English orthography

English orthography is the alphabetic spelling system used by the English language. English orthography, like other alphabetic orthographies, uses a set of rules that generally governs how speech sounds are represented in writing. English has relatively complicated spelling rules when compared to other languages with alphabetic orthographies. Because of the complex history of the English language, nearly every sound can be legitimately spelled in more than one way, and many spellings can be pronounced in more than one way.

Function of the letters

Note: In the following discussion, only one or two common pronunciations of American and British English varieties are used in this article for each word cited. Other regional pronunciations may be possible for some words, but indicating all possible regional variants in the article is impractical.

Phonemic representation

Like most alphabetic systems, letters in English orthography may represent a particular sound. For example, the word cat (pronounced /kæt/) consists of three letters c, a, and t, in which c represents the sound /k/, a the sound /æ/, and t the sound /t/.

Single letters or multiple sequences of letters may provide this function. Thus, the single letter c in the word cat represents the single sound /k/. In the word ship (pronounced /ʃɪp/), the digraph sh (two letters) represents the sound /ʃ/. In the word ditch, the three letters tch represent the sound /tʃ/.

Less commonly, a single letter can represent more than one sound. The most common example is the letter x, which often represents more than one sound as in the prefix ex- where it represents the consonant cluster /ks/ (for example, in the word ex-wife, pronounced /ɛkswaɪf/).

The same letter (or sequence of letters) may indicate different sounds when the letter occurs in different positions. For instance, the digraph gh represents the sound /f/ at the end of single-syllable, single-morpheme words, such as cough (pronounced /kɔf/ in many dialects of American English). At the beginning of syllables (i.e. the syllable onset), the digraph gh represents the sound /g/, such as in the word ghost (pronounced /gost/ or /gəʊst/). Furthermore, the sound value represented by a particular letter (or letters) is often restricted by its position within the word. Thus, the digraph gh never represents the sound /f/ in syllable onsets and never represents the sound /g/ in syllable codas. (Incidentally, this shows that ghoti does not follow English spelling rules to sound like fish.)

Word origin

Another type of spelling characteristic is related to word origin. For example, when representing a vowel, the letter y in non-word-final positions represents the sound /ɪ/ in some words borrowed from Greek (reflecting an original upsilon), whereas the letter usually representing this sound in non-Greek words is the letter i. Thus, the word myth (pronounced /mɪθ/) is of Greek origin, while pith (pronounced /pɪθ/) is a Germanic word. Other examples include th representing /t/ (which is usually represented by t), ph representing /f/ (which is usually represented by f), and ch representing /k/ (which is usually represented by c or k) — the use of these spellings for these sounds often mark words that have been borrowed from Greek.

Some, such as Brengelman (1970), have suggested that, in addition to this marking of word origin, these spellings indicate a more formal level of style or register in a given text, although Rollins (2004) finds this point to be exaggerated as there would many exceptions where a word with one of these spellings, such as ph for /f/ (like telephone), could occur in an informal text.

Homophone differentiation

Letters are also used to distinguish between homophones (words with the same pronunciation) that would otherwise have the same pronunciation and spelling but different meanings. The words hour and our are pronounced identically in some dialects (as /aʊə/ or /aʊr/). However, they are distinguished from each other orthographically by the addition of the letter h. Spoken language often creates subtle difference to alleviate confusion, "our" often can if desired be pronounced like "are". Another example of this is the homophones plain and plane where both are pronounced /pleɪn/, but are marked with two different orthographic representations of the vowel /eɪ/. Often this is because of the historical pronunciation of each word where, over time, two separate sounds become the same but the different spellings remain: plane used to be pronounced /pleːn/, but the /eː/ sound merged with the /eɪ/ sound in plain, making plain and plane homonyms.

In written language, this may help to resolve potential ambiguities that would arise otherwise (cf. He's breaking the car vs. He's braking the car). This can be seen in a positive light since with written language (unlike spoken language) the reader usually has no recourse to ask the writer for clarification (whereas in a conversation, the listener can ask the speaker about lexical uncertainties). Some proponents of spelling reform view homophones as undesirable and would prefer that they be eliminated. Doing so, however, would increase orthographic ambiguities that would need to be resolved via the linguistic context.

Marking sound changes in other letters

Another function of English letters is to provide information about other aspects of pronunciation or the word itself. Rollins (2004) uses the term "markers" for letters with this function. Letters may mark different types of information. One common type of marking is that of a different pronunciation of another letter within the word. An example of this is the letter e in the word cottage (pronounced /kɒtɪdʒ/ or /kɑtɪdʒ/). Here e indicates that the preceding g should represent the sound /dʒ/. This contrasts with the more common value of g in word-final position as the sound /g/, such as in tag (pronounced /tæɡ/).

