OP-ED: How Spelling Reform Would Promote Good Writing

  • By Philip A. Yaffe 
I know that what I am about to say may seem to be somewhat off the wall. However, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that a major reason most people write so poorly is the chaotic state of English spelling.


It seem evident that the more you must concentrate on the correct form of the words you use, the less you can concentrate on how best to use them, i.e. putting them together in clear, concise, persuasive sentences and paragraphs.


This diversion of attention occurs not only when one is actually writing, but also when proofreading. The need to find and eradicate spelling mistakes inevitably distracts from what should be your principal concern when proofreading, i.e. ensuring that you have written a clear, concise, effective text.


But this is only one reason why English spelling is inimical to good writing.


We have all already spent years in school learning how to spell correctly when the same time could have been more profitably spent on learning how to write correctly. Do you remember those incessant “spelling bees”? Disguised as games and competitions, their real purpose was to help children master the language’s thoroughly chaotic misuse of the alphabet.


We are all familiar with irregular spellings, i.e. words that don’t seem to follow the general rules of pronunciation, such as “write” (silent w), “island” (silent s), “right” (pronounced “rite”), rough (pronounced “ruf”), through” (pronounced “thru”), and so on. In school we had to learn and memorize these and many other such oddities at the risk of being marked down or getting a failing grade.


Why homophones?


Irregular spellings are not the only thing that make written English so difficult for native speakers — and even more so for foreigners — to master. Compared to many other languages, English is also littered with an extravagant number of “homophones.” Homophones are words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently. Consider the following:


Sentence A: As I was writing this sentence, I realized that after having read it, the reader would have a perfect right to criticize its spelling.


Sentence B: As eye was righting this sentence, I realized that after having red it, the reader would have a perfect write to criticize its spelling.


Sentence A is of course correct while sentence B is full of homophonic errors. Now, read the two of them aloud. You won’t be unable to tell them apart because they will sound exactly same. So the question is: Why do we need these homophones?


The easy answer is, because we normally don’t read aloud; therefore, we have to spell words like eye and I, right and write, here and hear, there and their, see and sea, etc. differently in order to distinguish them. Right?


Wrong. If this were the case, we would then write read (pronounced “reed) differently from read (pronounced “red), lead (pronounced “leed) differently from lead (pronounced “led”), project (pronounced “praw-ject”) differently from project (pronounced “pro-ject), etc.


It can be argued that these are among a very few exceptions that simply need to be learned. However, the argument doesn’t stand up because of the widespread use of “homographs.” Homographs are words that are spelled the same and pronounced the same, but have very different meanings.


Look in any dictionary and you will find dozens of homographs on virtually every page. As only one example, take the common word “bed.” My of Webster’s Dictionary lists the following definitions:


A piece of furniture for sleeping or resting on

A plot of soil where plants are raised

The bottom or a lake, river or ocean

Any flat surface used as a foundation

A geologic layer or stratum

The flat surface of a truck


Or how about “flat”?

Having a smooth, level surface

Lying spread out

Broad, even, and thin

Insipid, tasteless


Steady, not fluctuation (flat rate of interest)

Absolute, unequivocal (flat denial)

Below true pitch (music)


The fact is, the majority of English words have at least two or more distinct definitions for exactly the same spelling. If we can happily live with these, then why do we single out a handful of them to have different spellings for different meanings?


Even with more than 50 years of writing experience, I still occasionally trip over homophones. Sometimes I write “there” when I mean “their,” “site” when I mean “cite,” etc. I usually catch and correct these mistakes, but it takes a bit of effort. More importantly, every time I use a homophone, I have to stop for a nanosecond to be certain I have chosen the correct spelling. A nanosecond’s hesitation once or twice in a text probably won’t do much harm. But 10-20 nanoseconds ever page almost certainly will.


Back to basics


There is another, deeper reason for eliminating irregular spellings, homophones and other such oddities.


In human history, writing of course developed long after speaking, with the purpose of capturing human speech for later use. It was only when man invented “literature” that writing took on a personality of its own. Once it became a kind of art form, divergence of the written language from the spoken language was not only increasingly accepted, in some quarters it was actively encouraged.


But most of us are not artists; we don’t write literature. When we put pen to paper, our objective is to communicate. To say what we have to say clearly, concisely, effectively.


It can be argued that anything that distracts us from what we are trying to say, such as the form of the words we use, is counterproductive. Time spent worrying about correctly spelling words is time taken away from considering which words we should be using and how to put them together into clear, concise, effective sentences.


