English spelling and grammar, with all its rules and exceptions, can be daunting to native speakers, let alone second language learners.
There is so much to learn and practise — listening skills, conversation, pronunciation, slang, reading, writing — all necessary to build your proficiency. Somewhere in there, amongst everything else, you'll also need to schedule time to work on your English spelling.
Unlike some other languages, English doesn't come with too many irregular verbs, nouns aren't gendered, and adjectives don't differ with tense or quantity. Couple that with the global spread of English, and it may seem like the perfect option for an additional language.
Ask some learners who are in the thick of studying English, and they may disagree.
On the bright side, if you persevere with your study of English spelling and grammar rules, you'll always be ready for anything.
And you won't be the only one feeling challenged.
English spelling gets everyone. Even the most knowledgeable native English speaker has a word or two (or more) that causes difficulty. The thing to remember is the English language has a rich and fascinating history, and that's what makes the spelling so varied.
Embrace the challenge — become a collector of vocabulary and a spelling rule guru.
Like Chalk and Cheese — English Spelling and Pronunciation
English fact #101: English spelling mistakes are caused by the mismatch between how English words look on the page and how they are pronounced in speech.
Putting it another way — English is not a phonetic language.
To understand the reasons for this, you need to delve a little into linguistic history.
Historical Influences on the English Language and its Spellings
As far back as 55BCE, England has been on the radar of a host of European countries. England's geographical position meant it was an easy target.
Every time someone new invaded, they introduced new phrases, words and expressions into the English language. In effect, England became a linguistic melting pot.
From this melting pot, people extracted strange letter combinations and odd pronunciations — all traces of different dialects brought in by invaders and adapted by our ancestors.
After the initial Roman troops withdrew, and some 400 years after Anglo-Saxon settlement, England saw the development of old English.
Since then, different areas of Britain have been pummelled with raids from the Vikings, occupation by the Danish, and invasion by the Normans in 1066.
Of all these cultural and linguistic influences, the Norman Conquest is considered to be the most dominant, with French language taking a prominent place in English for over 300 years.
Vowels and Changes in Pronunciation
The linguistic change which affected the pronunciation of long vowel sounds is known as the Great Vowel Shift, and marks the movement from middle to modern English.
While this shift had no effect on written English, it caused dramatic changes in pronunciation. In fact, the change was so great that if someone spoke old English today, it is doubtful that they would be easily understood, even by fluent speakers of modern English.
For example, in modern English, we pronounce 'life' with a long 'i' sound, but originally it was pronounced 'leef'. When you look at lists of old English pronunciation, it is easy to see how closely they resembled the spelling.
Changes in pronunciation and accent did not stop with the Great Vowel Shift, though. Linguists report noticeable changes in American pronunciation, and in Australia, vowel sounds have been changing subtly since the 1950s, further distorting the connection between spelling and pronunciation.
Silence is the Language of the Wise
At least, you need to be wise to understand silent letters in English words.
You have to write silent letters when you spell a word, but you don't say them.
And, there are lots! For instance, the 'k' in 'knee', the 'e' in 'site'.
Both 'knee' and 'gate' above have silent letters but both letters have different functions — which is another thing to add to your list of why English spelling is so tricky.
The silent 'k' is usually just silent. It's there, but it makes no difference to the pronunciation of the whole word, or other letters in the word.
This is the same for 'o-u-g-h' in some words, like 'though'. No particular effect or function. Just silence.
In the case of the silent 'e', in 'site', however, there is a very important job it performs. Yes, it's silent, but it also changes the sound of the 'i' from a short 'i' (sit) to a long 'i' that says its name and rhymes with 'eye'.
Young native-English speaking children at primary school know this silent 'e' as the 'bossy E' or 'magic E'. It can be rather problematic when learning to read, but it is pretty easy to learn and apply once you know the rule.
With all the rules, it is easy to see how you could quickly become confused, making all sorts of spelling and grammar errors, if you don't take the time to study them properly.
Of particular difficulty are the words which have very similar spelling patterns but sound totally different:
- dough: 'ou' is the long 'o' sound; 'gh' is silent
- through: 'ou' is the 'oo' sound; 'gh' is silent
- enough: 'ou' is the 'u' sound; 'gh' sounds like 'f'
- trough: 'ou' is the 'o' sound; 'gh' sounds like 'f'
People often misspell words with double consonants as it's hard to tell if you can hear them both, or if one is silent.
