For English native speakers as well as those who learn English as a foreign language, getting the hang of English grammar and spelling is a frustrating task.
Sadly for some, every learner has to study English spelling in addition to their English listening comprehension, literacy skills, speaking skills, reading and writing skills as well as practicing their knowledge of slang and idiomatic phrases to improve their overall proficiency and language skills.
With an international status, few irregular verbs, no gendered nouns and adjectives that don't change depending on tenses or number, English may seem an attractive second language to a non-native English learner, but it causes nothing but trouble from the word ‘go’.
However, there is an upside when it comes to studying English spelling and grammar: you learn to expect the unexpected.
Thankfully, you’re not alone in your struggle.
The average native English speaker regularly has trouble spelling certain words which seem simple at first, and the interesting spelling of English vocabulary reflects its rich history.
And for every problem, there’s a solution – starting to learn English spellings of new words as you improve your vocabulary is all part of the fun!
A Mismatch Made in Heaven: English Pronunciation and Spelling
It’s no secret that the main culprit of the difficulty of English spelling is the fact that English words are rarely pronounced the way they look.
In other words, the English language is not phonetic.
It may surprise you to know that there are good, and sometimes interesting reasons for the mismatch of appearance and sound which makes people wonder whether there is any point in even learning the alphabet.
How History Has Influenced English Spelling
English is the native tongue of England: a constituent country of the nation of isles that is the UK.
Because of its geographical position in the North of Europe with France to the South and Scandinavia to the East, England was a prime target for invasion throughout history.
Each invasion brought new words and phrases, and England became a melting pot for peoples, cultures and most significantly, languages.
For this reason, the odd letter combinations we see and funny pronunciation are usually traces of the dialects of our ancient ancestors, who tried to merge their own writing systems and pronunciation into the English language.
Following the withdrawal of Roman troops from England after nearly 400 years of occupation and the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons (who came from Northern Europe), old English started to develop.
In the time between this event and today, the British Isles and England, in particular, have endured Viking raids, Danish occupation of North-East England, and the Norman conquest.
The Norman invasion of 1066 was perhaps the biggest influencer, giving the French language power over English for more than 300 years.
The Great Vowel Shift
The Great Vowel Shift was a pronunciation change affecting the long vowel sounds in the shift from middle English to modern English.
Though the way words were pronounced changed dramatically, written English remained the same.
For instance, the word ‘house’ which is pronounced in modern English as ‘howss’, was, once upon a time, pronounced ‘hoos’.
This means that English conversation in would sound a lot different to the English spoken today, and even those who speak English fluently may struggle to understand it.
It’s easy to see how the older spelling would have reflected the pronunciation since the letter ‘U’ is closer to an ‘oo’ sound than the ‘ow’ we use today.
This is just one example of how the role the Great Vowel Shift has played in breaking the link between English pronunciation and spelling.
Why Silence is Not Golden
Silent letters are what makes English spelling so tricky.
A silent letter is any letter that features in the spelling of a word yet is not pronounced.
For example, the ‘K’ in ‘know’ or the ‘E’ in ‘bite’.
These two examples both have silent letters, however, they make spelling difficult for very different reasons.
The ‘K’ in ‘know’ is just silent: this is to say that it is completely silent and has no effect on the pronunciation of any other letter.
The same goes for the ‘o-u-g-h’ endings in ‘though’ and ‘bough’.
The ‘E’ in ‘bite’ on the other hand, is silent (in that you don’t pronounce it), but it alters the sound of the preceding ‘I’, changing the sound from a short ‘i’ (as in ‘bit’) to a longer one that rhymes with ‘eye’.
The silent or ‘magic E’ rule poses problems for those who are still in the early stages of their English lessons or English lessons online as well as young children who speak English as a native language who are learning to read, but it is, thankfully, quite easy to learn.
However, it gets more confusing each time spelling and grammar rules not followed.
For example, the following basic English words all have incredibly similar spellings and yet, they all sound completely different to one another:
- Though: the ‘o-u’ favours the ‘O’ sound and the ‘g-h’ is silent.
- Through: the ‘o-u’ favours the ‘U’ sound and the ‘g-h’ is silent.
- Tough: the ‘o-u’ favours the ‘U’ sound and the ‘g-h’ is pronounced as an ‘F’.
- Cough: the ‘o-u’ favours the ‘O’ sound and the ‘g-h’ is pronounced as an ‘F’.
Another silent letter problem that goes largely unnoticed is to do with double letters.
In words such as ‘necessary’ and ‘embarrassed’, the working out the number of ‘S’s required could give you a headache.
There is no quick-fix for these tricky spellings, but you can invent clever ways to remember them!
10 Nightmare Spellings You Will Encounter in Your English Lessons
Everyone has those few odd words they have trouble spelling. Learn which dictionary is best for you.
