Why English Spelling Is Illogical

Old wooden printing press letters.
Wrong spelling corrected with a red pencil.
Three workers operating a printing press.
German Johannes Gutenberg (right), credited with introducing the printing press in Europe, looks at the final result of a printed sheet of paper together with some workers.
The “k” in knock and the “b” in debt are not pronounced; they are silent letters.

The spelling of English words often doesn’t reflect the way the words are pronounced. This, even to native English speakers, can be really frustrating, and innumerous people have asked themselves why there must be so many irregularities. The answer to this question, as one could reasonably suspect, is typically to be found in events in history.

Spelling standardization

A good historical place to start investigating English spelling is the 15th century, when the printing press was invented. The advent of the printing press enabled inexpensive mass printing of books and other texts, and subsequently, the number of written documents in circulation in England grew drastically. However, as books became more commonplace, many readers got confused, since different printers used different spelling conventions. For this reason, it was decided that English spelling must be standardized.

Changes to pronunciation

After printers had agreed on and begun using a national spelling standard, people slowly and over time started to pronounce words differently. Consequently, English eventually ended up with spelling principles that didn’t match pronunciation. Among other pronunciation changes, a great many vowel sounds gradually shifted, and together these changes came to be known as the Great Vowel Shift. Because of these vowel shifts, the letter combination “ou” in the word house, for example, came to take its modern pronunciation, and would no longer be pronounced like today’s “ou” sound in the word you. Moreover, after the standard had been set, k-sounds were dropped at the beginning of many words, leading to linguistic mismatches for words like knee, knife and knock.

Silent letters

The distance between English pronunciation and English spelling widened when, decades or centuries back, seemingly unfitting silent letters, which were previously not there, were deliberately inserted into some English words of Latin origin. The insertions were made by scholars to better demonstrate the connection between English words and Latin, with the “b” in debt and the “c” in indict, for example, being added to show the connections to the Latin words debitum and indicere.

Lastly, to add even more spelling confusion, developments in different English varieties around the world have caused the same English words to occasionally be spelled differently in different English-speaking countries. As a consequence, sometimes there are at least two correct ways to spell the same English word, making things harder or doubling the chances of spelling a word correctly — depending on your perspective.