Language Corner

Why you will never spell anything correctly

May 30, 2018
Image via Unsplash.

English, we have pointed out repeatedly, is not a logical language. That hasn’t prevented attempts to impose logic on it, from people insisting that you can’t split an infinitive in English because you can’t do it in Latin (a twisted sort of logic) to the phonetic movement, which argues that words should be spelled the way they sound.

Any system of spelling, called orthography, is a set of conventions of how to spell, capitalize, hyphenate, etc. words in a language to make it more understandable. The “rules” of English spelling have never been writ in stone, which is why we have “goodby,” goodbye,” and “good-bye” as alternate spellings. (Merriam-Webster recently dropped its preference for the OKhyphen in “good-bye.”)

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Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, said: “When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules.” (That was merely the introduction to a sentence that went on for another 63 words. They wrote long in those days.) He tried to create order, but one result was things like “energetick.”

Noah Webster tried to impose a little more logic by changing some English spellings—to American. In his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1806, Webster dropped a lot of those “k” endings; eliminated the “u” in “colour,” “humour,” “favourite,” and the like; and changed a lot of “ce” endings to “ne,” as in “defence/defense,” and “s” endings to “z,” as in “economise/economize.”

The biggest movement to change English spelling began in 1876, not surprisingly in the halls of academia. The American Philological Association set up a convention for the revision of English orthography “in which the history of alphabetic symbolization was averted to, also the confusion therein caused by the Norman conquest; and the need of some conventional phonic system argued.” (They also wrote pompously in those days.) The members “unanimously agreed that the time has come for a permanent organization to take in hand the actual reform of English spelling.”

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One result of that movement was that Joseph Medill, then–publisher of the Chicago Tribune, adopted some of those newfangled spellings. (You were wondering when we would get to journalism, weren’t you?) Among them were “thru,” “catalog,” “gard,” and “tho.” They had the added advantage of saving the lead needed to set the extra letters in those words, and thereby saving costs.

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In the early 20th century, many changes suggested by a Simplified Spelling Board got the backing of Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, and President Theodore Roosevelt, but were ridiculed by Congress. Still, the Tribune persisted: Col. Robert McCormick, its legendary publisher, decreed that words like “burocrat,” “clew,” “drouth,” “hocky,” “skilful,” and “thoro” would be so spelt. Um, spelled. The Tribune finally gave up most of those ghosts in 1975 and resumed more “standardized” spelling.

You would have thot that that would be the end of it, but no. The early 20th-century movement lives on, revitalized as the English Spelling Society. It advocates for increased literacy through a system where individual letters represent individual sounds, so we won’t have words like “though,” “rough,” and “through,” which have the same letters at the end but are pronounced very differently. And they want to conker not just American English, but English thruout the world. The group’s first International Congress was scheduled to be held via webinar this week.

Don’t hold out a whole lot of hope, though. It’s one thing to decree that something should be spelled a certain way; it’s another to get people to do it.

“As soon as there is established authority for simple spelling,” Col. Charles Sprague, the treasurer of the Simplified Spelling Board, said in 1906, “then people will not be afraid of being considered ignorant when they use the new form.”

Sadly, or not, there is still no “established authority” for English, unlike the Académie Française, which regulates French spelling. Of course, the Académie has also tried to ban “buzz,” “hashtag,” and “deadline” as not being French. And failed.

Remember that whenever you see spellings like “ocurence” or “miniscule.” They might someday be more “right” than you think.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.