Pitfalls of English spelling reform

21 Mar 2024

This article is a summary of my thoughts on English spelling reform. It consists of a list of things that spelling reforms should not do, followed in the last section by a list of reforms I think are acceptable.

Respelling ‘hat’

There is absolutely no reason to respell the word ‘hat’. In English, the only reasonable pronunciation of ⟨hat⟩ is /hæt/, and the only reasonable spelling of /hæt/ is ⟨hat⟩. There is no problem here to be solved. If you find yourself writing ‘hat’ as ⟨hät⟩ or similar, you are doing something wrong.

The point here is that letters do not need to make the same sound in English as they did in Latin. Every language has its own spelling and pronunciation conventions, and you need to learn the conventions when learning a new language. There is no way to prevent this; it would be impossible to make English conventions conform simultaneously to those of Spanish, German, Polish, and so on. All that you accomplish by respelling ‘hat’ (and nearly every other word along with it) is making your spelling reform needlessly radical, and thus impossible to adopt.

Respelling ‘-tion’

There is no good reason to respell the suffix ‘-tion’. It is a very common suffix with only one pronunciation*, so again, there is no problem to be solved. Moreover, French and German also have the ‘-tion’ suffix, and Spanish has the similarly-spelled ‘-ción’ suffix, so spelling the English suffix as ‘-tion’ helps with cross-language word recognition. If you find yourself writing ‘-shon’ or similar, you are doing something wrong.

More generally, prefixes and suffixes do not need to be respelled, since they are repeated across a large number of words. The only exception is when there are multiple suffixes with the same meaning and pronunciation but different spellings. Some examples are -er/-or/-ar, -able/-ible, -ant/-ent, and -ance/-ence. These should be respelled, by choosing one variant to replace the others with.

[*Okay, it’s pronounced differently after the letter ‘s’, but that’s a regular rule with no exceptions, so my point stands.]

Using diacritics

English does not use diacritics. Keyboards used in English-speaking countries do not contain letters with diacritics. Any spelling reform that adds new letters to the English alphabet will never be adopted by anyone. Also, diacritics are kind of ugly, especially when they are placed over the letter ‘i’.

My objection is only to the introduction of diacritics into native (or nativized) English words. The use of diacritics in loanwords like façade and naïve is acceptable, although I’ve never used them.

Getting rid of ‘c’

Many people have at some point made the following observation: “The letter ‘c’ is pointless! It always makes either the ‘s’ sound or the ‘k’ sound, so we can get rid of ‘c’ and just use ‘s’ or ‘k’ instead.” This is a bad idea, for two reasons.

First of all, just as there is no need to respell ‘hat’, there is no need to respell ‘cat’. Under current English orthography, the only reasonable pronunciation of ⟨cat⟩ is /kæt/, and the only reasonable spelling of /kæt/ is ⟨cat⟩. English has few words starting with ‘ka-‘, and they are all loans from other languages, such as ‘karma’ and ‘kanji’. With the exception of such loan words, English obeys a simple rule: at the start of a syllable, the consonant /k/ is spelled as ‘k’ before the letters ‘e’ and ‘i’, and ‘c’ otherwise (except in the cluster /kw/, which is spelled ‘qu’.) Spanish, French, and Italian all have similar rules. I see no good reason to mess with this rule, or with any regular spelling rule, for that matter.

Second of all, if you eliminate the letter ‘c’, how will you spell ‘rice’? The simplest approach — replacing every occurence of ‘c’ with either ‘s’ or ‘k’ — results in ‘rise’, which is already a word, and is pronounced differently. You could, of course, respell ‘rise’ as ‘rize’ (which would also result in ‘noze’, ‘cloze’, ‘pleaze’, ‘cheeze’, and so on), but respelling ‘rice’ as ‘rise’ is problematic regardless. The thing is, when a word ends in ‘-ce’, the pronunciation is unambiguously /s/, but when a word ends in ‘-se’, the pronunciation could be either /s/ or /z/. (Compare the two pronunciations of ‘close’). So the spelling with ‘-ce’ is superior. It would be better to respell ‘base’ as ‘bace’ than to repell ‘rice’ as ‘rise’.

Of course, you could just completely overhaul the English spelling system, and spell ‘rice’ and ‘rize’ as ⟨rais⟩ and ⟨raiz⟩ or similar, but there are three problems with this:

  • You end up spelling the plural suffix (and the third person singular verbal suffix) as either ⟨s⟩ or ⟨z⟩ depending on the word. For example: ‘trees’ ‘treats’ ‘hears’ ‘heats’ become ⟨triz⟩ ⟨trits⟩ ⟨hirz⟩ ⟨hits⟩ or similar. This reflects the pronunciation more accurately, but reflects the morphology and meaning less accurately. The current spelling is nice in that it clearly distinguishes plural nouns and third-person singular verbs (which, when regular, always end in a single ⟨s⟩) from bare nouns and verbs (which never end in a single ⟨s⟩, but rather ⟨-ce⟩, ⟨-se⟩, ⟨-ss⟩, or ⟨-x⟩).
  • The result doesn’t look like English.
  • Anyone who grew up with this new spelling would be incapable of reading anything printed in the Before Times without taking the time to learn how things used to be spelled. This is why mild spelling reform is better than radical spelling reform.