A particular letter may have more than one pronunciation-marking role. Besides the marking of word-final g as indicating /dʒ/ as in cottage, the letter e may also mark an altered pronunciation for other vowels. In the pair ban and bane, the a of ban has the value /æ/, whereas the a of bane is marked by the e as having the value /eɪ/.

Functionless letters

Other letters have no linguistic function. For example, there is a general "graphotactic" constraint in English orthography against words that end in the letter v. Thus, in order to satisfy this constraint, syllable-final v is followed by the letter e, such as in the word give. Spellings such as rev and slav are extremely rare.

Multiple functionality

A given letter or (letters) may have dual functions. For example, the letter i in the word cinema has a sound-representing function (representing the sound /ɪ/) and a pronunciation-marking function (marking the c as having the value /s/ opposed to the value /k/). For another example, see Pronunciation of English th.

Underlying representation

Like many other alphabetic orthographies, English spelling does not represent non-contrastive phonetic sounds (that is, sub-phonemic sounds). The fact that the letter t is pronounced with aspiration [tʰ] at the beginning of words is never indicated in the spelling, and, indeed, this phonetic detail is probably not noticeable to the average native speaker not trained in the phonetics. However, unlike some orthographies, English orthography often represents a very abstract underlying representation (or morphophonemic form) of English words (Rollins 2004: 16-19; Chomsky & Halle 1968; Chomsky 1970).

"[T]he postulated underlying forms are systematically related to the conventional orthography...and are, as is well known, related to the underlying forms of a much earlier historical stage of the language. There has, in other words, been little change in lexical representation since Middle English, and, consequently, we would expect...that lexical representation would differ very little from dialect to dialect in Modern English...[and] that conventional orthography is probably fairly close to optimal for all modern English dialects, as well as for the attested dialects of the past several hundred years." (Chomsky & Halle 1968:54)

In these cases, a given morpheme (i.e. a component of a word) is represented with a single spelling despite the fact that it is pronounced differently (i.e. has different surface representations) in different environments. An example is the past tense suffix -ed, which may be pronounced variously as [t], [d], or [ɪd] (for example, dip [dɪp], dipped [dɪpt], boom [bum], boomed [bumd], loot [lut], looted [lutɪd]). Because these different pronunciations of -ed can be predicted by a few phonological rules, only a single spelling is needed in the orthography.

Another example involves the vowel differences (with accompanying stress pattern changes) in several related words. For instance, the word photographer is derived from the word photograph by adding the derivational suffix -er. When this suffix is added, the vowel pronunciations change:

Spelling Pronunciation
photograph [ˈfotəgræf] or [ˈfəʊtəgrɑːf]
photographer [fəˈtɑgrəfər] or [fəˈtɒgrəfə]

It may be argued that the underlying representation of photo is a single phonological form, such as |fotɒgrɑːf|. Since the (surface) pronunciation of the vowels can be predicted by phonological rules according to the different stress patterns, the orthography only needs to have one spelling that corresponds to the underlying form. Other examples of this type, include words with the -ity suffix (as in agile vs agility, acid vs acidity, divine vs divinity, sane vs sanity, etc.). (See also: Trisyllabic laxing.)

Another example includes words like sign (pronounced [saɪn]) and bomb (pronounced [bɑm] or [bɒm]) where the "silent" letters g and b, respectively, seem to be "inert" letters with no functional role. However, there are the related words signature and bombard in which the so-called "silent" letters are pronounced [sɪɡnətʃər] and [bɑmbɑrd] or [bɒmbɑːd], respectively. Here it may be argued that the underlying representation of sign and bomb is |saɪgn| and |bɑmb| or |bɒmb|, in which the underlying |g| and |b| are only pronounced in the surface forms when followed by certain suffixes (-ature, -ard). Otherwise, the |g| and |b| are not realized in the surface pronunciation (e.g. when standing alone, or when followed by suffixes like -ing or -er). In these cases, the orthography indicates the underlying consonants that are present in certain words but are absent in other related words. Other examples include the t in fast [fæst] / [fɑːst] and fasten [fæsən] / [fɑːsən] and the h in heir [ɛr] / [ɛə] and inherit [ɪnhɛrɪt].

Another example includes words like mean (pronounced [min]) and meant (pronounced [mɛnt]). Here the vowel spelling ea is pronounced differently in the two related words. Thus, again the orthography uses only a single spelling that corresponds to the single morphemic form rather than to the surface phonological form.

