Why is Spelling So Hard?

For most native English speakers, spelling in English is easy. But it wasn’t always so.

All English-speakers struggled with making spelling mistakes in school, as the rules of the language aren’t as straightforward as other languages and “sounding out” words often doesn’t help because words aren’t written the same way they’re pronounced.

English is a Germanic language, but most of its words are rooted in Latin and Greek. If that isn’t confusing enough, here’s an excerpt from The Canterbury Tales by the “Father of English Literature”, Geoffrey Chaucer:

A cook they hadde with hem for the nones

To boille the chiknes with the marybones,

And poudre-marchant tart and galyngale.

Wel koude he knowe a draughte of londoun ale.

He koude rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye,

Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pye.

Don’t worry if you can’t understand that, the vast majority of native English speakers can’t either.

Here are some more modern examples of how strange the English language can be:

  • Words often aren’t spelled as they’re pronounced (e.g. knee, enough, thyme)
  • All words contain vowels (A,E,I,O,U)
  • English words never end in I,U,V or J
  • “I” before “E” except after “C” (e.g receive, ceiling, receipt)
  • Mnemonics often assist in remembering how to spell (e.g. Betty Eats Cake And Uncle Sells Eggs helps to remember the spelling of B-E-C-A-U-S-E).
Letters of the alphabet
The English language is complicated.

Even native-English speakers are aware of how tricky the language can be, so if you’re new to the language and spelling, don’t be embarrassed if you make some mistakes along the way!

Is Spelling Important?

Imagine the first sentence of this article was filled with spelling mistakes, incorrect punctuation and poor grammar … You wouldn’t have much faith in the professionalism and content of what you're about to read, would you? Even the most interesting and helpful content in the world can’t overcome poor spelling.

Now, anyone from anywhere has been given the ability to call themselves a writer through the power of the Internet, the significance of spelling words correctly seems to have become a little lost. When you add in the impact of texting, Twitter, social media and emojis, it’s easy to see why many people don’t consider spelling to be particularly important.

But if you’re an aspiring writer, or a professional working in English, spelling could be more important than you think.

Read on to find out why you should start improving your spelling today.

Can Technology Help You Spell?

There are hundreds of free and premium products that will offer to help you improve your spelling. Some will even fix your spelling automatically as you type. These products exist as add-ons for your word processing app, your email inbox folder, or even your entire computer or smartphone – ensuring that you never spell another word incorrectly again.

But when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

While these programs are often powerful and accurate, there’s one thing they just can’t get right: vocabulary.

Even the smartest computers in the world have trouble understanding context, and the English language is littered with homophones (words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings).

Here are a couple of examples of how homophones can ruin the meaning of a sentence:

  • Eye love it when the heir smells like flours.
  • This mourning we maid suite tee.
  • Witch weigh is the in by the damn?
women learning english spelling together
Learning English spelling and vocabulary can open countless doors in your career and personal life.

All of the words above exist in English and are spelled correctly, but they are used in the wrong context, distorting the meaning of each phrase. Here are the same sentences, but with the correct words used:

  • I love it when the air smells like flowers.
  • This morning we made sweet tea.
  • Which way is the inn by the dam?

Although it’s easy and often effective to rely on spelling tools, they still can’t fully replace having a strong English vocabulary and spelling.

Spelling for Smarter Business

Have you ever sent a professional email then looked back to realise you’d misspelt words?

Cringe.

Particularly if you’re sending an email to a new business contact or mass marketing communications, your spelling can subconsciously make your new client or customer lose faith in your business.

For example, who can forget Donald Trump’s infamous “covfefe” Tweet?

The unfortunate thing about spelling is that proper spelling will usually go unnoticed, but poor spelling has the power to lose you customers, business and money. Fundamentally, the point of proper spelling ensures that the receiver of your communications can easily understand the meaning of your message – while a glaring error distracts from, and sometimes totally overshadows, the point you’re trying to make.

Small errors can sometimes be overlooked, but if your business communications constantly include spelling errors, incorrect vocabulary and poor punctuation, it could be losing you business.

Even worse, incorrectly spelled Terms and Conditions, or incorrectly typed price points (for example, R500 instead of R5 000) can lose your business money. Imagine having to tell interested customers that an item they’re interested in is actually much more expensive than the price printed. Not only will you lose that customer, but word-of-mouth can lose you more customers than you even realised.

Is your marketing material losing you business because of poor grammar, vocabulary and spelling?

Spelling for Everyday Life

But what if you’re not a business-owner and your spelling doesn’t affect the bottom line? Surely you’re off the hook?

Not quite.

Written English comes up more each day than you recognise ... that is, until you start paying attention. Everything from household products, to street signs, to magazines, to billboards, to news headlines, are written down. Closer to home, text messages, notes, and emails all require you to write.

If you have young children, you’ll undoubtedly want to engage with them over their homework. If they’re having trouble with their reading and spelling, as many young children do, they’re likely to come to you for help. Your inability to help them can lead to feelings of shame, and make you less likely to take part in their educational activities to avoid embarrassment.

With reading and writing being seen as essential basic skills in almost every society, lacking in these areas can have a major effect on your wellbeing and confidence, making you hesitant to communicate with new friends, neighbours and your community. Even worse, poor spelling can lead people to assume that you’re illiterate or have low English comprehension – something that can be a huge knock to one’s self esteem.

While good spelling is seldom ever seen as a strength or a skill, a lack of ability in this area can have serious negative effects. The true power of being able to spell is the ability to be free from the anxiety and worry that comes with needing to write, giving you the peace of mind to truly enjoy the activities and connections you value in your home, community and workplace.

Spelling in South Africa

With 11 official languages, proper English spelling in South Africa is slightly more complicated than in English-speaking countries elsewhere in the world.

There are many people who are well-educated and able to speak English, but are held back in their careers because they have poor English spelling – usually because they were educated in another language.

The good news is that spelling is a relatively easy skill to master once you understand the English language – and the best way to improve in this is to read as much as possible in English.

open pages of dictionary
Consult a dictionary and thesaurus regularly to improve your spelling.

The Next Step

The first – and hardest – step is always acknowledging that you’re not at the level you want to be. Simply by reading this article, you’ve already begun your journey to becoming a better speller.

Here are some further tips that can help you take the next step:

  • The best way to learn to spell is to read. So read as much in English as you can – whether it’s online content, books, newspapers or magazines. It’s important that you enjoy what you’re reading, so don’t worry if it isn’t highbrow or intellectual. All that matters is that you read it.
  • Attend an English class. You can do this online or in person, and the added benefit is that your entire vocabulary and confidence in the language will improve along with your spelling.
  • Go old school with a dictionary. If you can’t remember how to spell words, there’s no shame in pulling out a physical or online dictionary to remind yourself.
  • Use mnemonic devices to help you remember the spelling of words. “Betty Eats Cake And Uncle Sells Eggs” is a famous one that helps many people (including English speakers!) remember how to spell “because”.
  • Learn how to correctly spell commonly misspelled words. Hard words to spell include: knowledge, across, privilege, foreign, friend and weird. Find the words you misspell most often, and get practising.
  • Play word games. Things like Scrabble and crossword puzzles rely on spelling, and can help you become a better speller. Plus, they’ll make learning to spell more fun.

More Than Just Words

If you’re reading this article in hopes of helping a loved one improve their spelling, it’s important to understand that some poor spellers have a history with dyslexia, negative experiences at school, learning or cognitive disabilities.

Before you make suggestions to help them improve their spelling, take steps to understand their history and broach the topic with care as it could be a sensitive or embarrassing area for them.

Need an English teacher?

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Diona

Diona is a award-winning copywriter and digital strategist from Belgrade based in Johannesburg.