Can English spelling b impruvd?

The English language’s antiquated spelling patterns make English difficult to learn.  Way and weigh, threw and through, Phil and fill—English is replete with spelling patterns that inhibit reading and spelling for young children and ESL students.

Can anything be done about it?

Daniel Webster was the last to have had a small success.  He studied the first English dictionary, written by Samuel Johnson in 1755 in Britain.  Webster found much to dislike.  In particular, he thought a dictionary should reflect the words and usage of the public, not of another country’s aristocracy.  His American dictionary of 1825 simplified some British spellings—eliminating the “u” in “colour” and “honour”; he changed some French spellings to better match their English pronunciations, such as “centre” to “center” and “theatre” to “theater.”

In 1837, Isaac Pitman, and in 1848, Alexander John Ellis proposed a phonetic alphabet.  Their efforts garnered interest but little support.

In 1876, the American Philological Society reformed eleven spellings which the Chicago Tribune started to use.  However, the changes didn’t take with the public.  They are


In 1883, the American Philological Association made 24 spelling reform rules, but to no effect.

In 1898, the National Education Association created a list of twelve spelling changes which were to be used in all its writings.  They were

Suggested spelling changes of 1898

(Spellcheck on my computer accepts all the old-fashioned spellings but two, and rejects all the recommended changes but three, showing how few of these changes have been implemented in the past 110 years.)

In 1906 the Simplified Spelling Board published a list of 300 spelling changes.  President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Government Printing Office to make the changes, but Congress stopped it with a resolution to keep the old spellings.

And so it goes through the 20th century and into the 21st.  Some small changes have crept into the language—cigaret for cigarette, dialog for dialogue.  But substantial improvement hasn’t come.

However, there is hope from an unexpected source:  technology.  Texting is doing what hundreds of years of reformers have not:  making phonetic spelling commonplace and acceptable among large numbers of readers and writers.  And because Americans text so often in a phonetic language, they are bringing their easier, more logical spellings into everyday English.  Not into standard English—that hasn’t come yet.  But into everyday English, yes.

Texters use the word “tonite” rather than “tonight” because it is shorter, and takes fewer keys to press for a quick message.  “Because” is also changing to “becuz.”  I suspect that this bottoms-up approach—changes introduced by young Americans—will bring more change to spelling than the top-down efforts of the past two centuries.  And about time!

What do you think?  Is texting making inroads into standard English?  Or is it just a fad?  –Mrs. K

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