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Guide to Spelling: Hooked on Phonics

If U Cn Reed This …

Why don't we simply spell words the way they sound? You're not the first smart person to ask that question. In the year 1200, an Augustinian monk named Orm developed a phonetic spelling system. It didn't catch on, but that didn't stop others from following in his footsteps (in spelling, not monkhood). Among those who tried to overhaul our spelling system were Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, and Upton Sinclair. And look where it got them.

In The Devil's Dictionary, writer and wit Ambrose Bierce defines orthography as “the science of spelling by the eye instead of the ear. Advocated with more heat than light by the outmates of every asylum for the insane.” So why haven't we gotten around to reforming spelling to bridge the chasm between phonology (the way we say words) and orthography (the way we write them)? And while we're at it, why haven't we worked out the kinks with Olestra, fixed the ozone layer, and done something about those Mets?

You Could Look It Up

Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently.

Take My Word for It

Spelling is important. The word spell itself underscores this importance. It derives from the Middle English word spellen, which means “to read out.” The word spelling is related to an Old English word meaning “to talk.”

Here are some reasons why our spelling remains the way it is:

  • Uniform spelling would rob English of its rich legacy of homophones.
  • We'd also lose the fascinating and useful etymological history of many words.
  • Creating a unified system of spelling is a job for Superman, and he's busy with evil Lex Luthor and luscious Lois Lane.
  • We can't agree on a soft drink but we'll agree on a spelling system? Get a grip!

So now that you know you can run but you can't hide, let's get to work polishing your spelling.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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