04:52 AM EDT Oct 30
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By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

Last year, a waitress won a contest to sell the most beer at a Hooters bar in Florida. But it wasn�t long before trouble began brewing over the prize she had been promised.

After being led to the parking lot for what she thought was a new Toyota, the woman wound up with a Star Wars doll – a toy Yoda. She sued. �Sort out the mess, a judge no longer must,� as the wrinkly Jedi master might say. The waitress agreed to an undisclosed, out-of-court settlement a few months ago.

Sounds odd? Well sounds can be odd, and linguists have plenty of labels for them. In the case of Toyota and toy Yoda, our brains are faced with �oronyms� – virtually identical speech that can be interpreted in different ways. English is full of these devilish duos. For example, I scream versus ice cream, a notion versus an ocean, and some others versus some mothers.

Since the ear sometimes play tricks, it�s helpful to get details in writing. Transferring spoken language to paper, or stone, or computer screens involves spelling. But the process is fraught with pitfalls, and often requires judgment – or judgement, depending on the convention where you live.


Even when the eye takes over for the ear, there is no guarantee a lawsuit won�t be launched.

In 1996, a man walked into a tattoo parlour in Michigan and asked for the word villain on his right forearm. He wasn�t sure how to spell it. Neither were the people working there. They settled on villian. When a friend later made fun of the misspelling, the man underwent plastic surgery to mask the mistake. In 1999, he sued the shop for $25,000.

It�s a painful lesson about what can happen when a wobbly speller doesn�t have a dictionary and decides to go out on a limb. It�s also an indelible reminder of how fussy we can be over certain combinations of letters. The Canadian Oxford lists tattoo parlour and parlor as being OK (okay), but there�s only one choice for villain.


We could pick any one of hundreds of thousands of words to begin an overview of spelling, but let�s stick with tattoo, which is made up of six letters broken into two syllables – including three identical consonants (t), one of them silent. How did we come up with that?

Tattoo entered English in the middle of the 18th century. It came from two Polynesian terms – �ta-tau� in Tahitian, Tongan and Samoan, and �ta-tu� in Marquesan – used to describe a type of decoration on the skin. Our spelling is relatively arbitrary, an attempt to use an alphabet to freeze the way some people heard the pronunciation of a foreign word.

Although the second syllable rhymes with moo, it could have been represented by many combinations of letters. Another word from the same part of the world, taboo, illustrates the point. It was pirated into English by Captain Cook just over 200 years ago. Most people spell it with two os today, but many dictionaries still list the original tabu (which meant �set apart or forbidden�) as an alternative. In fact, the revised 1998 New Fowler�s Modern English Usage points out that �as part of the process of political correctness the word is now occasionally being written as tabu to accord with the Tongan original.�

You don�t need to look far to see that �oo� isn�t a shoo-in for the final sound in tattoo or taboo. Options include:

ou as in you

oo as in bamboo

oe as in shoe

o as in who

eu as in rheumatism

ew as in stew

u as in rude

ue as in clue

Linguists point out that fragments of words in English are generally pronounced in only a few common ways. On the other hand, there are many possible spellings of any given sound.

In lieu of a better example, and with apologies to Dr. Seuss, let�s repeat the rumour that two youthful shrews are no longer blue after finding a canoe and moving from the zoo. Are we through? Phew.


�There are far more graphemic alternatives for a phoneme than there are phonemic alternatives for a grapheme,� notes David Crystal in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. The words �grapheme� and �phoneme� may sound highfalutin, but they�re key concepts to understanding English spelling.

Graphemes are the elementary units in a system of writing. In English, the main ones are the 26 letters of the alphabet, along with special symbols like punctuation and dollars signs. The word ran, then, is made up of three graphemes: r-a-n.

Phonemes are like graphemes, but for our ears not our eyes. These are the rudimentary sounds of our language. There are about 40 common phonemes in English. The word meet, for instance, has three: m-ee-t.