English orthography does not always provide an underlying representation; sometimes it provides an intermediate representation between the underlying form and the surface pronunciation. This is the case with the spelling of the regular plural morpheme, which is written as either -s (as in tick, ticks and mite, mites) or -es (as in box, boxes). Here the spelling -s is pronounced either [s] or [z] (depending on the environment, e.g. ticks [tɪks] and pigs [pɪɡz]) while -es is pronounced [ɪz] (e.g. boxes [bɑksɪz] or [bɒksɪz]). Thus, there are two different spellings that correspond to the single underlying representation |-z| of the plural suffix and the three surface forms. The spelling indicates the insertion of [ɪ] before the [z] in the spelling -es, but does not indicate the devoiced [s] distinctly from the unaffected [z] in the spelling -s.

The abstract representation of words as indicated by the orthography can be considered to be advantageous since the etymological relationships between words are very apparent to English readers. This makes writing English more complex, but arguably makes reading English more efficient (Chomsky 1970:294; Rollins 2004:17).

However, very abstract underlying representations, such as that of Chomsky & Halle (1968) or of underspecification theories, are sometimes considered too abstract to accurately reflect the linguistic knowledge of native speakers. Followers of these arguments believe the less abstract surface forms are more "psychologically real" and thus more useful in terms of pedagogy (Rollins 2004:17-19).

Spelling patterns

Spelling to sound correspondences


In a generative approach to English spelling, Rollins (2004) identifies twenty main orthographic vowels of stressed syllables that are grouped into four main categories: "Lax", "Tense", "Heavy", "Tense-R". (As this classification is based on orthography, not all orthographic "lax" vowels are necessarily phonologically lax.)

General American
Letter Lax Tense Heavy Tense-R
a /æ/
e /ɛ/
i /ɪ/
o /ɑ/
for, fore
u /ʌ/
u /ʊ/
-- /ʊr/

Received Pronunciation (British)
Letter Lax Tense Heavy Tense-R
a /æ/
e /ɛ/
i /ɪ/
o /ɒ/
for, fore
u /ʌ/
u /ʊ/
-- /ʊə/

For instance, the letter a can represent the lax vowel /æ/, tense /eɪ/, heavy /ɑr/ or /ɑː/, or tense-r /ɛr/ or /ɛə/. Heavy and tense-r vowels are the respective lax and tense counterparts followed by the letter r.

Tense vowels are distinguished from lax vowels with a "silent" e letter that is added at the end of words. Thus, the letter a in hat is lax /æ/, but when the letter e is added in the word hate the letter a is tense /eɪ/. Similarly, heavy and tense-r vowels pattern together: the letters ar in car are heavy /ɑː(r)/, the letters ar followed by silent e in the word care are /ɛə(r)/. The letter u represents two different vowel patterns, one being , the other . There is no distinction between heavy and tense-r vowels with the letter o, and the letter u in the /ʊ-u-ʊ(r)/ pattern does not have a heavy vowel member.

Besides silent e, another strategy for indicating tense and tense-r vowels, is the addition of another orthographic vowel forming a digraph. In this case, the first vowel is usually the main vowel while the second vowel is the "marking" vowel. For example, the word man has a lax a pronounced /æ/, but with the addition of i (as the digraph ai) in the word main the a is marked as tense and pronounced /eɪ/. These two strategies produce words that are spelled differently but pronounced identically, as in mane (silent e strategy), main (digraph strategy) and Maine (both strategies). The use of two different strategies relates to the function of distinguishing between words that would otherwise be homonyms.

Besides the 20 basic vowel spellings, Rollins (2004) has a reduced vowel category (representing the sounds ) and a miscellaneous category (representing the sounds and /j/+V, /w/+V, V+V).



  • The dash has two different meanings. A dash after the letter indicates that it must be at the beginning of a syllable, eg j- in jumper and ajar. A dash before the letter indicates that it cannot be at the beginning of a word, eg -ck in sick and ticket.
  • More specific rules take precedence over more general ones, eg 'c- before e, i or y' takes precedence over 'c'.
  • Where the letter combination is described as 'word-final', inflectional suffixes may be added without changing the pronunciation, eg catalogues.
  • The dialect used is RP.
  • Isolated foreign borrowings are excluded.
  • This relies highly on knowledge of where the stress in a word is, but English has no consistent way of showing stress.

