or ‘Y iz Inglish speling sew difiklt?’

Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word, consider how it is spelled, and,
if you do not remember, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well.

– Thomas Jefferson, from a letter to his daughter

English spelling causes problems even for native speakers, who often rely on dictionaries and spell checkers much more than speakers of other languages. Compared to other languages, English is arguably more irregular and more complex.

The English language has a complicated history, borrowing words from almost every other language (Latin, French, Greek, German, Arabic and Chinese just to name a few), often keeping the foreign spelling but pronouncing the word in an Anglicised way. For a large part of its history, achieving any kind of consistency in spelling wasn’t considered important.

In the late 1400s, the invention of the printing press began to encourage conformity of spelling to a certain extent to make the printers’ job easier. However, it wasn’t until the mid 18th century, when dictionaries began to be published (the most influential being Samuel Johnson’s ‘Dictionary of the English Language’, 1755), that English spelling really started to become standardised.

There are English spelling rules, but they can be quite difficult to remember because of their complexity, and, of course, there are always exceptions to these rules, as there are always exceptions to any rules. So what can we do instead of carrying a dictionary around with us if we wish to be ladies and gentlemen who spell well?

Knowing just some of the English spelling rules will make you a more confident speller. One rule that many native English speakers repeatedly chanted at school was ‘I before E, except after C’. I still hear this in my head when I’m unsure if a word should be ‘ie’ or an ‘ei’.

The UK Government recently and controversially advised primary school teachers not to teach this rule believing it not to be effective because of the exceptions to it (for example, ‘seize’, ‘weird’ and ‘veil’), yet many people believe that it’s still a worthwhile rule to remember because it’s easy to remember and generally true.

You can also make up your own ways of remembering spelling including using mnemonics to aid your memory. I taught myself the difference between ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’ by thinking that ‘stationERy’ is ‘papER’ and ‘stationAry’ is ‘inActive’. A past student who found it difficult remembering whether to double the ‘c’ or the ‘s’ in ‘occasionally’ made up the phrase ‘I watch The O.C. with my Cat occasionally’ to remind herself that the word started with ‘occ’. Even after more than twenty-five years, whenever I write the word ‘rhythm’, I hear my whole class loudly and rhythmically tapping out ‘R, H, Y… T, H, M…’ on our desks while our teacher ‘conducted’ us.

Finally, the more you use words that are particularly confusing for you in their written form, the easier it will be to remember the spelling. But, if you’re still pulling your hair out, take heart in the words of a famous writer, who, if he’d been alive today, would have probably enjoyed the shorthand spelling that’s now the norm in text messaging.

I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing. I have a correspondent whose letters are always a refreshment to me, there is such a breezy unfettered originality about his orthography. He always spells “Kow” with a large “K.” Now that is just as good as to spell it with a small one. It is better. It gives the imagination a broader field, a wider scope. It suggests to the mind a grand, vague, impressive new kind of a cow.
– Mark Twain, speaking at a spelling match, reported in the Hartford Courant, 1875

The 2001 most commonly misspelled words

Collins Easy Learning English Spelling gives great advice on learning the patterns and rules of English spelling as well as how to learn difficult words.

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