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Concourse 2

English spelling

shcool nohing excellense

"a conspiracy to undermine a country that won't tow the western line" – BBC News website 17 December 2014

duel Earlier this month David Cameron, the prime minister, visited Stonehenge ... and announced plans to duel the A303
The Daily Telegraph website 21 December 2014
(Image from Wikipedia, Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's duel, Ilya Repin, 1899.)

We all make mistakes.  There are three sorts above.  Which is which?

  1. Slips and typographical errors
  2. Errors caused by the lack of sound-spelling consistency in English
  3. Errors caused by simply not knowing how a word is spelled


The first two pictures (shcool and nohing) are just slips and they happen frequently.  For the purposes of this guide, we can ignore them because they have nothing to do with spelling rules in English.
The third picture (excellense) is the result of someone simply not knowing how the word excellence is spelled in English.
The quotations from the BBC and Daily Telegraph websites are errors caused by the lack of sound-spelling consistency in English (it's called a homophone error because toe and tow, duel and dual sound the same but are differently written and mean different things).  News sites are a rich source of such errors because many news stories are submitted by journalists over the telephone.  Another example, from the Daily Telegraph, sadly since corrected, is the description of shelves which "grown with academic tomes".

English spelling is wholly irregular and random.  Right?


It is often claimed that English spelling is impossible (or at least very difficult) to learn.  For example:

English spelling is probably the most irregular spelling system of all those based on the alphabetic system.  Not only can't you tell how to spell a word from hearing it spoken, you can't predict how a word is spoken from the written word either.
The English Spelling Society

In fact, there are clear connections between how a word is pronounced and its spelling despite the fact, which is not arguable, that there are numerous exceptions.  Here's a short list:

Long and short vowels

  1. short vowels only usually require a single letter: bit, bat, sit, hat, kit, cut and so on.
  2. long vowels are represented in two ways:
    1. by inserting a vowel after the consonant: bite, bate, site, hate, kite, cute and so on.  This is the Vowel-Consonant-Vowel (VCV) principle.
    2. by inserting a second vowel before the consonant: beat, boat, heat etc.  This is the VVC principle.

There are some exceptions (of course) and they are common words, usually.  They include:
come, done, give, gone, have, live, love, none, one, some
All these have short vowels but end VCV.  They are quite simple to learn and learners usually have little trouble pronouncing or spelling them.

Consonant doubling

  1. consonant doubling often occurs in an effort to 'protect' the short vowel sound.
    If the consonant were not doubled in hatter, for example, the word would be pronounced as hater (because the VCV pattern would compel it) and the same goes for very many other words or word pairs such as diner-dinner, taper-tapper, cuter-cutter, fate, fatter, later-latter etc.  This is the VCCV principle.
  2. the consonant is doubled when adding an -ed or -ing ending only if the stress is on the second syllable: befit-befitting, remit-remitting but offer-offering etc.
  3. regardless of stress, British English doubles the consonant if it is 'p' or 'l'.  American English does not.

Spelling the /k/ sound
the /k/ sound (as in, e.g., click, black, corn, bacon etc.) also obeys principles:

  1. single 'c' is the most common (and the way to bet) and can occur anywhere: actor, cactus, cart, because etc.
  2. doubling of the 'c' follows the same principle as any other consonant doubling: it protects the short vowel.  So we have tobacco, Mecca etc.  This is the VCCV principle, again.
  3. if the /k/ sound is followed by 'e', 'i' or 'y', 'k' is used instead of 'c': make, sketch, token, sake, slinky, skin etc.
  4. 'ck' similarly replaces 'cc' if it is followed by 'e', 'i' or 'y': panicky, tarmacked etc.
  5. 'ck' always follows a short vowel: luck, duck, back, fickle etc.
  6. 'k' follows any other vowel or consonant: soak, coke, musk, lark etc.
  7. /kw/ is always spelled 'qu': queen, quince, equine etc.

Spelling the /dʒ/ sound

  1. if the sound is followed by 'a', 'o' or 'u', the letter 'j' is preferred: injure, just, jangle, jumble etc.
  2. if the sound is followed by 'e', 'i' or 'y', the letter 'g' is preferred: aged, ginger, gauge, original, mangy etc.
  3. 'j' cannot be doubled (to protect a short vowel, again) so 'dg' is used instead: judged, budgerigar

no English words end in 'v' so we always have a following 'e': thieve, save, have etc.


