Friday, 2 November 2012

spell it out (cont.)

So, what is to be done? As David Crosbie indicated in his comment on the previous posting, Crystal has an upbeat message. Teachers of literacy must concentrate on the regularities, not on the anomalies.
  • Above all, they should not set students the dispiriting task of learning the spellings of lists of difficult words presented out of context.
  • The “short word rule” for content words accounts for the doubled consonants of inn, egg, add, odd, ill and the final e of eye, owe and bye. Compare function (non-content) words such as in, up, to, if, as, by.
  • Pay attention to stress, which explains the doubling of the consonants in preferring, preferred but not in proffering, proffered.
  • Be aware of the morphology (or that of the Latin origin), so as to understand, for example, the single b of aberrant (ab + errant) as against the doubling in abbreviate (ab+brev-). This even explains accommodate (ad (ac) + con (com) + mod-).

I would add the mnemonic value of related words, as when definition reminds us that definite is not *definate, while substantial and residential remind us how to spell the endings of substance and residence.

As far as reforming the system is concerned, Crystal declares baldly that “there can never be a simple solution to the problem of English spelling”. On the other hand he twice refers to the fact that Google shows the non-standard spelling rubarb to be increasingly common online. “If it carries on like this, rubarb will overtake rhubarb as the commonest online spelling in the next five years.” Then dictionary makers will “eventually have to recognise that a change has taken place” (as they already have in the case of miniscule replacing minuscule).

By this logic, dictionaries of the coming decade will also have to recognize seperate, tounge, accomodation and so on ("misspellings" very frequently encountered online), and abandon such distinctions as lose — loose, rein — reign, sight — site, to — too, your — you’re, its — it’s (all often confused on the web). Or perhaps ever more intelligent spell checkers and speech-to-text technology will prevent this from happening after all.

I think it’s important to recognize that planned, systematic reform is not truly impossible. Consider the case of the chemical element sulphur. That’s how it was standardly spelt, at least in the UK, until twenty years ago. But in 1990 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry decided to adopt the spelling sulfur, and two years later the Nomenclature Committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry followed suit. In 1992 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for England and Wales recommended the f spelling, which is accordingly now found in textbooks and GCSE exams. I think it’s better for everyone to have an official change like this, so that we know where we are, rather than unofficial and chaotic rubarb-style changes.

Another similar example is the immunosuppressant drug of which the British Approved Name was formerly cyclosporin but is now ciclosporin. What used to be the correct spelling is now considered a mistake; what used to be a mistake is now correct. It might be better simply to allow both versions.

Unofficial changes do sometimes succeed, too, as with today, tomorrow, tonight, which have replaced the hyphenated to-day, to-morrow, to-night of my schooldays.

We could consider, for example, getting the QCA to make an official decision that all words with rh may alternatively be spelt without the h, just as we allow likeable alongside likable and (in Britain) organise alongside organize. That would take care not only of rhubarb but also of rheumatism, rhythm and rhino.


  1. I suggest that the demise of to-day and to-morrow marked the beginning of the general demise of the hythen. There is no function to the hythen in these words, so it's not surprising that it fell out of use.

    The decline of the hythen seems to have begun in the USA, but is now at an advanced stage in Britain. If word went around in Britain that omitting hythens constitutes an "Americanism", a lot of Brits would start to use them pedantically.

    Ed Aveyard

    1. Will hythen replace hyphen in the next decade? Absit omen!

    2. Oh dear! That was a remarkably stupid mistake by me.

    3. @ Ed:
      Are you a "th-fronter"? That might explain your typing "hythen" instead of "hyphen". Or it could have just been a simple typo.

      But back on topic: I never knew about hyphenated today, etc. until I read this posting. It's amazing what you learn when you read blogs.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I am a variable TH-fronter. I think that I do it more often for /θ/ than for /ð/, and more often word-medially.

    6. From the Wikipedia entry on the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

      On September 21, 2007 16,000 words lost their hyphens in a 6th edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Angus Stevenson, editor of the Shorter OED, stated the reason: "People are not confident about using hyphens anymore, they're not really sure what they are for." Its researchers reviewed 2 billion words (in newspapers, books, Web sites and blogs from 2000). Bumble-bee is now bumblebee, ice-cream is ice cream and pot-belly is pot belly, etc.

