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. We can do that in writing by adding [sic] and if possible link it to a page such as this. [sic] means ‘intentionally written thus’.
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. Greater phonetisizeation [sic] can help simplify spelling, although accents can add to its variety. For example ‘news’ might be spelt ‘nooz‘ in North America and ‘nyooz’ in Commonwealth countries. A helpful guide you could use is dictionary.com’s phonetic respelling.
Another consideration when changing English Spelling is a little known rule that Cut Speling ruthlessly disregards; only function or grammar words in English are less than three letters (e.g. I, it, is, on, etc…). An exception is the modern spelling of ‘ox’, rather than the much older ‘oxe’. How about writing ‘oks’!?
‘X’ is very readily replaceable with ‘ks’ because it is rarely if ever used for other sounds (xylophone being an example) or combined with other letters to form extra fricatives. Replacing ‘c’ with ‘s’ or ‘z’ is more difficult because it is regularly combined with ‘h’ for the sound in ‘church’. However, the prospect of freeing up these two letters is compelling because English has 16 vowel sounds and only 5 vowel letters. One very common vowel sound with no regular typographic representation is the short schwa sound ‘uh’. We normally spell this with an readily forgettable variation of all the vowel letters because it is an unstressed sylable [sic]. That’s why so many people forget how to spell the middle sylable of ‘separate’. If ‘c’ were freed up for this sound, it would simplify matters enormously and because it is typographically similar to a,e, i, o u, it is a good fit. For more on how this would play out, read my version of a humorous meme on Euro-English.
What are your most common spelling mistakes? Which of them are relatively high-frequency words that give you the most frustration? Which words are misspelled frequently by most people?
Extremely 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 are the low-hanging fruit of spelling change. The words that bother you most will become the ones you remember you’re spelling uniquely. If you’re using a computer, you can edit your spell-checker by adding the words the way you prefer to spell them. However, don’t be too cavalier; you should be an INFORMED spelling change-maker (see below).
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:
Here are some of the most common mistakes made by adults.
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:
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 a few of the most basic and common rules of English spelling so as to make informed contributions. Here are two common rules:
Decide which rules are too hard. For me this one is just a pain:
There are so many relatively high-frequency exceptions to this that I regularly spell ‘receive’ as ‘receve’. With [sic] after it, I invite discussion and link readers to this web page. 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 writing English for 70 years. Granted, he’s an example of someone who is not a life-long learner! 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, so ‘[sic]’ is a must! I haven’t traced the etymology of this word’s spelling and at this point I’m not going to. I don’t give a damn, it’s my language and what my forebears did in the past is their business. It doesn’t work for me now and there’s only so much digging I’m prepared to do, etymologists! I need to use the language for practical purposes and my time is limited.
For an amusing example of how a spelling change-maker takes things in a dramatically phonetic direction, see my blog post on Euro-English. It’s particularly cool to see the letter ‘c’ become a much needed vowel.