English is Not so Confusing After All

The Rules of the English Language: Is There a Method to the Madness?

By Stacy Hurst

English is not a static language. Historically, it has been shaped and changed over the years by numerous political, social, and multicultural influences. Sometimes the change in a word is in the way it is pronounced, like the word sword wherein the ‘w’ used to be heard. Sometimes the change in a word (or words) is in the spelling, like in the words come, son, and love which used to be spelled with the vowel ‘u’ (until the Normans replaced it with an ‘o’ when it preceded the letters m, n, and v because a series of similar-looking letters was difficult to read). Webster changed the spelling of mould to mold and also dropped the ‘u’ in words like color and labor. Shakespeare himself was purported to coin over 1,700 words (Crystal, 2006) of which over half still exist today (e.g. bandit, daunting, laughable, and swagger).

It’s no wonder that teachers and students can become overwhelmed and confused with some English words. However, there is good reason to take heart. Louisa Moats (1995) pointed out that at least 20 sounds in the English language have spellings that are more than 90% predictable, and Pinker noted that “for about eighty-four percent of English words, spelling is completely predictable from regular rules” (1994, p. 190). So the goal for teachers is to teach the very common letter-sound patterns and the history of as many irregular words as possible. When teachers and students understand the consistent patterns of written English, as well as the historical basis of words, they can better understand the regularities and the relatively few irregularities in English words (Henry, 2010).

As it turns out, English is not so confusing after all.

References

Crystal, D. (2006). The fight for English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Henry, M.K. (2010). Words: Integrated decoding and spelling instruction based on word origin and word structure (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Moats, L.C. (1995). Spelling: Development, disability, and instruction. Timonium, MD: York Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: William Morrow & Co.

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