Spelling Major value (pronunciation) Examples of major value Minor value (pronunciation) Examples of minor value Exceptions
b, -bb /b/ bit, rabbit
c before e, i or y /s/ centre, city, cyst, face, prince /tʃ/ cello
c /k/ cat, cross
-cc before e or i /ks/ accept
-cc /k/ account
ch /tʃ/ chin /k/

chord, archaic

machine, parachute, chef
-ck /k/ tack, ticket
ct- /t/ ctenoid
d, -dd /d/ dive, ladder /dʒ/ graduate, gradual (both may also be pronounced as /dj/ in RP)
-dg /dʒ/ ledger
f, -ff /f/ fine, off /v/ of
g before e, i or y /dʒ/ gentle, magic, gyrate, page, college /g/ get, give, girl, begin
g, -gg /g/ go, great, stagger
gh- /g/ ghost, ghastly
-gh Ø dough, high /f/ laugh, enough
-ght /t/ right, daughter, bought
gn- /n/ gnome, gnaw
h- after ex Ø exhibit, exhaust /h/ exhale
h- /h/ he, alcohol Ø vehicle, honest, hono(u)r
j- /dʒ/ jump, ajar
k /k/ key, bake
kn- /n/ knee, knock
l, -ll /l/ line, hall
m, -mm /m/ mine, hammer
-mb /m/ climb, plumber
mn- /n/ mnemonic
-mn /m/ hymn, autumn
-n before /k/ /ŋ/ link, plonk, anchor
n, -nn /n/ nice, funny
-ng /ŋ/ long, singing /ŋg/

England, finger, stronger

danger, passenger
p, -pp /p/ pill, happy
ph /f/ physical, photograph /p/ Phuket, /v/ Stephen
pn- /n/ pneumonia, pneumatic
ps- /s/ psychology, psychic
pt- /t/ ptomaine
q /k/ Iraq
r-, -rr /ɹ/ ray, parrot Ø iron
rh, -rrh /ɹ/ rhyme, diarrhoea
-r, -rr, -rrh when not followed by a vowel sound Ø in non-rhotic dialects such as RP,
/ɹ/ in rhotic dialects such as GA
bar, bare, catarrh
-s- between vowels /z/ rose, prison /s/ house, base
word-final -s morpheme after a voiceless sound /s/ pets, shops
word-final -s morpheme after a voiced sound /z/ beds, magazines
s, -ss /s/ song, ask, message /z/ scissors, dessert, dissolve /ʃ/ sugar, tissue
sc- before e, i or y /s/ scene, scissors, scythe /sk/ sceptic
sch- /sk/ school /ʃ/ schist, schedule (this may be pronounced as /sk/) /s/ schism
sh /ʃ/ shin
t, -tt /t/ ten, bitter
-tch /tʃ/ batch, kitchen
th /θ/ or /ð/ thin, them /t/ thyme, Thames /tθ/ eighth
v, -vv /v/ vine, bovver
w- /w/ we Ø sword, answer
wh- before o /h/ who, whole
wh- /w/ (/ʍ/ in dialects where this phoneme exists) wheel
wr- /ɹ/ wrong
x- /z/ xylophone
-xc before e or i /ks/ excellent, excited
-xc /ksk/ excuse
-x /ks/ box
y- /j/ yes
z, -zz /z/ zoo, fuzz

Combinations of consonant and vowel letters

Spelling Major value (pronunciation) Examples of major value Minor value (pronunciation) Examples of minor value Exceptions
qu- /kw/ queen, quick /k/ liquor, mosquito
-cqu /kw/ acquaint, acquire
gu- before e or i /g/ guest, guide /gw/ linguistics
alf /ɑːf/ (RP) /æf/ (GA) calf, half
alm /ɑːm/ calm, almond /æm/ salmon
olm /əʊm/RP, /oʊm/ GA holm (oak)
alk /ɔːk/ walk, chalk
olk /əʊk/ yolk, folk
al, all /ɔːl/ bald, call, falcon /æl/ shall
ol, oll /əʊl/ old, roll
unstressed ex- before a vowel or h /ɪgz/ exist, examine, exhaust /ɪks/ exhale
unstressed ci- before a vowel /ʃ/ special, gracious /si/ species
unstressed sci- before a vowel /ʃ/ conscience
unstressed -si before a vowel /ʃ/ expansion /ʒ/ division, illusion
unstressed -ssi before a vowel /ʃ/ mission
unstressed -ti before a vowel /ʃ/ nation, ambitious /ʒ/ equation /ti/ patio, /taɪ/ cation
unstressed -ture /tʃə(ɹ)/ nature, picture
unstressed -sure /ʒə(ɹ)/ leisure, treasure
unstressed -zure /ʒə(ɹ)/ seizure
unstressed -ften /fən/ soften, often
unstressed -sten /sən/ listen, fasten
unstressed -stle /səl/ whistle, rustle
word-final -le after a consonant /əl/ little, table
word-final -re after a consonant /ə(ɹ)/ metre, fibre
word-final -ngue /ŋ/ tongue
word-final -gue /g/ catalogue, plague, colleague /gju/ argue
word-final -que /k/ mosque, bisque /keɪ/ risqué barbeque
word-final -ed morpheme after /t/ or /d/* /ɪd/ waited
word-final -ed morpheme after a voiceless sound* /t/ topped
word-final -ed morpheme after a voiced sound* /d/ failed, ordered
word-final -es morpheme** /ɪz/ washes, boxes
* There is absolutely no way to tell if it is the morpheme or an integral part of the word. Compare snaked and naked.

