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September 3, 2000 - Grammar Lady: English Spelling - 2002-01-31

INTRO: This week VOA Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble turn to their old friend, Grammar Lady Mary Newton Bruder, to answer a question that English learners frequently ask.

AA: Why isn't English spelled the way it sounds?


"First of all because it's very old and it's gone through a lot of changes and it has borrowed words willy-nilly from everyplace you can think of."

RS: "So you say it isn't spelled like it sounds because it's an old language, which leaves us in quite a bad place because there are so many different spellings that are pronounced the same way. For example, you inform me that there are eight or nine ways to pronounce o-u-g-h."

AA: "What are they?"

BRUDER: "OK, rough [ruff], dough [doh], thought [thaw-t], plough [plow], through [throo], scarborough [scar-bur-row], slough [sluff] -- which is either 'sluff' or 'slew' depending on which way you're going to use it -- cough [caw-f], hiccough [hic-cup], Youghiogheny [ya-ka-gay-nee] and Poughkeepsie [puh-kip-see]."

RS: "I've been down the Youghiogheny. It's a river in Pennsylvania. So tell us about the o-u-g-h. There are so many pronunciations, how do you go about learning them, or is it, again, just a rote thing?"

BRUDER: "You have to learn them in context and you have to learn them bit by bit as you're learning to read, then have them all brought together when you're maybe in fourth or fifth grade and can understand that this is one of those major conundrums of our language and we just have to deal with it. There was a movement by George Bernard Shaw to simplify English spelling, and he suggests that g-h-o- t-i -- or "go-tee" -- spells 'fish.' G-h from 'enough,' 'women' for the o and t-i from 'nation.'"

AA: "That really simplifies things!"

RS: "That doesn't help me."

BRUDER: "That was his example of why we need spelling reform. And so for awhile we had what was called the Initial Teaching Alphabet. It was the reduction of English to exactly what it sounds like, which was your original question. So 'Stephen' would be s-t-e-f-e-n. 'Heard' would be h-e-r-d, no matter which meaning of the word."

AA: But Mary Newton Bruder says she found from teaching college that the worst spellers were the students who had started out with this system in grade school.


RS: "Back to o-u-g-h. Are there groups of words that we can learn so that we can learn to pronounce them and read them and to write them?"

BRUDER: "That's exactly how it should be done, so that you do 'rough' [ruff] and 'tough' [tuff] ... "

AA: "Enough [e-nuff]."

BRUDER: "Enough. And you learn as a group all the words that are spelled in one way. Then you learn the ones like 'through."

RS: "T-h-r-o-u-g-h."

BRUDER: "The ones that are unique simply have to be learned when they are learning the spelling for that sound. So if they're learning 'threw' -- t-h-r-e-w -- they're learning that 'oo' sound, then I would teach t-h-r-o-u-g-h at that time, so that they are associating that particular spelling with other words that sound the same even though they are spelled differently."

RS: "So they can read them."

BRUDER: "So they can read them. I mean, that's the whole purpose of this, is teaching people how to read. If they can't remember how to spell them, well, then we hope they get a good spell-checker."

AA: Linguist and author Mary Newton Bruder speaking from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she dispenses grammar advice through a telephone hotline and on the Internet at That's all for Wordmaster this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC:""I Couldn't Spell !!*@!"/Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs