Posted by: episystechpubs | January 24, 2013

Editor’s Corner: Spelling

When I was a little kid, I was a pretty decent speller. In third grade, I was thrilled to be chosen to compete in the spelling bee for grades 3 to 5. We all spelled word after word, until there were four of us remaining—but there were only three ribbons. “Miss Church,” the librarian said, “Your word is potpourri.” The sweat started to pour. I was at a complete loss for letters. I asked them to repeat the word, as I stalled for time. I asked for a definition and my mind raced. “Hmm,” I said to my 8-year-old self, “If the place where nuns live is called a nunnery, I guess the place the Pope lives is called a popery.” That’s how I spelled it, and that’s how I lost.

Many of you have asked for more tips and tricks on spelling; some have asked about homonyms and homophones. I’ve been pondering how I can help, and I’ve been gathering information for months. I have some interesting information on homonyms, heteronyms, homographs, Spirographs (okay, maybe not this one); I’ve collected fascinating tidbits about Greek and Latin prefixes and suffixes; I have lists of homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently, such as there, their, and they’re) coming out of my ears. But where do I start?

Let’s start here, with some historical highlights of English spelling (original information from

· ~ 600: English spelling first developed in England

· 1066: Norman French becomes the official language of England after Norman Conquest

· ~ 1350: England began to re-establish its own identity

o English language had become very different from the Anglo-Saxon of pre-Norman times

o English writers, like Geoffrey Chaucer and William Tyndale, tried to give English a consistent spelling system, but their efforts were much undermined.

o Educated people had only written French or Latin before. They continued to use many of the French spellings they had become used to.

· 1476: Begin printing books in England

o Newly invented spelling system severely tampered with

o Foreign printers committed many spelling errors

o Printers paid by the line often inserted additional letters to earn more money

o Many errors eventually became accepted English spellings

· 1500-1600s: Imported many words from Latin and Greek into English

o Imported words usually keep original spellings

§ Latin and Greek were regarded as superior to English

o To show Greek origin, many words were spelt with y instead of i: symbol, system, symmetry.

o Silent letters proliferated: pneumonia, rheumatism.

o During this time the use of ea as an alternative spelling for both the ee and e sounds also became firmly established (speech – speak, bed – bread)

· 1700: All of the different influences had transformed English spelling into the phonically incoherent jumble we still use today

o Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 fixed spelling like a law

o English is spelled by dictionary rather than by phonetic rules or common sense [KC – Okay, this guy sounds a little bit angry!]

The things you can do with your Spirograph…

Photo from

Kara Church

Senior Technical Editor

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