** Same as above compare the two pronunciations of axes.

Sound to spelling correspondences

The following table shows for each sound, the various spelling patterns used to denote it. The symbol "…" stands for an intervening consonant. The letter sequences are in order of frequency with the most common first. Some of these patterns are very rare or unique, such as au for the æ sound in laugh (some accents). In some cases, the spellings shown are found in only one known English word (such as "mh" for /m/, or "yrrh" for /ər/).

pronunciation spelling example
/p/ p, pp, ph, pe, gh pill, happy, Phuket, tape, hiccough
/b/ b, bb, bh, p (in some dialects) bit, rabbit, Bhutan, thespian
/t/ t, tt, ed, pt, th, ct ten, bitter, topped, pterodactyl, thyme, ctenoid
/d/ d, dd, ed, dh, th (in some dialects) dive, ladder, failed, dharma, them
/g/ g, gg, gue, gh go, stagger, catalogue, ghost
/k/ c, k, ck, ch, cc, qu, q, cq, cu, que, kk, kh cat, key, tack, chord, account, liquor, Iraq, acquaint, biscuit, mosque, trekker, khan
/m/ m, mm, mb, mn, mh, gm, chm mine, hammer, climb, hymn, mho, diaphragm, drachm
/n/ n, nn, kn, gn, pn, nh, cn, mn, ng (in some dialects) nice, funny, knee, gnome, pneumonia, piranha, cnidarian, mnemonic, fighting
/ŋ/ ng, n, ngue, ngh sing, link, tongue, Singh
/r/ r, rr, wr, rh, rrh ray, parrot, wrong, rhyme, diarrh(o)ea
/f/ f, ph, ff, gh, pph, u, th (in some dialects) fine, physical, off, laugh, sapphire, lieutenant (Br), thin
/v/ v, vv, f, ph vine, savvy, of, Stephen
/θ/ th, chth, phth, tth thin, chthonic, phthisis, Matthew
/ð/ th them, breathe
/s/ s, c, ss, sc, st, ps, sch (in some dialects), cc, se, ce, z (in some dialects) song, city, mess, scene, listen, psychology, schism, flaccid, horse, juice, citizen
/z/ s, z, x, zz, ss, ze, c (in some dialects) has, zoo, xylophone, fuzz, scissors, breeze, electricity
/ʃ/ sh, ti, ci, ssi, si, ss, ch, s, sci, ce, sch, sc shin, nation, special, mission, expansion, tissue, machine, sugar, conscience, ocean, schmooze, crescendo
/ʒ/ si, s, g, z, j, zh, ti, sh (in some dialects) division, leisure, genre, seizure, jeté, Zhytomyr, equation, Pershing
/tʃ/ ch, t, tch, ti, c, cz, tsch chin, nature, batch, bastion, cello, Czech, Deutschmark
/dʒ/ g, j, dg, dge, d, di, gi, ge, dj, gg magic, jump, ledger, bridge, graduate, soldier, Belgian, dungeon, Djibouti, exaggerate
/h/ h, wh, j, ch he, who, fajita, chutzpah
/j/ y, i, j, ll yes, onion, hallelujah, tortilla
/l/ l, ll, lh line, hall, Lhasa
/w/ w, u, o, ou, wh (in most dialects) we, queen, choir, Ouija board, what
/hw/ wh (in some dialects) wheel