  1. words ending in 'y'
    1. if you add an 's', the 'y' changes to 'ie': worry-worries, cry-cries etc.
    2. words ending in 'ey' usually do not change when an 's' or 'd' is added: valley-valleys, player-players-played etc.  (But lay-laid, say-said etc.)
    3. 'y' does not change when it's followed by 'i': dry-drying, cry-crying, spy-spying etc.
  2. words ending in 'e'
    1. words ending in consonant + 'e' drop the 'e' when adding anything beginning with a vowel: love-loving, response-responsible etc.  (But, in this case, the long vowel is often protected by retaining the 'e': likeable, mileage etc.)
    2. the soft 'c' (/s/) and 'g' (/dʒ/) sounds also mean that the 'e' is retained: manage-manageable, outrage-outrageous etc.
  3. words ending in 'ie' change to 'y': die-dying, lie-lying
  4. words ending in 'ue' drop the 'e': argue-argument, true-truly
  5. words ending in 's', 'z', 'x', 'ch' or 'sh' take 'es': watch-watches, match-matches, fizz-fizzes, fix-fixes, bush-bushes, bus-buses etc.

(There is a little more on the spelling and pronunciation of verb endings in the guide to basic verb forms.)

So there are rules.  Rather too many of them, in fact.


Teaching the rules

You can't of course, teach all the rules listed here at one go.  Many would say that learning English spelling rules is actually impossible, and unnecessary because people will pick up the patterns by exposure.  That's certainly arguable and it is clear that the more exposure people have to examples of the patterns, the more likely they are to absorb them.
It is, however, worth taking each of the regular patterns, one at a time, and focusing 20 minutes or so on them now and again (weekly, perhaps).
Spelling rules lend themselves to light-hearted games, races and competitions in the classroom because they have Right/Wrong answers.



As we saw, not even the BBC is immune to the homophone trap.  Many native speakers trip up in this area.
If you'd like a list of a couple of hundred common ones, click here.
It is helpful, then, to look through the language you are presenting just to see if there are any homophone traps the authors or you have fallen into.
It is, however, not usually worth focusing on them because that can confuse as much as it enlightens.

There are, however, a set of homophones in English on which it is worth focusing.  In the following, can you detect the problem to describe in the right-hand column?  Click on the table when you have a few notes.

spelling task

good news

English spelling: the good news

OK, so spelling in English is tough because a) there are lots of confusing rules and b) even when you have mastered the rules, there's always an exception.  If you look back at the list above, you can probably find an exception to every single rule.
English spelling is something of a mess because of its history:

  • Early printers were often not native speakers of English, even in England, and the influence of Dutch (their first language, frequently) is seen in, e.g., the insertion of the 'h' in ghost.  (Even Caxton, the first well known English printer, had spent 30 years outside the country and his grasp of English writing was shaky.)
  • English has a higher proportion than most languages of what are called 'loan words' (i.e., words imported from other languages).  This means that spelling in English sometimes follows the conventions of Scandinavian languages, French, Latin or Greek among others.  Words may retain their spelling but the pronunciation is often Anglicized so the mismatch between spelling and pronunciation arises.  The notoriously varied pronunciation of ough (cough, rough, thought, plough, through etc.) is a product of this sort of confusion.
  • English does not have a regulating authority to rule on correct spelling or even introduce reforms.  French and Spanish have and many other languages, German, Portuguese, Norwegian etc. have undergone repeated reforms to try to simplify and codify the spelling of words (often in the teeth of considerable opposition).  There are hundreds of such academies around the world, all devoted to formalising, correcting and sometimes reforming the way a language is used and written.  For example, we have:
        The Académie française for French
        The Nederlandse Taalunie for Dutch
        The Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung for German
        at least 12 focused on Arabic of various forms
        The Institut d'Estudis Catalans for Catalan
        The Accademia della Crusca for Italian
        The Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española for Spanish
    and even
        The Pontifical Academy for Latin
    English has never had such an academy (although some have tried to start one) so the language remains unreformed.
  • English is spoken as a first or second language by around 800 million people and it is an official language in around 60 countries.  There are small but significant differences in spelling around the world.  It is not only a difference between British and American spellings, either.  Canadian English, for example, generally prefers color to colour but retains the British centre instead of the American center.  Indian English usually prefers to follow British spelling conventions as does Australian English (at least nowadays) despite Australia using an American computer keyboard layout, by the way.