  2. We could consider, for example, getting the QCA to make an official decision that all words with rh may alternatively be spelt without the h

    And woe to the first hospital doctor who thinks that "Resus negative" means "do not resuscitate".

  3. I think sulphur is an example of why spelling reform by diktat will never work. Not being a chemist, I will always spell it with PH and most of the books that most of us non-chemists will have the old spelling.

    Consider what happened in the German speaking countries. Bodies such as Ministries of Education agreed on a relatively small list of rationalisations in punctuation and spelling. It was decreed that both organs of State and commercial publishers would henceforth observe them. Immediately a body of distinguished authors was in revolt and stirring up pressure on publishers to stick with the spelling that authors intended.

    As I understand it, there are now two standards: one followed by those who must and those who choose to, the other followed by those who choose not to change. For the time being, all German readers need to be familiar with spaghetten and spagetten, just as we at times may need to be familiar with rhubarb and rubarb, with sulphur and sulfur.

    I think spelling reformers lose sight of the purpose of spelling, which is to make written words recognisable. Rationalised spellings may well ease the decoding of words, but the downside is that they become unfamiliar in appearance, and hence harder to recognise.

    For each individual word the balance between advantage and disadvantage will depend on how familiar the word is, on how difficult it was to decode under the old spelling, on how popular the word is on in-proofread texts like web pages. I would much prefer to let natural selection filter out the spellings where the disadvantages outweigh the advantages.

    'Unofficial and chaotic rubarb-style changes' ?
    Yes, please.

  4. Another often misspelled one is dessicated for desiccated (and in the auto-correct on this input box neither is underlined in red squiggle, although desicated gets the thumbs-down).
    Googling dessicated brings up a page on Macmillan Dictionary which is the results page you get if you search for dessicated on MEDO, and which points you towards desiccated (among others) as probably what you're looking for. Dessicated has been looked up 246 times in the last month, which makes it the third most frequently searched misspelling, after aquaintance and (bizarrely) paramore.

    Stephen Bullon

    1. Not so bizarrely if you're down with the kids - Paramore are a band.

  5. But in 1990 the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry decided to adopt the spelling sulfur, and two years later the Nomenclature Committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry followed suit.

    I just checked recent articles in Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc, and they're still consistently using sulphate.

  6. IUPAC now allows flexibility; We (British) can spell it "sulphur" and the Americans "sulfur". This also applies to "caesium" (Br) or "cesium" (Am) and "aluminium" (Br) or "aluminum" (Am), though the latter case is actually a different word with different stress.

    Tudor Hughes.

  7. AmE seems to resist the "short word rule" to some extent, notably with the spelling ax and the clipping ad (rather than advert) as well as Ma and Pa. The OE word ea 'watercourse', still surviving in Lancashire, is interesting as the native representative of PIE *akwa-, as far as I know the only one in English other than island. Of course, there are also a raft of fairly obscure two-letter borrowings, from aa 'stony rough lava' to my favorite,yu 'ancient Chinese wine bucket'.

    See Wiktionary for more.

    1. John Cowan

      I take it that the 'short word' rule is the same as the rule that words are spelled with at least three letters.

      British English is just as happy to break the rule, for a manageably small number of two-letter spellings. We accept ad, Ma and Pa as readily as Americans do. Ditto ed and co, and we're no less open to en and em spaces, and letter names in general. And words from other languages are not meddled with, so we don't write of the ego and the *idd, nor of Greek letters *mue, *nue, *pie. Plus, the rule seems never to have applied to exclamation-words.

      Ax is either a great rarity or it's unique in being standard in one region only.

      If I were teaching young children to spell, I'd have a wall-chart permanently displayed with 'all' the common two-letter spellings.

      an, as, at, be, do, go, he, if, in, is, it, me, no, of, on, or, so, to, up, we

      would do for a start. I don't think it helps to classify these as 'not content' words. It's an extremely difficult term to explain to people who don't yet know these spellings. The point is that they're extremely common words. OK that's because they're not content words, but there's a small number of common words like ad and a growing number of uncommon words like yu.