pronunciation spelling example
/i/ e, ea, ee, e…e, ae, ei, i…e, ie, eo, oe, ie...e, ay, ey, i, y, oi, ue be, beach, bee, cede, Caesar, deceit, machine, field, people, amoeba, hygiene, quay, key, ski, city, chamois, Portuguese
/ɪ/ i, y, ui, e, ee, ie, o, u, a, ei, ee, ia, ea, i...e, ai, ey, oe bit, myth, build, pretty, been, sieve, women, busy, damage, counterfeit, sovereign, carriage, mileage, medicine, bargain, Ceylon, oedema
/u/ oo, u, o, u…e, ou, ew, ue, o…e, ui, eu, oe, ough, wo, ioux, ieu, ault, oup, w tool, luminous, who, flute, soup, jewel, true, lose, fruit, maneuver, canoe, through, two, Sioux, lieutenant (US), Sault Sainte Marie, coup, cwm
/ʊ/ oo, u, o, oo...e, or, ou, oul look, full, wolf, gooseberry, worsted, courier, should
/e/ a, a…e, ay, ai, ai...e, aig, aigh, ao, au, e (é), e...e, ea, ei, ei...e, eig, eigh, ee (ée), eh, et, ey, ez, er, ie, ae, eg paper, rate, pay, rain, cocaine, arraign, straight, gaol (Br), gauge, ukulele (café), crepe, steak, veil, beige, reign, eight, matinee (soirée), eh, ballet, obey, chez, dossier, lingerie (US), reggae, thegn
/ə/ a, e, o, u, ai, ou, eig, y, ah, ough, gh, ae, oi another, anthem, awesome, atrium, mountain, callous, foreign, beryl, Messiah, borough (Br), Edinburgh, Michael, porpoise
/o/ o, o…e, oa, ow, ou, oe, oo, eau, oh, ew, au, aoh, ough, eo so, bone, boat, know, soul, foe, brooch, beau, oh, sew, mauve, pharaoh, furlough, yeoman
/ɛ/ e, ea, a, ae, ai, ay, ea…e, ei, eo, ie, ieu, u, ue, oe met, weather, many, aesthetic, said, says, cleanse, heifer, jeopardy, friend, lieutenant (Br), bury, guess, foetid
/æ/ a, ai, al, au, i hand, plaid, salmon, laugh (some accents), meringue
/ʌ/ u, o, o…e, oe, ou, oo, wo sun, son, come, does, touch, flood, twopennce
/ɔ/ a, au, aw, ough, augh, o, oa, oo, al, uo, u fall, author, jaw, bought, caught, cord, broad, door, walk, fluorine (Br), sure (some accents)
/ɑ/ o, a, eau, ach, au, ou lock, watch, bureaucracy, yacht, sausage, cough
/aɪ/ i…e, i, y, igh, ie, ei, eigh, uy, ai, ey, ye, eye, y…e, ae, ais, is, ig, ic, ay, ui fine, Christ, try, high, tie, eidos, height, buy, aisle, geyser, dye, eye, type, maestro, aisle, isle, sign, indict, tayra, guide
/ɑr/ ar, a, er, ear, a…e, ua, aa, au, ou car, father, sergeant, heart, are, guard, bazaar, aunt, our (some accents)
/ɛr/ er, ar, ere, are, aire, eir, air, aa, aer, ayr, ear stationery, stationary, where, ware, millionaire, heir, hair, Aaron, aerial, Ayr, bear
/ɔɪ/ oi, oy, aw, uoy oy…e, eu foil, toy, lawyer, buoy, gargoyle, Freudian
/aʊ/ ou, ow, ough, au, ao out, now, bough, tau, Laos
/ər/ er, or, ur, ir, yr, our, ear, err, eur, yrrh, ar, oeu, olo, uer fern, worst, turn, thirst, myrtle, journey, earth, err, amateur, myrrh, grammar, hors d'oeuvre, colonel, Guernsey
/ju/ u, u…e, eu, ue, iew, eau, ieu, ueue, ui, ewe, ew music*, use, feud, cue, view, beautiful*, adieu*, queue, nuisance*, ewe, few, * in some dialects, see Yod dropping


English includes some words that can be written with accent marks. These words have mostly been imported from other languages, usually French. But it is increasingly rare for writers of English to actually use the accent marks for common words, even in very formal writing. The strongest tendency to retain the accent is in words that are atypical of English morphology and therefore still perceived as slightly foreign. For example, café and pâté both have a pronounced final e, which would be "silent" by the normal English pronunciation rules.

Some examples: appliqué, attaché, blasé, bric-à-brac, brötchen, café, cliché, crème, crêpe, façade, fiancé(e), flambé, naïve, naïveté, né(e), papier-mâché, passé, piñata, protégé, raison d’être, résumé, risqué, über-, vis-à-vis, voilà.

Some words such as rôle and hôtel were first seen with accents when they were borrowed into English, but now the accent is almost never used. The words were considered very French borrowings when first used in English, even accused by some of being foreign phrases used where English alternatives would suffice, but today their French origin is largely forgotten. The accent on "élite" has disappeared from most publications today, though Time and the New Yorker magazines still use it. For some words such as "soupçon" however, the only spelling found in English dictionaries (the Oxford English Dictionary and others) uses the diacritic.

Italics, with appropriate accents, are generally applied to foreign terms that are uncommonly used in or have not been assimilated into English: for example, adiós, coup d'état, crème brûlée, pièce de résistance, raison d'être, über (übermensch), vis-à-vis.

It was formerly common in English to use a diaeresis mark to indicate a hiatus: for example, coöperate, daïs, reëlect. One publication that still uses a diaeresis for this function is the New Yorker magazine. However, this is increasingly rare in modern English. Nowadays the diaeresis is normally left out (cooperate), or a hyphen is used (co-operate). It is, however, still common in loanwords such as naïve and noël.