Vowels aren�t the only letters joined (ee, ea, ei) to represent a single sound. The word rang, for instance, has one more letter than ran, but still contains only three phonemes: r-a-ng. To further complicate matters, the sound �ng� is represented by the grapheme �n� alone in words like �anxiety� and �sink.�

We use phonemes to build what linguists call �morphemes,� the smallest chunks of words that carry meaning. Morphemes, by the way, can be more than one syllable. For instance, ability has four syllables (a-bil-i-ty) but only two morphemes (abil-ity).

What does this jargon have to do with spelling? Well, there are several ways to write down ideas, including the use of symbols (such as ancient cuneiform and hieroglyphic markings), logographs (such as Chinese script and Japanese kanji), and syllabic representation (such as old Cypriot or modern Japanese katakana). Alphabets, however, have at least one big advantage – fewer graphemes.

Most alphabets contain between 20 and 30 letters. These units are tied directly to phonemes, so you don�t need as many to read and write. Logographs, on the other hand, use graphemes to represent a language�s words, so thousands are often required. Even syllabic systems, which use graphemes to convey spoken syllables, rely on dozens and dozens of characters – from 50 to several hundred.

The world�s first alphabet is believed to have been created along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean more than 3,000 years ago. The concept eventually spread, and unique systems were developed for a wide range of languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Indian.

While all alphabets are relatively economical and adaptable, some do a better job than others representing a language. Spanish and Finnish look a lot like they sound. English, on the other hand, features plenty of spelling that is �quite seriously unrelated to pronunciation,� as lexicographer Robert Burchfield puts it. There are several reasons for the irregularities.


Ye earliest written English documents are from the 8th century, and are based mainly on a slightly different version of the Latin or Roman alphabet (about two dozen letters) with a few old runic symbols tossed in (including thorn for �th� and wynn for �w�). Evidence of thorn, which looks a little like a small p with its circle dropped down a notch, can still be seen today on signs using the archaic term ye – �Ye Old Curious Spelling Shoppe.� Here, ye is actually the – a goofy gift from many generations ago when handwritten thorns began to resemble "y."

Although our alphabet hasn�t changed much in more than a millennium, the way we talk and spell has. One of the biggest shakeups occurred after the Norman Conquest in 1066, when French scribes decided to alter the way some sounds were represented on parchment. They replaced cw with qu, for instance, so we wound up with queen instead of �cwene� and quick in place of �cwic.� Of course, the French also gave us many new words, so we probably shouldn�t quarrel.

English has a long tradition of lifting terms from other languages, which has added to its strange mix of spellings. These are known as �loanwords,� even though we have no intention of returning them. A small sample of the contributions from abroad are: marijuana (Spanish), ghetto (Italian), yacht (Dutch), gesundheit (German), schmaltz (Yiddish), czar (Russian) and giraffe (Arabic). In some cases, more than one version sprouts and spreads. Take ketchup, which is believed to have come from a Chinese (Cantonese) term for �tomato juice� in the late 1600s. This is the standard spelling in Canada, although catchup and catsup are also used.

For the longest time, many of the people who could write didn�t seem to care if their spelling was consistent. In his book The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson cites examples of words being spelled differently not only in the same document but in the same sentence. Pronunciations also varied from region to region. We used to sound out many of the now-silent letters – for instance, the �k� in know and knee (kuh-no, kuh-nee), as well as the �g� in gnaw and the �l� in would. And once upon a time, people said �oons� in one place and �wuns� in another. Eventually, we adopted the sound �wuns� and the spelling for �oons� (once).

The spelling of one word over 500 years































The invention of the printing press about 600 years ago encouraged more consistent spelling, but it also came along at a time when people had gradually begun pronouncing many words differently. Sheep sounded more like shape in Geoffrey Chaucer�s day, for instance, and house like hoos. These slow, sweeping changes in the 15th and 16th centuries became known as the Great Vowel Shift. Combinations of letters that once represented certain sounds began to take on new jobs, although many of the old spellings remained in wide circulation, partly because people had become accustomed to familiar patterns on paper.