A number of other languages seem to have understood this message. Spanish, for instance, is close to being phonetic. In general, if you can say a word, you can spell it, and vice versa. German comes even closer to being phonetic.


True, the basic grammar of many other languages is considerably more complex than English grammar. But at least these languages have recognized the futility of non-phonetic spelling and have largely done away with it.


Riding the cultural conveyor belt


Despite its manifest disadvantages, it is amazing how fiercely some people struggle to preserve English’s chaotic spelling.


A principal defense of the status quo is that current spelling acts as “a conveyor belt of culture”. Thus, we write “pharmacy” with “ph” to remind us that the word is derived from Latin, and we write “farmer” with an “f” to remind us that this word isn’t. But why should the way we spell a word reflect its origin?


If language is for communication, it should avoid useless complications such as non-phonetic spelling. “Phonetic” itself should be spelled with an “f” as it is in Dutch (fonetiek), Italian (fonetico) and Spanish (fonético). Its Latin origin is of interest mainly to linguists, but it shouldn’t be imposed on the rest of us each and every time we sit down at the keyboard.


Besides, do we actually need to spell words of Latin origin differently in order to recognize them?


Italian, the modern language closest to Latin, doesn’t seem to feel this compulsion. In addition to spelling phonetic as fonetico, it also happily spells words like hydraulic as idrolico rather than hydrolico, synchronous as sincronico rather than syncronico, sympathy as simpatia, symphony as sinfonia (note that both the y and ph have disappeared), etc. Anyone who knows anything about languages would recognize these words to be of Latin origin, without having the fact incessantly hammered into their heads by special spellings.


Let’s get real


When the written language loses touch with the spoken language, i.e. becomes unnecessarily complicated, it also loses touch with reality. By spelling things the way they sound, we not only make life easier, we remain truer to the reason for which writing was developed in the first place.


Even the Académie Française, the august body that more or less officially regulates the French language, now permits elimination of the accent circumflex (^), a diacritical mark which often serves only to remind us that 300 years ago the word used to contain an “s” that is no longer there. For example, in the shift from old French to modern French, isle became île,forest became forêt, intérest became intérêt, etc. Numerous other reforms are also being introduced to make French more logical and less of a barrier to clear communication.


When the Académie was considering removing the accent circumflex, I had a discussion about it with a French friend of mine. He was horrified. We debated the reasons for the proposed changes. One by one he lost all logical arguments for retaining the accent circumflex. His last line of defense was: “But it looks so good on the page.”


If this sounds like a typically French attitude, be assured that it isn’t. An article I read opposing spelling reform in English concluded with an equally startling statement: “Spelling is beautiful. Believe it.”


Spelling is not beautiful; it is a tool. As with any tool, loading it with useless complications can only reduce its effectiveness, not enhance it. In writing, the only thing that is beautiful is a well-structured, well-crafted text. Judging writing by how well the author masters chaotic spelling is like judging a painting by how well the artist works with defective brushes.


Am I therefore advocating a massive overhaul of English spelling? Yes, but not immediately. No one would accept such a major change instantly. Even if they recognized the benefits, it would be too much like work. Hardly anyone ever says it, but this is probably the single strongest reason the United States is still fending off the metric system while virtually every other country in the world has recognized its logic and is now happily using it.


Even though it won’t happen overnight, given that English is becoming de facto (if not de jure) the world’s common language, we should seriously begin looking how to make it easier to learn and use. Eliminating irregular, non-phonetic spellings would be a good place to start. Not only would this ease the task of others learning the language, it would help everyone — native and non-native speakers alike — to more effectively express themselves in clear, concise, persuasive texts.


This would certainly be of immense benefit the world over.



* * *


Philip Yaffe was born in Boston in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)  with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.


He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.


Editor’s note: The history of attempts to simplify  English spelling is outlined in a fascinating Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-language_spelling_reform. In Chicago, Col. Robert  R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, began an effort in 1934 to simplify spelling in the newspaper.  The experiment ended in 1975.  According to the Wikipedia entry cited, “Over a two-month spell in 1934, it [The Tribune]  introduced 80 re-spelt words, including tho, thru, thoro, agast, burocrat, frate, harth, herse, iland, rime, staf and telegraf. A March 1934 editorial reported that two-thirds of readers preferred the reformed spellings. Another claimed that “prejudice and competition” was preventing dictionary makers from listing such spellings. Over the next 40 years, however, the newspaper gradually phased-out the re-spelt words.”


Among the many advocates of simplified spelling were Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, John Milton, Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt


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