Why English Spelling Reform Is Doomed

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

Abandoning Spelling Conventions Would Be Especially Problematic

One last point deserves consideration. Occasionally, people suggest that reforming spelling is a bad idea, but then take it a step further, and suggest we abandon standardized spelling altogether. At this point, you can probably imagine that many of the same arguments against spelling reform apply to “spelling abandonment.” There are a handful of additional reasons not to abandon spelling conventions. One is that spelling allows computers to parse written language—critical for doing any sort of research in languages or linguistics, or even in your own papers. Think about how helpful it is to use functions like “ctrl+F” to find each instance of a word in a document, or on a webpage, when we’re looking for something specific. Another good reason is speed: When words are spelled any which way, our reading time is slowed down. Beyond that, you could argue that spelling any which way would be more challenging for children learning to read—at least, at this point, the word spellings, tough or not, are consistent across books. Our civilization has billions of printed words, spanning hundreds of years. Therefore, if you add spelling alternatives, by definition, you are now doubling the task of the child in school learning to read, just as it would be if we reformed spelling.

Some say that abandoning all spelling conventions would help when you want to send a creative spelling and your autocorrect overrides you. But, as we saw, there is nothing illogical or uneducated about text abbreviations, so a better solution might be to turn off that autocorrect in the phone settings! Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that many who say they don’t need any spelling conventions have substantial educational privilege. People who have mastered reading and writing can deftly produce correct and well-written English, so it’s easy to say they don’t need it; people who struggle with spelling deserve a chance to get more practice with it, in one consistent form, and to get better at it.

In sum, as a society, we can work to learn and teach writing conventions, and we can be mindful of the fact that all languages vary across time and space with no “better” or “worse” forms. Finally, we can allow abbreviated “text speech” to coexist peacefully with formal writing!

That segment was by Syelle Graves who has two master's degrees in linguistics. You can read more about her at syellegraves.com.


1.Cowell, A. (1997, July 31). All the sturm und drang! It's not just umlauts. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/31/world/all-the-sturm-und-drang-it-s-not-just-umlauts.html.

2.Curzan, A., & Adams, M. (2012). How English works: A linguistic introduction (3rd ed.). Longman.

3.Ehri, L.C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and Issues. Scientific Studies of Reading 9(2), 167–188.

4.Fromkin, V., Hyams, N., & Rodman, R. (2014). Introduction to Language (10th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth.

5.German orthography reform of 1996. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_orthography_reform_of_1996

6.Johnson, S. (2005). Spelling trouble? Language, ideology, and the reform of German orthography. Multilingual Matters. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2rQbWu6



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.