What they don’t realise is that no one else can spell them on the first try either.
Here are the top 10 most common English misspellings.
Where on Earth are you supposed to start with this word?
Thankfully, if you know how to spell ‘knowledge’, you won’t be far away.
It is, however, quite unusual to have a ‘c-k’ at the beginning of a word rather than at the end, and a silent ‘W’ in the middle.
Given that ‘accelerate’ also starts with ‘a-c-c’ yet is pronounced ‘axelerate’, you may expect ‘accommodate’ to be spelt with the ‘a-c-k’ we have already seen.
The letter ‘C’ has many possible pronunciations depending on the letters which surround it as well as other contributory factors such as the chaotic history of the English language.
American English has been adapted to make this easier, spelling the English English word ‘practice’ with an ‘S’ for example, to make ‘practise’ – as it sounds.
But ‘accommodate’ sports two ‘C’s, side by side, as well as two ‘M’s, which is the other confusing part.
Another word with endless twists and turns: unnecessary.
There are two ‘N’s.
There is only one ‘C’, and you pronounce it as an ‘S’.
There are two ‘S’s.
This is a lot to take in, so here’s handy mnemonic to help you remember:
My Nearly New shirt has 1 Collar and 2 Sleeves.
So, ‘nearly new’ is two ‘N’s, ‘1 collar’ means one ‘C’, and ‘2 sleeves’ means two ‘S’s – easy!
Keep this sentence in your head and you’ll never use spell check again to spell ‘unnecessary’.
Another culprit of silent double letters, ‘embarrass’ often has people asking:
How many ‘M’s?
How many ‘R’s?
How many ‘S’s?
Thankfully, there’s a mnemonic for this, too!
Every Mother’s Boy Acts Rather Rudely After Some Sausages
‘Address’ doesn’t seem like a difficult word until you come to spell it.
Most people can guess that it ends with two ‘S’s, just like ‘dress’, however, remembering whether it has one ‘D’ or two is difficult, and there are few other words to compare it to.
The simplest way to remember this is to remember that a house (sometimes referred to as an ‘address’) has a front Door and a back Door.
'Definitely' officially takes the cake for the most commonly misspelt word in the UK.
Understandably, the spelling of ‘definitely’ is difficult for everyone before they learn it properly.
This is probably because it’s not completely un-phonetic to read, however, its pronunciation differs ever so slightly from its spelling.
People often try to spell it ‘definitely’, ‘definitely’ or ‘definitely’, since the ‘I’, ‘A’ and ‘E’ sounds can be quite ambiguous to the ear.
The easiest way to learn this spelling is probably chunking since it contains the word ‘finite’ in the middle.
This takes care of the vowel mix-ups in the middle, and then all you need to remember is the starting and finishing letters.
Like ‘definitely’, the frequent misspelling of ‘separate’ is down to the subtle difference between its pronunciation and spelling.
People often mistakenly only use one ‘A’, spelling it ‘seperate’ – which doesn’t look wrong.
You have to learn to catch yourself out when writing it, and make sure you use two ‘A’s.
Some people use the phrase ‘an R separates the two A’s’ to remember the spelling.
This word isn’t a part of an English speaker’s everyday vocabulary, but when it does come up, it’s usually spelt incorrectly.
This is probably because of the number of possible pronunciations of the letter ‘C’, which is often pronounced as an ‘S’ sound.
For this reason, people become confused as to whether the first ‘S’ sound is indeed a ‘C’ or an ‘S’.
To English speakers, the final ‘U’ may also cause confusion, since they are used to an ‘o-u’ combination to represent this sound.
‘Business’ is a prime example of an English word that looks nothing like its pronunciation.
Even some adults find spelling it a challenge, probably because it is such a common word that they’re used to seeing, so never think about the spelling irregularity.
Get information on online ESOL courses here.
The best way to remember this spelling is easy: just picture its meaning – busy-ness!
After that, all you have to do it swap the ‘Y’ for an ‘I’ - and you'll be speaking business English in no time.
- A lot
Technically, ‘a lot’ doesn’t count as a word, but its misspelling is so common that we simply had to include it on our list.
‘A lot’ can mean ‘very’, ‘much’, ‘many’, ‘numerous’, ‘several’, the list goes on.
This word features in everyday vocab, but is more common in spoken English, as it one of the less formal among these expressions.
For this reason, English speakers rarely see it written down, and therefore misspell it as it sounds in English speaking, as ‘alot’.
This is why, for those aiming to become fluent in English, spelling is so important.
Even simple spellings can be lost when speaking English, so be sure to pay attention to every aspect of your skills with quizzes and grammar exercises so you don't get caught out in written exams!
This is just one of the ways you can improve your English speaking fluency, English writing and listening skills when you learn to speak English as a second language. Learn the difference between UK and US spelling.