Written accents are also used occasionally in poetry and scripts for dramatic performances to indicate that a certain normally unstressed syllable in a word should be stressed for dramatic effect, or to keep with the metre of the poetry. This use is frequently seen in archaic and pseudoarchaic writings with the "-ed" suffix, to indicate that the "e" should be fully pronounced, as with cursèd.

In certain older texts (typically British), the use of ligatures is common in words such as archæology, diarrhœa, and encyclopædia. Such words have Latin or Greek origin. Nowadays, the ligatures have been generally replaced in British English by the separated digraph "ae" and "oe" ("encyclopaedia", "diarrhoea"; but usually "economy", "ecology") and in American English by "e" ("encyclopedia", "diarrhea"; but usually "paean", "amoeba", "oedipal", "Caesar").


The English spelling system, compared to the systems used in other languages, is quite irregular and complex. Although French presents a similar degree of difficulty when encoding (writing), English is more difficult when decoding (reading). English has never had any formal regulating authority, like the Spanish Real Academia Española, Italian Accademia della Crusca or the French Académie française, so attempts to regularize or reform the language, including spelling reform, have usually met with failure.

The only significant exceptions were the reforms of Noah Webster which resulted in many of the differences between British and American spelling, such as center/centre, and dialog/dialogue. (Other differences, such as -ize/-ise in realize/realise etc, came about separately.)

Besides the quirks the English spelling system has inherited from its past, there are other idiosyncrasies in spelling that make it tricky to learn. English contains 24-27 (depending on dialect) separate consonant phonemes and, depending on dialect, anywhere from fourteen to twenty vowels. However, there are only 26 letters in the modern English alphabet, so there cannot be a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. Many sounds are spelled using different letters or multiple letters, and for those words whose pronunciation is predictable from the spelling, the sounds denoted by the letters depend on the surrounding letters. For example, the digraph "th" represents two different sounds (the voiced interdental fricative and the voiceless interdental fricative) (see Pronunciation of English th), and the voiceless alveolar fricative can be represented by the letters "s" and "c".

Of course, such a philosophy can be taken too far. For instance, there was also a period when the spellings of words was altered in what is now regarded as a misguided attempt to make them conform to what were perceived to be the etymological origins of the words. For example, the letter "b" was added to "debt" in an attempt to link it to the Latin debitum, and the letter "s" in "island" is a misplaced attempt to link it to Latin insula instead of the Norse word igland, which is the true origin of the English word. The letter "p" in "ptarmigan" has no etymological justification whatsoever. Some are just randomly changed: for example, 'score' used to be spelled 'skor'.

Furthermore, in most recent loanwords, English makes no attempt to Anglicise the spellings of these words, and preserves the foreign spellings, even when they employ exotic conventions, like the Polish "cz" in "Czech" or the Old Norse "fj" in "fjord" (although New Zealand English exclusively spells it "fiord"). In fact, instead of loans being respelled to conform to English spelling standards, sometimes the pronunciation changes as a result of pressure from the spelling. One example of this is the word "ski", which was adopted from Norwegian in the mid-18th century, although it didn't become common until 1900. It used to be pronounced "shee", which is similar to the Norwegian pronunciation, but the increasing popularity of the sport after the middle of the 20th century helped the "sk" pronunciation replace it.

The spelling of English continues to evolve. Many loanwords come from languages where the pronunciation of vowels corresponds to the way they were pronounced in Old English, which is similar to the Italian or Spanish pronunciation of the vowels, and is the value the vowel symbols [a], [e], [i], [o], and [u] have in the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a result, there is a somewhat regular system of pronouncing "foreign" words in English, and some borrowed words have had their spelling changed to conform to this system. For example, Hindu used to be spelled "Hindoo", and the name "Maria" used to be pronounced like the name "Mariah", but was changed to conform to this system. It has been argued that this influence probably started with the introduction of many Italian words into English during the Renaissance, in fields like music, from which come the words "andante", "viola", "forte", etc.

Commercial advertisers have also had an effect on English spelling. In attempts to differentiate their products from others, they introduce new or simplified spellings like "lite" instead of "light", "thru" instead of "through", "smokey" instead of "smoky" (for "smokey bacon" flavour crisps), and "rucsac" instead of "rucksack". The spellings of personal names have also been a source of spelling innovations: affectionate versions of women's names that sound the same as men's names have been spelled differently: Nikki and Nicky, Toni and Tony, Jo and Joe.

As examples of the idiosyncratic nature of English spelling, the combination "ou" can be pronounced in at least seven different ways: /ə/ in "famous", /ɜː/ in "journey", /aʊ/ in "loud", /ʊ/ in "should", /uː/ in "you", /aʊə/ in "flour", /ɔː/ in "tour"; and the vowel sound /iː/ in "me" can be spelt in at least ten different ways: "paediatric", "me", "seat", "seem", "ceiling", "people", "chimney", "machine", "siege", "phoenix". (These examples assume a more-or-less standard non-regional British English accent. Other accents will vary.)