Printers also started fiddling around, tacking extra letters on the ends of some words while slicing off others, to make everything snug on typeset lines. They preferred an extra �e� to white space. And who was going to joust over the appearance of, say, jouste, especially since it had been previously spelled �just� for years? There were no English dictionaries to speak of until Shakespeare had finished writing most of his plays, and until the 1700s such reference books remained only thin collections of a few thousand words.

Around the same time, it became fashionable to start trumpeting Latin and Greek etymology by adding letters reflected in a given word�s roots – even if these were silent. For instance, the �b� in debt (�which had been �dette�), the �p� in receipt (which had been �receit�), and the �c� in scissors (which had been �sisoures�).

To top it all off, people misheard, misread or otherwise misunderstood words along the way, which added to our quirky spellings. For example:

  • Hiccough was created in the 17th century because some people thought the second syllable of hiccup was �cough.�

  • Ingenuity is actually a mix-up between �ingenious� and �ingenuous.�

  • Sneeze started out as the Middle English word �fnese,� but the first letter was later misread as an s and changed.

  • And comptroller is described by the 1998 New Fowler�s as �an erroneous but rather grand-looking spelling� of controller, based on the false assumption that the first syllable meant �count� (from the Latin �computare�). In fact it came from the French word �contre� (against), and referred to someone who kept copies of household accounts that all expenditures could be checked against.

Not all slips have made it into the mainstream. Some have been ignored by dictionaries over the past few hundred years. The word coldslaw, for instance, first appeared in the 1790s based on the mispronunciation of coleslaw – a Dutch word that means �cabbage� (kool) �salad� (sla). Despite our willingness to alter cough and sneeze, this use of cold is still not listed in many reference books.


People have been complaining about the irregular spelling of English for at least 500 years. About a century ago, the push for reform intensified on both sides of the Atlantic. Various boards and associations were formed in the United States and Britain. Money was raised. Governments were lobbied. High-profile writers like Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Tennyson and George Bernard Shaw campaigned for change.

To argue his point, Shaw noted in a now-famous remark that fish could be easily (and preposterously) spelled ghoti under the existing system: gh for f, as in tough, o for i as in women, and ti for sh as in motion. But invented jumbles like this prove nothing about the underlying structure of a written language, according to traditionalists. While gh may sometimes represent the sound f, you would be hard-pressed to find an example of it at the start of a word.

Scholars have pointed out that most English spelling is relatively regular. Linguist David Crystal puts the figure at 84 per cent, with straightforward patterns like hat-cat, map-cap, purse-curse, and big-dig leading the way. In fact, he estimates that only three per cent of the average person�s vocabulary causes real trouble. The difficulty, however, is that some of these are the most common words: quick, answer, one, two, know, of, you, could, who, what, where, whole, hour, sugar, and enough are examples.

An ideal alphabet would have one letter for every unique sound – one grapheme for every phoneme. But many people believe that trying to impose such sweeping reform on English now would be a rather big �mnopspteiche�: mn for M, as in autumn, o for I, as in button, ps for S as in psychology, pt for T, as in receipt, ei for A, as in reindeer, ch for K, as in stomach, and e for E, as in we�re all done.

Why a mistake? In a 1998 essay entitled �English Spelling is Kattastroffik,� British linguistics professor Edward Carney argues that his title is actually a myth, and that we shouldn�t rush to condemn the whole system just because �too many speech-sounds are chasing too few letters.� Although it might be easier to simplify a few things, such as getting rid of some silent letters, the cost of trying to write the way be talk could be high:

  • Not everyone pronounces words the same way. There would be no consensus on a standard, so �a number of different written dialects of English� would emerge.

  • Silent letters often help readers see how words relate to their offspring. For instance, resign is tied to resignation while condemn is linked to condemnation.

