Why is English spelling so hard?

Teaching point A proper noun is the name of a person, a place, or a particular brand (e.g. a make of car). The spelling of these proper nouns needs extra care. For example:

1. Names of people:
The same name can often be spelled in many different ways. People often choose to spell their names in a special way - and they may be annoyed if someone gets it wrong. Names from other languages are becoming more common and these may follow different spelling rules.

An example, from the personal experience of the author of this course:

word lists
I was called after an Indian friend of my parents and I was taught to spell my name as Shireen. It was only when, at age 16, I saw my birth certificate and realised the real spelling is Shirin. As the second syllable is pronounced with the /ee/ sound, my parents had followed the same course as others with that name, and 'Anglicised' the spelling.
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word lists word lists

Other names with varied spellings:

Why is English spelling so hard? Sean  Shaun  Shawn
Antony  Anthony
Graham  Graeme
Steven  Stephen
Lee  Leigh
Geoffrey  Jeffrey
Why is English spelling so hard? Jackie  Jacky  Jacqui
Sara  Sarah
Ann  Anne
Annabel  Annabelle
Gillian  Jillian
Eleanor  Elinor

Surnames can be even more of a problem. Most of these date back many hundreds of years and either the pronunciation or the spelling - or both - may have changed so that they barely match each other. Two examples:

This is how the names sound:  
Fanshaw Chumley.

Guess how they are spelled then click here to see if you are right.

The rules are:
There are NO spelling rules for names - as people can spell their own names any way they choose! Therefore we must always double-check the spelling of names, to avoid offending anyone.

2. Names of places:
We know to take extra care when spelling foreign place names, as the spelling rules of other languages are different to English. But even in English speaking countries there are several pitfalls.

In England, place names can often be traced back to the different invasions. Sometimes the names have kept the same spelling although the pronunciation has changed.

Many British towns grew up around Roman castles or forts and we can see traces of this in the spellings. Several place names have these endings, meaning 'fort' :
Why is English spelling so hard?
-caster -cester -chester -castle
-burgh -borough -brough -bury -berry

For example:
Leicester, pronounced /Lester/.
Edinburgh, Middlesbrough, Scarborough, all with the ending
pronounced /brƏ/.

In Scotland, evidence of the old Celtic language can still be seen in place names. The Welsh still have their own living language which has kept many old Celtic words.

For example: aber = mouth of a river > Aberystwyth
  llan = church > Llangollen
  cwm = valley > Cwmbran

The longest place name in Britain belongs to a small village in Anglesey,
North Wales called:


    Don't worry - you won't be tested on this word - but only because this course is teaching English spelling, not Welsh!

The rules for spelling place names are the same as for the names of people:
You can't rely on the sounds, so always double-check these proper nouns.

3. Brand names:
These can have regular spellings, for example:

Jaguar Hoover Martini Barbie
Sony Heinz Coca-Cola  
Why is English spelling so hard?

They just need the normal care you would take with proper nouns, such as checking to see whether any foreign language has affected the spelling.

However, many brand names deliberately break spelling rules, just to attract attention to the product. Some examples:

Kwik-Save superstore Why is English spelling so hard?
Whispa chocolate bar
Whiskas cat food
K'nex construction toy
Kleenex tissues
Hi-lites hairdresser
Eazi-Ryda taxicabs
Kleenoff oven cleaner
SupaSnaps photo shop

Some stores even make deliberate mistakes with homophones:

Why is English spelling so hard? Suite Dreams furniture store
Meet Here butcher
Best Cellars wine shop
Dress Cents clothing
Paws Here pet shop
Toad on the Road breakdown truck
Pete's Plaice fish shop
Hair We Are hairdresser

As you can see above, the letter k is often used in these attention-grabbing spellings, instead of c, ck or even q. Think back to the times of old English, when quick was spelled cwic. The French rulers changed it to quick - now we see it all around us spelled as kwik. Why is English spelling so hard?

Has the wheel come full circle? Is it time to simplify English spelling and get rid of all the changes added over hundreds of years?

next part of the spelling course Go to the next page:
What does the future hold for English spelling?

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Unit 35: Why is English spelling so hard?

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