      A teachable version of the rule is that no words are spelled with two letters except for
      • a learnable list of extremely common words
      • a learnable class of clippings
      • a learnable class of family terms
      • a learnable class of letter names
      • a learnable class of exclamation-words
      • an open class of foreign words like id which will need to be learned singly — in small numbers, unless you're an ambitious Scrabble player

  8. Ad Ed Aveyard

    I should not say that the 'hythens' in such words as 'to-morrow' or 'to-day' of my school-days are quite functionless. For foreign learners, such as myself, they are useful in that they remind them of the etymology of the word and facilitate the 'coming to terms' both meaning- and pronunciationwise with the word. Same goes for 'likeable' rather than 'likeable', John's example.

    Ad David Crosbie

    I don't wanna be pedantic, but to the very best of my knowledge (I am in part germanophone) the words 'spagetten' or 'spaghetten' do not exist in German, either traditional or reformed. 'Spaghetti' or 'Spagetti' si, 'spag(h)etten' no, --- for aught I know.

    labial fricative voiced consonant; mid-back rounded vowel; alveolo-palatal voiced approximant consonant; alveolo-palatal fricative voiceless consonant; mid-front unrounded vowel; fricative velar non-palatal voiceless consonant; END OF GIVEN NAME retroflex (they say, but I can't believe it) fricative voiced consonant; mid-front unrounded vowel; labiovelar voiced approximant consonant; open central unrounded vowel; alveolo-palatal nasal voiced consonant; mid-front unrounded vowel; dental affricate voiceless consonant; END OF SURNAME.

    1. Wojciech

      There does seem to be an unofficial form Spaghetten which I didn't realise was unofficial.

      The point I wanted to make relates to the actual attempt to change Spaghetti to Spagetti.

    2. Yes, I got your point, don't worry. The word 'Spaghetten' if it really exists (never seen or heard) is probably next to never written (except perhaps in some silly internet forums or blogs) so it falls below consideration. Looks like Italian mocking of German grammar to me ('pizzen o spaghetten o gnocchen' -- the first one I know, it sort of makes sense as 'pizza' is a singular, the other two I do not know, though I know 'gnocchis', substandard, double plural).

      Actually, the German spelling reform was a success in one respect; it settled the issue of long vowels infront of a [s]. The latter is henceforth spelt 'ß' if the vowel is long, and 'ss' elsewhere. Before the reform it was a sorry mess. But I must agree with you that legislating on such matters is ungrateful; I myself have never understood, let alone implemented, the 'recommendations' of the new spelling. But then, I have never really made friends with (with a voiceless 'th') 'today', 'tonight', 'tomorrow' or 'bygone' either, let alone with 'getatable', 'getalongwithable' or 'dispensewithable'. With such hyphenless constructs, English has a chance of developing into a truly agglutinative language. But as we know, \-less', '-ness', '-hood', '-ship' and such-like used to be words in their own right in the daysofyore, and today their just suffixes.

      BTW, have a look at this:

      True name: see Profile

  9. As a matter of fact, the 'biopic' posting (several postings below) shows that hyphens or if you will hythens are anything but useless in English, even for native speakers. Bio-pic, strap-hanger, bi-gram, mini-series, sun-dried ... you name'em, gentlemen. 'Misled' seems to be a special case; though I'd rather risk my reputation and spell it 'mis-led' to avoid misintepretation. 'Today' is certainly too well known to deserve this treatment...

    True name: see Profile

  10. I'd like to muscle in on this very interesting debate but from a completely different angle: that of teaching young children to read and spell from the moment they enter school.
    Crystal is bang on the button when he maintains that any system of teaching spelling has to be based on linguistics but, as has been remarked, he doesn't offer any insight into what such a system might be.
    A system which works very well and has something in common with Ken Albrow's 'three systems of English spelling' in his book The English Writing System (1972), is one based on the sounds of the language. Basing the system on the sounds of the language is key because there are a finite number of sounds and they provide a firm anchor on which to build.
    If children are taught that the squiggles on the page we call letters (I prefer 'spellings') 'stand for/represent' the sounds in our speech, as long as one has a system of teaching which goes from simple to complex, it is easily possible to teach English spelling to a very high level of proficiency in a relatively short period of time (Key Stage 1 – Key Stage 2).
    To start with, teach one-to-one sound spellings in the context of real CVC words; gently add in two letters-one sound in CVC words (, , and ); gradually increase the complexity of the structure of the words to CVCC, CCVC, CCVCC, etc; teach that sounds can be spelled in more than one way; and, teach that most spellings can 'stand for/represent' more than one sound. In parallel, polysyllabic words can also be introduced in a way that is commensurate with the rest of the programme.
    None of the above needs to be taught in the abstract and children should be given extensive practice in the three fundamental skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation as they are learning how we spell the sounds in the language and how the system works. If taught in this way - and obviously I simplify greatly here - reading and spelling go hand-in-hand.