One possible advantage of having a rather odd spelling system is that meaning can often be inferred from spelling.  For example, in English, these three words are pronounced the same (they are homophones):

rite, write, right

But, because of the different spellings we can easily see which are connected to the following words and if we know the base word, we can have a good stab at inferring the meaning of the others:

written, ritual, rightness, rights, writing, rites, righteous

The term for this is a morpho-phonemic writing system.  Spelling and meaning are connected, in other words.
Reforming English spelling would mean that this handy reference would disappear and all three words would probably be spelled rite.
That, many argue, would be a loss.  English, they point out, is not meant to have a phonetic spelling system.

So, next time your students despair of being able to spell correctly, it may be worth pointing this out.

Another thing to point out to despairing learners is that native speakers also have trouble.  We often see, for example, dessicate, acommodation (or accomodation), embarass, wierd, definately and so on.
You, of course, can correct all those.



The term diacritic refers to the accent marks which exist in many languages and show a difference in pronunciation (or used to).
Modern English retains the use of some accent marks on imported words, almost always those from French, but it is often a matter of personal taste.  Using role instead of rôle is common and hôtel is almost never seen, for example.
When there is a possibility of ambiguity, the convention is to retain the accent markers (so we have résumé and resume).  The accent is generally retained on café and on vis-à-vis, however, when no ambiguity is avoided.
Loan words from other languages usually get stripped of their diacritics, although über from German is seen alongside uber.  The words doppelganger and doppelgänger are in free variation and English usually removes the capital letter obligatory on German on all nouns.  The Turkish döner kebap is almost always spelled as doner kebab in English.

union jack usa

English (BrE) and American (AmE)

English (BrE) and American spelling (AmE) differ as everyone knows but the differences are not huge.  The number of words affected is probably fewer than 400.  (Given that the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains entries for 171,476 words in current use, and the Oxford website estimates that there are at least 250,000 distinct words in English, that represents a tiny proportion.)
In most cases, the AmE variant is simpler.
Here are the most commonly cited differences:

  • the 'u' is omitted for the BrE colour, favour etc. to give color, flavor etc.  In fact, the spelling without the 'u' was the normal one in Britain until Shakespeare's time.  By the way, glamour is spelled the same in both varieties.
  • final 'e' is dropped from words like axe and when adding a suffix which makes the 'e' silent as in ageing (BrE) and aging (AmE).  Note, however, that both varieties usually keep the 'e' when losing it would affect the pronunciation of the preceding consonant so both BrE and AmE have changeable, traceable etc.  BrE does in fact often drop the 'e' in words like lovable, movable, provable etc.
  • likewise the final silent vowels on words like catalogue and dialogue are dropped to get the AmE catalog and dialog.  (This does not happen with tongue which is spelled the same in both varieties.)
  • words in BrE which end '-mme' usually end simple '-m' in AmE: programme, program is the only obvious example but some British English speakers use kilogramme and telegramme.  That is becoming quite rare.
  • words ending '-re' in BrE are generally spelled with '-er' in AmE: centre, center, fibre, fiber, calibre, caliber etc.
  • words which end with '-ce' in BrE will often end with '-se' in AmE: defence, defense, offence, offense etc.
  • when BrE distinguishes between the noun (e.g., practice, licence) and the verb (e.g., practise, license), AmE does not, preferring the '-ce' ending for all.
  • BrE prefers, on the whole, '-ise' in words like organise but both spellings are acceptable (the '-ize' spellings are those preferred by Oxford University Press, for example).  AmE prefers '-ize' on such words although there are exceptions in words like advertise, comprise, exercise, franchise etc. due to the words' sources.  The same consideration affects the small number of words ending in '-yse' / '-yze' where BrE prefers analyse and paralyse, most AmE writers will use analyze and paralyze.
    Some words, such as capsize and prize are spelled with the 'z' in both varieties.  In fact, again, the '-ize' ending is the older one and the '-ise' ending a relative newcomer.
  • there is a small and not especially interesting debate concerning the alternative spellings of, e.g., connection/connexion, inflexion/inflexion and so on.  It was the case that BrE preferred the 'x' spelling but this is no longer standard in most texts.  The differences were due to British users' insistence on complying with the words' Latin etymologies.  On this site, inflexion is spelled with the 'ex' alternative but the forms are in free variation in other cases.  (There are two exceptions: complexion and crucifixion are spelled with 'x' in all varieties.)
  • BrE doubles the final 'l' in, e.g., label - labelled but AmE usually does not (labeled).
  • BrE 'ae' and 'oe' spellings on foreign words are usually reduced to 'e' in AmE so we have encyclopaedia and encyclopedia etc.  The simpler spelling is becoming more common in BrE.
  • In British English, inquiry means a formal investigation and enquiry means simply questioning.  In AmE, only inquiry exists.  Similarly, insure in British usage means protect against and ensure means make certain.  In AmE usage, only insure is used.
  • There are some other minor, random differences (BrE / AmE):
    aeroplane / airplane
    cosy / cozy
    storey / story (for a building)
    cheque / check (with a change in meaning from money order to bill)
    grey / gray
    gaol / jail (the latter is now ubiquitous in BrE and the former considered old fashioned)
    mould / mold
    plough / plow
    speciality / specialty
    jewellery / jewelry
  • Hyphenation is less frequently used in AmE than in BrE so we get, e.g.
    re-enter / reenter
    pre-empt / preempt

