English matters (asuntos de inglés)

69 Spelling

by Gwen Bloomsburg


In preparing this article, I asked several people the English-language topics they struggle with most. More than one responded in a single word: “Spelling.” It is true that English orthography is odd, particularly if compared to a language that is–albeit arguably–phonetic, such as Spanish. In fact, English spelling is not entirely chaotic, and its development provides a fascinating peek into both linguistic history and the democratization of language. Most people realize that many unusual English spellings are due to its polysystemic structure, as it has grafted words from many other languages, not only those using the Roman alphabet, onto a West Germanic wordstock. It is worth noting, as well, that the degree of standardization present in English spelling today has come about in the absence of any authoritative linguistic body such as the Real Academia Española establishing guidelines.

With this in the way of preemptive caveat, my best advice for Spanish speakers is to improve their English pronunciation first, because studies show a majority of English spelling errors by Spanish speakers comes from mistaken pronunciation. A prime example is the only “rule” I offer this time, a classic rhyme that says, “Place i before e except after c, when spoken as a like in neighbor and weigh or as i like in feisty and height.” The first bit is memorized by every schoolchild in the United States to learn spelling of words such as receive and believe. But it will not help much if you do not pronounce the vowels correctly in English.


Upward, C. and Davidson, G. (2011). The History of English Spelling. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.