  • Phonetic reform would cause new headaches with homophones – words that sound alike but which have different meanings and spellings. Examples are vain, vein and vane, or meet, meat and mete. �These variant vowel spellings clearly make it harder for the writer, but it is often claimed that such divergence is not always a bad thing for the reader,� Carney says.

  • Pronunciations often shift over the years, so each generation would have greater trouble reading words written by their grandparents and great-grandparents.

  • Our ability to track historic roots would be weakened, from Latin and French etymologies to German and Arabic. �Like flies in amber, English spelling has preserved a continuous record of cultural activity,� Carney observes, �by borrowing foreign spelling conventions along with the borrowed words.�

  • If a lot of words suddenly got �nue� spellings, a massive amount of money would have to be spent (a) converting centuries of old text and (b) teaching millions of people to read and write with revised spellings.

George Bernard Shaw, who almost always wrote in Pitman shorthand, believed the price of an entirely new alphabet was worth paying, and he bequeathed a portion of his estate to fund research. A competition was held after his death, and the winning entry was announced in 1959. The primary designer, believe it or not, was named Kingsley Read. But few use his �Shavian alphabet,� which is a collection of 48 strokes and curls that bear no resemblance to our A-B-Cs.

Some proponents of spelling reform still hold meetings, publish articles and advocate change. Many Web sites have been set up, some offering conversion tools to see what text would look like under various orthographic rules. For instance, typing the start of Canada�s national anthem produces the following on a system known as Truespel: �O Kanudu, our hoem and naetiv land. True paetreeyit luv, in aul thie sons kummand.�

But it�s not easy persuading a majority to abandon years of tradition and start writing everything in a different way. Little beyond American lexicographer Noah Webster�s drive for center instead of centre, or color instead of colour, or traveler instead of traveller has caught on anywhere. Even relatively modest proposals, such as nite for night or thru for through, remain unpopular.

Any fool can misspell, and many do in a sporadic, random, innocent sort of way, but a few words evidently cause widespread difficulty, not necessarily for any apparent reason. Even quite good people, for instance, sometimes write �supercede� instead of �supersede� – obviously muddled by the nearby presence of concede, intercede, etc., but why so many, good and bad, should write that something is a great �suprise� causes me some mild surprise as well as puzzlement.

Novelist Kingsley Amis
The King�s English (1997)


If we don�t all abandon �tough� and start using �tuf,� then, are there other ways to cope with tricky or irregular patterns? Some people find that mnemonic devices – such as �accommodate can accommodate extra letters� – help their spelling. But how do we remember that mnemonic starts with a silent m?

Guidelines have been drawn up with limited success over the years. The most famous is probably �i before e except after c� (brief, believe, receive, receipt) – which actually doesn�t work very well unless you remember the next line, �or when sounded like �a� as in neighbour and weigh� (heinous, freight, vein, sleigh).

But even after committing the longer rhyme to memory one can leisurely find exceptions and rapidly seize upon the conclusion that such simple rules are either counterfeit or of limited value. Consider: foreign, forfeit, their, neither, protein, caffeine, heir, and height.

Then there are those tips that only the truly devoted ever bother studying. For instance, most one-syllable words that end in a single consonant double that consonant when we add an ending that begins with a vowel or the letter �y�: wed becomes wedding, and sad becomes sadder. But if the word�s vowel sound is written as two letters, the final consonant is generally not doubled: treat becomes treated and soak becomes soaking.

To further complicate matters, if the original word has more than one syllable, the final consonant is usually doubled only if the final syllable has one vowel and the stress falls at the end: so begin turns into beginning while focus becomes focusing. Once again, however, there are exceptions, especially when the final syllable can stand alone as a word – such as kidnap, which turns into kidnapping, and worship, which becomes worshipping.

All of this raises a question about how much we really benefit from attempts to write down rules. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage points out that about one-third of Canadians prefer benefitting to benefiting, both of which are listed in most dictionaries.


