The Problem with Written English

Fun image of cat attempting to read written English

For many, English as a spoken language is fairly easy to learn. English grammar isn’t that complex compared with many languages. The global dominance of English in books, music, films and advertising ensures that most people hear English all around them. The struggle generally begins when learners encounter the inconsistent mess of written English.

English seems to throw out the rule book when it comes to spelling. Words with different meanings but sounding the same should be written the same way, right? It seems not. These ‘homophones’ are common in English and mistakes in spelling can lead to some amusing results. Imagine using the wrong option in our following examples: bare or bear; whine or wine; pea or pee; muscle or mussel.

Then there is the opposite problem. Words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently – the heteronyms. In fact you only know how to pronouce them when the word in is context. Try saying the following sentence aloud. ‘A tear rolls down my cheeks when I see the huge tear in my very best coat’. OK, maybe it’s not the most inspired example but hopefully makes the point.

On top of the homophones and heteronyms, there is also the differences between English and American spelling. Before the 1800s spellings that are nowadays seen as either English (colour, centre) or American (color, center) were commonly used in all English speaking countries where words had originally come from both French and Latin. In 1828 American Noah Webster produced his influential Webster’s Dictionary. He believed it was important for America, a new and revolutionary nation, to assert cultural independence from Britain through language. He advocated that people write words more like they sound, often adopting the latin spelling form. The opposite was happening elsewhere with an increased use of the French form of spelling.

Luckily there are many helpful websites out there to familiarise you with all the oddities of written English. Check out the following for more help with Homophones, Teaching Treasures and Whilst there is less available on heteronyms English for Students offers a very complete list. Many sites give details and examples of English and American spelling but some of our favourites include  Oxford Dictionaries and Spell Zone.

If you find this blog item of interest, you might want to take a  look at some of  our other English Usage stories. Find out more about Aussie English or the differences in British and American English. Perhaps the origins of some of our everyday phrases piques your fancy. Do you use any of these words that come from first world war soldiers or perhaps from the time of Shakespeare? Do contact us too if there are any topics you’d like us to cover.