful(l), beginners, committed
  • silent letters, e.g. achieve, knew, answers, where
  • homophones, e.g. their, they’re, there
  • rule-breakers, e.g. definitely

Guidelines for taking control of your spelling and contributing to spelling change

Many spelling mistakes are due to ignorance of the rules of spelling. Homophones, for example, orthographically illustrate different meanings, and cannot be altered. To become an effective spelling change-maker, you must know the rules of English spelling so as to make informed contributions. Here are two common rules:

  • vowel + c + e pronunciation rule that gives the vowel a long sound, or capital/name sound, for example in ‘sale’ the ‘a’ sounds like ‘A’
  • i before e except after c – there are many relatively high-frequency exceptions to this rule

Consider how these two rules contradict each other in the frequently misspelled word,  ‘receive’. It conforms to the first rule, but not the second rule. (This word is most definitely a vulnerable word; on 17th November, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted it as ‘recieve’ – and he’s been speaking English for 70 years.) The pronunciation of ‘eve’ (as in the woman’s name, Eve) probably leads many to mispell it as ‘recieve’. If the ‘i’ is removed (receve), the word suddenly conforms to the second rule. The ‘i’ is in fact redundant. However, in the noun form of the word (receipt), both ‘i’ and ‘p’ are silent, but ‘recet’ and ‘recept’ would be unacceptably different from the original word. ‘Recete’ makes perfect sense, but is probably unacceptably different to the original traditional spelling.

For an example of how a spelling change-maker might start to write more phonetically, see my blog post on Euro-English. It’s particularly cool to see the letter ‘c’ become a much needed vowel.

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