It is fitting that misspelled often is. Here are 40 other common blunders randomly chosen from various usage guides:

accommodation, allotted, attendance, calendar, changeable, consensus, crucifixion, develop, ecstasy, forty, gauge, guttural, handkerchief, idiosyncrasy, inoculate, irrelevant, liaise, likable, liquefy, maintenance, mayonnaise, millennium, minuscule, moccasin, necklace, occasionally, occurred, pavilion, prairie, principal (versus principle), privilege, rarefy, repellent, resuscitate, rhythm, sacrilegious, separate, supersede, surprise, and withhold.

A few of these, like likable (likeable), have more than one accepted spelling. But most of the words appear only one way in dictionaries, and are butchered with noticeable regularity by those without the time, resources or motivation to check their guesses.

Good readers are not necessarily good spellers. Linguists have pointed out that the former is a more passive, receptive act while the latter is a more conscious, deliberate process that requires heightened �visual memory� to handle exceptions.

�It is possible to read by attending selectively to the cues in a text, recognizing just a few letters, and guessing the rest,� David Crystal says. �It is not possible to spell in this way: spellers have to reproduce all the letters.�

Replacing every �o� with an �x� in a sentence underscores this: �Dx yxu lxve chxcxlate mxusse?� Even if �mxxse� (moose) appears instead of �mxusse�(mousse), the question about whether you loved the chocolate treat would probably still be understood.

Our brain�s ability to fill in such gaps suggests that wrong or unusual spellings won�t necessarily prevent communication, although readers might have to wxrk hxrder tx figxre xut whxt the writxr meeeenz. But sticking with a standard spelling is more than a gesture of courtesy. It can also telegraph a message about concern for accuracy – an important consideration for many people, including journalists.


As the Internet division of a broadcaster, CBC News Online understands the challenges of getting spoken words right in writing. In many cases, television and radio reporters have hurriedly typed scripts to meet a deadline – words meant for their eyes and other people�s ears. This can lead to a �fonetic� frenzy, with �perscriptions,� �atheletes,� �triathalons� and �onslots� of other �bizar� stuff that must be fixed before being posted.

In a story about police chiefs from around the world meeting in Canada, for example, a CBC Radio reporter produced a story for a national broadcast that referred to a delegate from �Plainville, Massetuchetts (sp?).� The question mark was an amusing touch – a concession of doubt by someone who obviously knew there was supposed to be a �ch� but who couldn�t quite figure out where it belonged.

Of course, the reporter knew how to pronounce �Massachusetts,� so the spelling was not changed before the microphone was turned on. No one who heard the radio story was ever aware that the letters after mass were a mess. Television scripts are sometimes just as jumbled, with people living in �Nunavit� instead of Nunavut, for instance, or governments imposing �marshal� law instead of �martial� law. A national TV reporter recently filed a script with the word soccer spelled soccor throughout.

These are just some of the details that must be checked and fixed before stories are posted on the Web. Not all mistakes are caught. CBC News Online�s writers and editors, in turn, make our own share of errors. Some are typos, such as the time we wrote �scared� instead of �sacred� in a story about military chaplains – which prompted one reader to ask: �Did you terminate all your copyeditors or just frighten them away?�

In other cases, we�ve either misspelled something (there�s no �ass� in asinine) or chosen the wrong word (discrete instead of discreet). Homophones tend to cause the most problems. For example, we�ve had people �wet� (instead of whet) their appetites, �pour� (instead of pore) over documents, and be in the "throws" (instead of throes) of a crisis. Bells go off when proofreaders spot these mistakes. But on bad days, our bells peel (rather than peal), and we get sliced to shreds by critics.

Letters about spelling are sometimes queries rather than complaints, including a request from a family in Saskatchewan struggling to dig up the word for �caves in hollowed out piles of frozen snow� (quinzhee or quinzie, according to the Canadian Oxford). The Athapaskan term may appear chilling to those of us who've never won a spelling bee. But consider how people learning English must feel when they�re told that �ate� sometimes appears as �eight.�

And a recent e-mail about another word illustrates how hard it can be to hit English spelling on the mark:

I had always thought the word �whine� was the spelling for childish complaining. Several times recently I�ve seen it spelt (spelled?) �whinge� in the popular press.