Getting rid of ‘q’

The cluster /kw/ is spelled in English as ‘qu’. I see no reason to change this. For one thing, ‘cw’ and ‘kw’ are simply ugly and don’t look like English. ‘kw’ in particular is an assault on the eyes — seven straight lines! And more importantly, why would you mess with completely regular spelling conventions? Nobody has trouble spelling words with /kw/ in them, because they know that /kw/ is spelled ‘qu’.

Getting rid of ‘x’

The letter ‘x’ does serve a purpose — distinguishing words with an ‘-s’ suffix from those without one. Compare ‘lacks’, which has an ‘-s’ suffix, and ‘lax’, which does not. If ‘fox’ were spelled ‘focks’ or similar, it would look like plural of a noun ‘fock’. As I mentioned earlier, this ability to easily determine the morphology of words is a nice feature of English orthography.

It isn’t just the ‘-s’ suffix which has this property. The ‘-ed’ suffix does as well: if a verb ends in ‘-ed’, it is always past tense. Compare ‘tied’, ‘lied’, and ‘denied’, which all end in ‘-ed’ and are thus past tense, with ‘ride’, ‘bide’, and ‘deride’, which do not end in ‘-ed’ and are not past tense. A purely “phonetic” spelling of English (taking only pronunciation, and not morphology, into account) would flatten this difference; I would consider that a loss.

Suggestions for reform

Here are some changes I would approve of (some more radical than others):

  • Respelling ‘read’ (past tense) to ‘red’ to match the pronunciation and to match ‘lead’/’led’. If there is one spelling reform I care about, it’s this one.
  • More generally, respelling ‘lead’ (the metal), ‘dead’, ‘instead’, ‘bread’, ‘head’, etc. to ‘led’, ‘ded’, ‘insted’, ‘bred’, ‘hed’, etc.
  • Anglicizing the spelling of certain French-origin words, e.g. respelling ‘plaque’ as ‘plack’.
  • Replacing ‘-ible’ with ‘-able’.
  • Replacing ‘-or’ and ‘-ar’ (as in ‘sailor’, ‘actor’, ‘liar’, ‘beggar’) with ‘-er’.
  • Replacing ‘-ent’, ‘-ence’ with ‘-ant’, ‘-ance’, unless preceded by a soft ‘c’ or ‘g’. (So ‘deterrent’, ‘dependent’, ‘rodent’ become ‘deterrant’, ‘dependant’, ‘rodant’, but ‘complacent’ and ‘agent’ are left alone.) Note that ‘-ment’ is a separate suffix and should be left alone.
  • Respelling ‘debt’, ‘doubt’, ‘subtle’ to ‘det’, ‘dout’, ‘suttle’.
  • Respelling ‘heart’, ‘hearth’ to ‘hart’, ‘harth’. Respelling ‘earth’, ‘earn’, etc. to ‘erth’, ‘ern’, etc.
  • Potentially, respelling ‘-ow’ to ‘-oe’ when applicable, resulting in ‘groe’, ‘toe’ (from ‘tow’), ‘loe’, ‘roe’, ‘stoe’, ‘croe’, ‘noe’ (from ‘know’), ‘bloe’, and so on. For verbs with irregular past tenses ending in ‘-ew’, this could be respelled to ‘-ue’ to match more closely the spelling of the present tense, resulting in ‘grue’, ‘nue’, ‘blue’ as past tenses of ‘groe’, ‘noe’, ‘bloe’.
  • Respelling words ending in ‘-mb’, resulting in ‘lim’, ‘clime’, ‘lam’, ‘toom’, ‘coam’, ‘num’, ‘dum’, ‘thum’, ‘plummer’, and so on.
  • Replacing ‘kn’ and ‘gn’ with ‘n’, resulting in ‘nife’, ‘nee’, ‘naw’, ‘nat’, etc.
  • Doing something about ‘-ough’, of course. I’m thinking ‘coff’, ‘ruff’, ‘tho’, ‘doe’, ‘bow’, ‘thru’. Words ending in ‘-ought’ should be respelled to ‘-aught’. In my opinion, ‘-aught’, ‘-igh(t)’, and ‘-eigh(t)’ should be left alone, but ‘straight’ should be respelled to ‘strait’. ‘Laugh’ should be respelled to ‘laff’, since it doesn’t match the pronunciation in ‘-aught’.
  • Replacing ‘st’ with ‘ss’ when the ‘t’ is silent, resulting in ‘glissen’, ‘lissen’, ‘cassle’.