Sometimes everyday speakers of English change a counterintuitive pronunciation simply because it is counterintuitive. Changes like this are not usually seen as "standard", but can become standard if used enough. An example is the word "miniscule", which still competes with its original spelling of "minuscule", though this might also be because of analogy with the word "mini".

"Ough" words

The most notorious group of letters in the English language, ough, is commonly pronounced at least ten different ways, six of which are illustrated in the construct, Though the tough cough and hiccough plough him through, which is quoted by Robert A. Heinlein in The Door into Summer to illustrate the difficulties facing automated speech transcription and reading. Ough is in fact a word in its own right; it is an exclamation of disgust similar to "ugh".

  • though: /oʊ/ as in toe;
  • tough: /ʌf/ as in cuff;
  • cough: as in off;
  • hiccough (a now uncommon variant of hiccup): /ʌp/ as in up;
  • plough (Commonwealth spelling): /aʊ/ as in cow;
  • through: /u/ as in boo.

History of the English spelling system

Throughout the history of the English language, these inconsistencies have gradually increased in number. There are a number of contributing factors. First, gradual changes in pronunciation, such as the Great Vowel Shift, account for a tremendous number of irregularities. Second, relatively recent loan words from other languages generally carry their original spellings, which are often not phonetic in English. The Romanization of languages (e.g., Chinese) using alphabets derived from the Latin alphabet has further complicated this problem, for example when pronouncing Chinese place names. Third, some prescriptivists have had partial success in their attempts to normalize the English language, forcing a change in spelling but not in pronunciation.

The regular spelling system of Old English was swept away by the Norman Conquest, and English itself was eclipsed by French for three centuries, eventually emerging with its spelling much influenced by French. English had also borrowed large numbers of words from French, which for reasons of prestige and familiarity kept their French spellings. The spelling of Middle English, such as in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, is very irregular and inconsistent, with the same word being spelled differently, sometimes even in the same sentence. However, these were generally much better guides to pronunciation than modern English spelling can honestly claim.

For example, the sound /ʌ/, normally written u, is spelled with an o in son, love, come, etc., due to Norman spelling conventions which prohibited writing u before v, m, n due to the graphical confusion that would result. (v, u, n were identically written with two minims in Norman handwriting; w was written as two u letters; m was written with three minims, hence mm looked like vun, nvu, uvu, etc.) Similarly, spelling conventions also prohibited final v. Hence the identical spellings of the three different vowel sounds in love, grove and prove are due to ambiguity in the Middle English spelling system, not sound change.

There was also a series of linguistic sound changes towards the end of this period, including the Great Vowel Shift, which resulted in "i" in "mine" changing from a pure vowel to a diphthong. These changes for the most part did not detract from the rule-governed nature of the spelling system; but in some cases they introduced confusing inconsistencies, like the well-known example of the many pronunciations of "ough" (rough, through, though, trough, plough, etc.). Most of these changes happened before the arrival of printing in England. However, the arrival of the printing press merely froze the current system, rather than providing the impetus for a realignment of spelling with pronunciation. Furthermore, it introduced further inconsistencies, partly because of the use of typesetters trained abroad, particularly in the Low Countries.

By the time dictionaries were introduced in the mid 1600s, the spelling system of English started to stabilize, and by the 1800s, most words had set spellings.

See also



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  • Brengelman, Fred H. (1970). Generative phonology and the teaching of spelling. English Journal, 59, 1113-1118.
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  • Derwing, Bruce; Priestly, Tom; Rochet, Bernard. (1987). The description of spelling-to-sound relationships in English, French and Russian: Progress, problems and prospects. In P. Luelsdorff (Ed.), Orthography and phonology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
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  • Rollins, Andrew G. (2003). System and chaos in English spelling: The case of the voiceless palato-alveolar fricative. English Language and Linguistics, 7 (2), 211-233.
  • Rollins, Andrew G. (2003). The spelling patterns of English. LINCOM studies in English linguistics (04). Muenchen: LINCOM EUROPA.
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  • Steinberg, Danny. (1973). Phonology, reading and Chomsky and Halle's optimal orthography. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 2 (3), 239-258.
  • Stubbs, Michael. (1980). Language and literacy: The sociolinguistics of reading and writing. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Venezky, Richard L. (1967). English orthography: Its graphical structure and its relation to sound. Reading Research Quarterly, 2, 75-105.
  • Venezky, Richard L. (1970). The structure of English orthography. The Hague: Mouton.
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