Is this new, American, or have I been wrong all this time?

Karen Kjarsgaard
Vancouver, B.C.

First of all, �spelt� and �spelled� are both acceptable, although the latter is more common in North America. As for whinge and whine, they�re related words, but the former is not used very often outside the Commonwealth.

For hundreds of years, whine has meant a plaintive or feeble cry – the sort of thing babies do. Whinge, a primarily British and Australian synonym, often suggests peevish grumbling – the sort of sound ungrateful writers make when editors point out the difference between stationery and stationary.

Whine and whinge are both from German, and originally described the high-pitched whistling that an arrow produces after being shot. Whinge is actually the way people in Scotland and northern England pronounced whine half a millennium ago. It�s also been recorded over time as quhinge, quhynge, wheenge, whindge, and winge.

These variations highlight how easy it is to represent one sound (such as an arrow�s whizz, also known as whiz) in different ways. Dictionaries are full of targets that spellers shoot for. But claiming that there�s always an obvious or logical bull�s eye is pure bull shite.


It�s tempting to argue that the legal fight over a �toy Yoda� at Hooters could have been avoided with proper enunciation. �Toyota,� after all, clearly has a �t� in it. But scholars who carefully study the way we actually talk point out that the consonants �t� and �d� are virtually indistinguishable in many contexts.

A phonological rule known as �flapping,� for example, explains the similarity between �ladder� and �latter.� In his book The Language Instinct, linguist Steven Pinker says that such words are generally pronounced the same �except in artificially exaggerated speech� – a custom that permits us to milk puns like �utterly� and �udderly� until the cows come home.

When we can�t rely on our ears alone, it�s crucial – or maybe crue-shul, or perhaps crew-shall – to write down what we want to say. Alas, the graphemes and the phonemes can leave our skulls numb.

It�s easy to needle the man in Michigan who had villian tattooed on his arm, but the misspelling is more common than some people might think. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English speculates that this error may either be because (a) the suffix �-ian� is widespread, or (b) there is a specific association with ruffian. (Although the �ia� represents two sounds in �ruffian� it can blur into one in words like musician, Christian, marriage, Asia and parliament.) The correct spelling villain may appear more logical than villian because we�re used to it. Reformers, however, would probably propose something closer to �villin,� along the lines of vermin.

English spelling is not as chaotic as it might first appear. But there are plenty of confusing exceptions to general patterns, and writers must be constantly vigilant or risk embarrassment – a word with lots of consonants but little appeal.

One of our editors, Gary Katz, wrote a column a while back about how easy it is to find misspellings on the Internet – Statan instead of Staten Island, for example (I�ll take Manhattan). It�s still not clear how this relatively new medium will affect the way we use our comparatively old alphabet. Are we going to wind up as relaxed as our ancestors who didn�t seem to care much about spelling? Or will the number of accepted alternatives (jewelry and jewellery) become as rare as precious stones?

Based on e-mail we get, many people do seem interested in maintaining consistency. Not that long ago we received several complaints about the spelling of a CBC Radio program, also known as a programme in some circles. A banner on one of our Web site�s pages referred to the show as �Definately Not the Opera.� The title, of course, was Definitely Not the Correct One. Although some spellings do change over time – fantasy was phantasy for hundreds of years – the imaginary �a� in definitely turned out to be a sort of Phantom before the Opera.

Unlike Hooters, the CBC was never in any danger of being sued over false advertising. But such mistakes – or �mnopspteichez� in the Invented Spelling Galaxy far, far away – do open us up to unpleasant accusations. For readers fond of Standard English, it�s a case of moving rather rapidly from the discussion of a Star Wars doll to that of a Mickey Mouse outfit.

(Sept. 27, 2002)

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