    and so on.

As a rule of thumb, Commonwealth countries tend to follow the BrE rules although Canadian use is more often influenced by AmE.

There's no test on all this but there are plenty of spelling tests to be had on line (with a good one at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/spelling-challenge/) and two on this site.  One for B1/B2-level learners, here, and another for A1/A2-level learners here.
There is also a short lesson for learners with tests and exercises covering the essentials of this guide.


Writing systems

This survey of English spelling would not be complete (as far as teaching the system is concerned) without some consideration of other people's writing systems.
There are three fundamental sorts:

  1. Alphabetic systems
    English has ostensibly an alphabetic system in which individual letters represent individual sounds (phonemes) but, as we saw above, spelling in English is not a good guide often to pronunciation and vice versa.  English may be described as having deep orthographic depth.  This means that the system is poor in relation to shallow languages such as German or Serbo-Croat in which there is a good correspondence between spelling and pronunciation.
    Most European languages and many languages which have only recently acquired a written form use an alphabetic system of writing although scripts vary from Latin (in which this is written) through Greek and Cyrillic to many other systems.  For obvious reasons, alphabetic systems are sometimes referred to as segmental systems because each word can be broken on sound segments.
  2. Syllabic systems
    In these writing systems, each grapheme (i.e., independent symbol) represents a syllable rather than a single sound.  Examples include Arabic, the Japanese Hiragana script, Hebrew and Amharic among others.  Languages which deploy scripts like these usually have a syllabary (i.e., the total number of available syllables) which is quite limited.  English would be ill-suited to such as system as the number of possible syllables is well over 10,000 and each would require a separate grapheme to represent it.  Japanese, by contrast, makes do with around 100 syllables so the language is suited to this form of written representation.
    The Arabic script is used incidentally, for many other languages unrelated to Arabic (or only distantly so).
  3. Logographic systems
    In these systems, each word is represented by a single symbol.  The most obvious and famous examples are the Chinese languages and these are the only common surviving languages to use a logographic system.  For example, the symbol sun represents the concept of sun or day.  Egyptian hieroglyphics are another familiar form of logographic writing.  Chinese characters are extensively used in written Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

Each type of writing system is processed by readers in a different way and there is good reason to suppose that these processing strategies will, especially in the early stages of learning, be carried over to attempts to read in English.  For example, Arabic speakers may be indifferent to vowels (as they are not represented in Arabic) and may confuse, e.g., glass with gallons.  Even speakers of languages which use a Latin script such as Spanish may have problems processing words in English because Spanish has a relatively shallow orthography.

BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30492348 [accessed 17/12/2014]
Chalker, S, 1987, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/archaeology/11303127/Stonehenge-discovery-could-rewrite-British-pre-history.html [accessed 21/12/2014]

Oxford dictionaries on line: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com [accessed 17/12/2014]
Proctor, P (Editor in Chief), 1995, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
The English Spelling Society: http://www.spellingsociety.org/ [accessed 17/12/2014]