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Unit 35: Why is English spelling so hard?

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Unit 35: A brief history of English spellings

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Page 6 of 7

Why is English spelling so hard?

Teaching point Proper nouns (names of specific people, places and things) can need extra care:

1. Names of people:
First names can be spelled in different ways. It can be worth checking! For example:

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 also be a problem, especially when the spelling and/or pronunciation has changed over time so that they no longer match. Take these two:

These names are pronounced Fanshaw and Chumley – how would you expect to spell these?

Click here to see if you are right.

There are NO rules for names. People can spell their names (or names of shops or businesses) any way they like.

2. Names of places:
Next time you are on a long car journey, pay attention to the place names you pass. They are fascinating things. Often, they can be traced back to the different invasions outlined earlier. Sometimes, the pronunciation seems to bear no relation to the spelling!

Many British towns grew up around castles or forts and traces of this fact can be found in the spelling of their names. Some of these can be traced to the Roman invasion, others take the Old English or Germanic route: 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, place names provide evidence of the old Celtic language. The Welsh 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

Wales boasts the longest place name – a small village in Anglesey:


It means “St Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the fierce whirlpool of St Tysilio of the red cave”. So there you go!

There are no rules governing the spelling of place names so check carefully and enjoy the wonderful diversity.

3. Brand names:
Brand names too may be influenced by foreign spellings. Sometimes, they break spelling rules to attract attention to the product or to create puns in the title and in doing so they (perhaps unwittingly) revert back to the original spellings!

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.

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?

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What does the future hold for English spelling?

Please turn your screen to landscape to play this game.

The Spellzone interactive course is intended to be used online and may not be printed.

One of the students has put in a huge amount of effort in completing Spellzone at least 3 times a week since his arrival with us in January. Looking at his scores after the latest GL testing, his standardised score has risen from 99 to 131. This is a truly phenomenal result. I just wanted to share the best result I have ever seen.

Terrie Penrose-Toms, Casterton College