    1. If you wish to muscle in on the debate, you MUST GIVE YOUR TRUE FULL NAME. "John" will not suffice.

  11. John

    I take the line that there's a difference between learning actual spellings of actual words and learning strategies for educate guesses for unknown words.

    I also subscribe to the view that young children should write what they choose to write. The teacher's job may well be to motivate the communicative goal, but the forms used to convey the message should be up to the young student.

    So, my ideal would be to postpone any teaching of spelling until after children had (with teacher's help) become accustomed to writing a substantial number of words — i.e. substantial enough to allow for generalisations. They would, of course, be capable of reading those words, with help if necessary.

    The task is shaped in Britain by the universal insistence on early synthetic phonics. This makes the teaching of a large number of words a simple matter of re-visiting the phonics used in teaching the children to read the words in question. Hopefully, this would be done with words that made sense to the young writer — unlike one controversial element of teaching reading by phonics.

    Crystal actually comes out against teaching based exclusively on sound. In his final paragraph he writes:

    How do you write a word like window asks a child? 'Find the letters by sounding it out' is a familiar answer, but the results on paper need to be followed by "Does it look right?'.

    1. Hi David,
      As I said, my response to the discussion was a necessarily simplistic one and I wouldn't want to claim that any programme to teach reading and spelling could be based on sound alone.
      Your point about 'window' is a good one. The more complex element in the spelling
      of 'window' is the sound /oe/, here written as . What tells the writer whether it 'looks right' or not is exposure, which, I would argue, comes mainly from reading.
      Now, although reading and writing are, in my opinion, two sides of the same coin, spelling is always going to be more difficult. This is because reading is more more about recognition memory, whereas spelling is based on recall memory, potentially more difficult when there are many ways of spelling a sound.
      I also feel that reading and writing are best taught together because, for young children, writing words and saying the sounds as they write them is very helpful in enabling them to remember how to spell them.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. John

      What tells the writer whether it 'looks right' or not is exposure, which, I would argue, comes mainly from reading.

      I'm sure you're right. That's why I'm sure this important strain in the teaching of spelling has to follow the teaching of reading. But perhaps not by such a great a delay. In the paragraph i quoted, Crystal goes on to observe:

      Children develop an ability to tell the difference between a correct and an incorrect spelling very early, especially when the word is part of their everyday visual experience.

      But, even as adults, we don't always know what we know. Children are too often too aware of what they don't know, and so hesitate to apply the test of recognition. It's for the teacher to encourage them to respect and use their existing knowledge. In the final sentence of the book, Crystal goes further and encourages all of us to apply the recognition test:

      And it's a valuable strategy for adults too, whether native speakers or foreign learners.

  12. Relying on exposure has to take account of non-traditional spellings in tweets and texts.

    1. Lipman

      On the other hand, tweeting and texts expose young people to a great many instances of traditional spelling.

      Crystal, in a TV comedy show(!) and in a book called Txtng The Gr8 Db8 has argued that the rise of texting in children has had a positive effect on literacy.

      Texting and tweets won't do much for a spelling like rhubarb. But if the spelling is stable elsewhere, then digital spellings will encourage a virtuous cycle of successful communication.

      The accusation that children transfer the like of gr8 and db8 into their school work is a myth.

    2. I know, didn't mean to demonise tweets and texts. Children probably read more than ten years ago, and the advice to go out and play rather than sit at home and read has been heard about books, too.

      (Phillip Minden)

  13. I'm with David Crosbie on sulphur.

    (1) I'm 50, and have spelt it with -ph- all my life, and I doubt anyone can persuade me to change my spelling. But this is presumably not a major issue. We can just let the older generation stick to their old ways until the newer generation takes over.

    (2) I see that my daughter's textbook has sulfur, sulfate, etc. However, I have yet to see sulfur, etc. used in a literary context in any British publication. All British versions of, say Revelation 19:20, use 'sulphur'. It looks as if we will have 'sulfur' for chemistry and 'sulphur' for literary use. Not quite as tidy as planned.