Words like 'procession' and 'assessment' can cause confusion with the number of times you need to write 's', plus the bonus of a 'c' sometimes taking an 's' sound.
The best strategy here, because of the lack of a distinct rule, is to make up your own way to remember the spelling.
Can You Nail the Correct Spelling for the Following 10 Demon-Words?
Even the best spellers sometimes misspell words, which is why everyone needs access to a good dictionary.
There are some words, though, that just keep on confusing people. Below are ten of the most common spellings which people just can't get. See how you go!
It looks a bit like a random bunch of letters, but look carefully. If you can see 'knowledge' and have already learned to spell it, then you're on your way.
A good tip for tricky words is to look for smaller words you already know and go from there.
The 'acc-' in 'access' is pronounced 'axe', but in 'accommodate', it sounds like the 'ack' in 'acknowledge'. The letter 'c' has so many pronunciations depending on where it falls in the word — thanks again to the history of the English language.
And the double 'c' and double 'm' make it all doubly confusing.
Try out this mnemonic: Good hotel accommodation has two chairs and two mattresses. Get it? Two 'c's and two 'm's.
This word's even hard to type without having to stop and think.
One 'c' — but it sounds like an 's'.
Here's a way to remember: My Nearly New shirt has one Collar and two Sleeves.
Really Red Shows Suffering!
Two 'r's and two 's's — a memory aid that gives you the doubles and a descriptive word meaning.
This word doesn't look too difficult. You have probably seen 'dress' and know it is spelled with a double 's' ... but, is it one 'd' or two?
'At my address, I have two Doors — one at the front and one out the back.'
At some point, definitely was the most frequent of all English spelling mistakes made in the UK. Wherever it stands now, you can guarantee it will definitely be somewhere on the list.
Why is this word so hard? It's so close to being phonetic ... except for the second 'i' which sort of sounds like an 'a', or sometimes an 'e'.
Segmenting the word, or chunking it, is probably going to be your best strategy: de-finite-ly. Look! It even has 'finite' in the middle.
Don't let the vowels fool you next time!
The most common misspelling of this word is: seperate. It still looks right, doesn't it!
The problem is, as with 'definitely' the difference between spelling and pronunciation is barely there.
Simply remember to use two 'a's. If you still can't, try using this phrase: An R separates the two a's.
This is another case of trying to work out whether the first 's' sound is represented by an 's' or a 'c'. Surprisingly, or not, a lot of people opt for the 'c' — concensus.
The end of the word is also problematic, this time because it IS phonetic, but most native English speakers want to write it as 'ous'.
There is no common trick or mnemonic for this one. Why don't you try coming up with your own?
Here we have a classic word that is not spelled anywhere near like it's pronounced.
Strangely enough, even though we see this word everywhere, every day, people still blank out when it comes to spelling it.
To learn how to spell 'business', go to another spelling rule: when adding a suffix to a word ending in a consonant + y, replace the 'y' with an 'i' and add on the suffix.
So, business comes from busy.
Busy + -ness = business
- a lot
The meaning of 'a lot' is 'very', 'many', 'several' and so on.
No matter how often you see it, who writes it, or where it is written — please remember that 'a lot' is never one word. It is never spelled 'alot'.
'A lot' tends to be less commonly used in written English because of its informality. In conversation, when someone says, 'I ate a lot of chocolate yesterday,' it sounds like one word.
But it's not.
If you wish to improve your English fluency, to the point where you can really go places with it in a future career, accurate spelling is essential.
Focusing on spoken English is good, but just remember, as with 'a lot', even the most simple of spellings can get confused because of the way we speak.
Sure, you can use a spell check — but not even the most advanced spellchecker picks up every mistake. Nothing can beat being able to proofread your work and pick up the errors yourself. The wrong homophone or even a misplaced apostrophe can completely change the meaning of your written text.
A proficient English speaker focuses on the entire language package. From listening and speaking to reading and writing — spelling ties it all together. Make sure you focus on every skill aspect and practise them regularly with online quizzes, worksheets, exercises or even conversation with a study buddy.
These are just some of the ways you can improve your English proficiency and, once you're confident, you might want to take the next step and learn about the differences between Australian/UK and American English and spelling.