The following is the text of a pamphlet by Mr N M Gwynne, presented to The Spelling Society at its AGM on April 9th, 2016. It is reproduced as close to the original form as is reasonably practical. Mr Gwynne is a member of the Society who does not agree with its aims. The pamphlet explains his reasons.

Spelling Reform and our Schools William J Reed.


English Spelling Reform?

(a) My reasons for being confident that any significant alterations in English spelling would be, without exaggeration, a disaster.

(b) My request that we should all be told where, if anywhere, the case that I am now presenting breaks down.


By N. M. Gwynne

April 2016.

I. First some background.

Back in 2015, I joined the English Spelling Society in the probably unusual capacity of someone not committed to its official policy.  I was in fact even doubtful about its policy, but I had an open mind, prepared to be persuaded by whatever evidence might be offered. 

These notes are the substance of the case that I presented at the most recent English Spelling Society AGM, held at Birkbeck College on 9th April 2016. After presenting this case, a type-written summary of which had been circulated prior to the meeting, I asked those present to contact me with any comments on my case, and in particular to point out any flaws in it if there were any. I made a point of this because I believe in being prepared to have my mind changed by good arguments and good evidence.

At the time that these notes are being put into a final revised form subsequent to meeting, no member of the Society has attempted refute anything that I argued at the meeting. That is to say, nothing has happened to call into doubt on my present position that the Society’s present policy is gravely mis-placed, with a large amount of strong evidence pointing very much in the opposite direction to this present policy. 

Readers will find at the end of these notes an invitation to make any comments on them that might be helpful. Anyone e-mailing me with a comment can be sure that it will be added to this document, whether or not I myself agree with it.

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Before I go on to examine the Society’s policy in the detail that is appropriate, it is perhaps as well if I give a few details about myself in case they are of any help to readers as support or otherwise for what I shall be saying. If nothing else, they will make it clear that I have a serious duty to give careful consideration to the Society’s policy and its potential consequences.

In summary…

Subsequent to my retirement from what had been a satisfactory business career, I have been teaching outside the school system for well over ten years, at first by myself and then in partnership with my daughter Chloe, and as of recently in a group of like-minded teachers who have joined us from time to time. 

One reason that our group teaches outside the school system is that our system of teaching is solidly based on the tried-and-tested teaching methods of the past, which, since the 1960s and the “child-centred” revolution in education which took place then, are no longer used in any schools.  This is in spite of our system of teaching being demonstrably much more effective than modern teaching.  

And I am not exaggerating in saying that.  One effect of the dramatic superiority of the traditional methods over those used nowadays is that articles have been written about my teaching in leading newspapers; and another effect is that several schools have invited me to visit them for about a day for the express purpose of teaching the teachers there how to teach in the traditional way, and to demonstrate it in the classrooms of various age-groups while the teachers watch at the back.

Just a few more pieces of background. In the first place, I myself have taught all people of all ages from three-years-old to seventy-years-old.  Secondly, my fellow-teachers and I, in addition to giving private tuition outside school hours, have also run a number of home-schools. Thirdly, between us we teach all the traditional school subjects. Finally, I write occasional articles on education for leading newspapers – for instance in the weekly Education column in the Daily Telegraph.

My purpose in giving all this information is to show that I have considerable practical professional experience when it comes to teaching.  This experience very much includes the teaching of spelling. 

II. Some general background to our particular subject. 

First and foremost, I imagine that we can all agree that there are not many more important subjects for English-speaking people than the spelling of our language. Even how we think depends on words, as also does how we communicate with each other and with past and future generations. And the fact that words, and how they are used, are fundamental to thought and communication, ultimately means that words are fundamental to civilisation itself, since civilisation is based on thinking and on mutual communication.  And of course, especially when we communicate in writing, communication very much depends on the spelling of words.

I imagine that what I have said so far is not controversial, by contrast with what it seems to me to be right to say next.

The fact that the name of the Society is “The English Spelling Society”, rather than something like “The Improvement of English Spelling Society” or “The Development of English Spelling Society”, means, I presume, that the Society stands for what is best in relation to spelling. From that it follows that, if by any chance it should become clear that it would be better to keep present spelling than to change it, this wouldnot mean that the Society could not continue to function under its present name.  It would simply mean that the Society would have a duty to adopt a new and equally constructive policy: perhaps the policy of promoting methods of teaching the traditional spelling that are better than over the methods most widely used today, which, it is worth emphasising, from around the 1960s onward have been very different from the methods that had been used up until then.

Should any members of our Society react unfavourably to the idea of the Society changing its basic policy because logic shows this to be a duty, my response would be straightforward and is surely the obvious one.  In any organisation promoting change, honesty and sincerity is an essential in both the organisation itself and its members. And, if by any chance we should find ourselves in error, we ought to want to admit this frankly and honourably and to do our best to correct it.  Indeed we should be morally obliged to correct it, no matter how drastic the changes we should need to adopt in order to do the correcting.

Is what I have said so far reasonable?  If so, all that matters from now on is whether my case is as compelling and unanswerable as it at present appears to me to be.

III. Spelling out (!) what at present seems to me to be a serious problem.

Now we come to the more controversial part of what I put in front of members at the recent meeting.

I have done some study of the literature that the Society has published and promotes, all of it I think on-line.  I think I have a right to be rather surprised. The publications between them put forward plenty of arguments, and good ones, in favour of changing the spelling to make it easier and more logical, as the spelling of all the other most commonly spoken languages today are. What, however, I can find nowhere in the publications on the Society’s website is (a) any response at all to any of the best arguments against altering the spelling of English; (b) any reference to problems with altering our spelling that ought to be borne in mind; (c) more than a single instance of any serious arguments being even mentioned

In no particular order of importance, here are a few obvious points that the Society is silent about, I believe wrongly.

