Why English Spelling Reform Is Doomed

Syelle Graves, Writing for
11-minute read
Episode #571

We Can Distinguish Homophones

In writing, context alone is not always enough to clearly let the reader know whether the writer intends weight the measurement or wait the verb; there, their, or they’re; the sentence “The flower is on the table” could be flour or flower, and it would be a lot more confusing if we could only spell that series of sounds in one way. If we tried to make spelling match the way we speak, we would run into more confusion. Even when context clears up the ambiguity, it’s helpful for the reader to know which word is intended as soon as the word appears in the sentence.

We Can See Relationships in Word Families

Although it can be tricky when we first learn to read and write that you don’t pronounce the G in design, leaving it there is useful in order to see the relationship between its cousin-word “designate.” This is a pattern that can be found in many examples, such as bomb/bombard, receipt/recipient, and sign/signature. This is related to the homophone reason, too, because the spelling S-I-N-E, for example, is already taken for the mathematical term sine.


Another area in which spelling reform is futile is loanwords, which you can read about here, and English has many! Borrowing words like karaoke and Renaissance from other languages increases the number of words that are unlikely to have a one-to-one sound-to-symbol correspondence. Leaving them spelled as-is helps us when we see those words in signs and other writing in that language, when we travel and study.


Some people argue that spelling should be modified to be more intuitive because reading can be difficult at first for children in school. One huge problem with this is that all of the adults have already learned to read with the current spelling, and that would mean we would be teaching children to read a spelling system that only applies to things written recently, if anything! Moving forward in this scenario, imagine how it would feel for all adults to have to re-learn our ingrained literacy skills, late in life. More importantly, if we were to change our writing system, then we would actually have to teach children twice: how to spell the new way, and then how to read the spelling of nearly every written document in existence, and that would not simplify the teaching process.

In addition to that, some studies show that when we read in any language spelled with the Roman alphabet, we don’t actually sound it out once we become fluent readers; we analyze the words in a chunk, much like traditional Chinese characters that have a single symbol per word (called a “logographic” writing system). This means that we all read words that we know more by memory than by how they are spelled, so standardized spelling that doesn’t correspond perfectly to pronunciation doesn’t turn out to be a problem for the average reader, especially with practice. (3) As a reminder, even if it did correspond perfectly, half the people reading English pronounce those words completely differently! Learning English spelling, while challenging, is nowhere near impossible. In fact, if you think about it, the fact that standardized spelling has endured so powerfully indicates that our writing system is working well.


About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a PhD in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). She was also a 40 under Forty alumni award honoree at SUNY New Paltz. You can find her at syellegraves.com.