– An almost immediate effect of making any fundamental changes in spelling would be, at least to some extent, to cut off generations from each other, in terms of written communication. The next generation would be, to some considerable extent, cut off from the present generation, because the two generations would be writing, in effect, in different languages. Granted, our present generation would largely understand the next generation – it is not difficult to deduce that “niet” was originally the “night” with which we familiar and that “throo” is a revision of “through”.  Future generations would often find it difficult to understand us, however – it is very much more difficult to work out that “night” and “through” represent “niet” and “throo” respectively -- and some of the less intelligent members of future generations could well find it sometimes impossible. Furthermore, even when a member of a future generation was able to puzzle out a meaning, this would take time, would interrupt the reading-process and distract attention from what was actually being read, and would be not unlikely to cause irritation.

– All future generations would be cut off from the literature of the past as it was actually written. And, at least to some extent, some members of future generations would effectively be cut off from some past literature completely.

– Another important factor is that it is disagreeably patronising to dumb down the English language for today’s and future generations. What, we should surely ask ourselves, do we think to be wrong with today’s children that they are suddenly unable to do what, until recently, children had by and large been doing successfully for about 500 years, during which time one of the three greatest literatures in all history was produced? Why should they not be capable of doing what generation after generation of their predecessors, at all levels of society, were able to do, and, what is more, do to an excellent degree of competence?

– The point is sometimes made that, because English spelling is more difficult than the spelling of other languages, it takes children longer to learn to read that it takes the children of other countries to learn to read in their languages. I am not in fact sure that this definitely used to be the case, but let us assume that it is, for the purpose of what I am going to say next. 

It is actually an advantage for child to have to learn to learn to do something that is difficult, provided that plenty of past experience with children makes it clear that any particular task is by no means impossible and indeed by no means too difficult. What education is all about is learning to do difficult things, so that one is able to cope with one’s future life when faced with difficult problems, as all of us are bound to be faced from time to time, and so that one is able to enjoy one’s future life. In the case of English spelling, education gives valuable training of the memory and also helps to teach the ability to make fine and exact distinctions, which used to be considered to be one of the hallmarks of an educated gentlemen and ladies.

It is that principle – the principle that a primary purpose of education is to help us to cope with difficult problems in the future – that was the reason why, up until my schooldays, more time was spent on studying the two dead languages Latin and Greek in great detail than was spent than on any other school subject. What painstakingly obtaining a mastery of those two languages achieved was to help to build up good habits of mind and character, which served us well for all the other subjects we needed to tackle and made them much easier to study than they would otherwise have been. Indeed, until about 150 years ago, only two subjects were studied in the leading schools in England: Latin and Greek. And that was the time when the citizens of the British Isles were the scientific, political and literary rulers of a large part of the world. 

In short, I don’t think that any school subject’s being difficult is an argument in favour of changing it, provided it is “tried-and-tested” and useful in its present form. On the evidence, it seems to be if anything more of an argument against change.

– Two paragraphs back, I indicated that the strange spelling of English did not prevent England from producing one of the greatest of all literatures, or from producing the Industrial Revolution – with all the scientific inventions involved – which greatly affected the whole world, nor indeed from ruling much of the world economically and politically. It is also true that it has not prevented English from becoming the single most dominant language in the world today and also the most widely-spoken second language in the world today. In the light of those facts, let us never forget the basic rule that change is always risky, partly because change is inevitably de-stabilising, and partly because of the possibility of the unexpected. That is to say, since it is demonstrably the case that existing spelling has not prevented English from having colossal and astonishing success, an important and well-known principle surely comes into play: 

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

– Every spelling of every English word has a reason. Very occasionally the reason is an error, of course, but for the most part the spelling of a word gives valuable insight it. 

– Basically, the uniquely strange spelling of English is a consequence of English being made up of four languages – the original Germanic language, Latin via French, classical Latin direct, and classical Greek direct – and also bits of pieces from other languages as well. And such an extraordinary “multi-parentage” is not to be found in any of the other languages commonly spoken today. Our spelling is therefore actually interesting. Every spelling tells a story of some sort, and all this – part of our culture – should not be thrown away without the most compelling reason.

To give just one example to illustrate what I have just said: I believe it to be helpful to know exactly what the word “philosophy” means, from its original make-up from the Greek (“love of wisdom”). That background knowledge gives a clearer understanding of the word. And one can work out its origin from its spelling. In my opinion, it would be a pity if that was lost in the quest for, for instance, a more phonetically logical spelling such as “filosofy” or, even worse in a more phonetically logical spelling-reform still, something like “fillossofi”. 

I even think it a little bit sad that “fantasy” and “fantastic”, which have changed their spelling (though a long time ago), no longer reflect the common origin of those words with “phantasm”. But such examples are of course few enough to be non-destructive and therefore non-problematic. Much more regrettable, surely, would be if spelling-reform, to be genuinely consistent, had to change the spelling of the words “child” and “children” so that the obvious connection between the two words, evident in the present spelling, was lost.

Of course, when confronted with something like “child” and “children”, one can make exceptions when reforming. But, because of the nature of how English came into existence, the exceptions will not be limited to just a few very occasional ones, as in the case of “fantasy” being spelt with an “f”. Even in the category of “child” having to disassociate itself from “children” in any revised spelling there are other equivalent examples – such as “type” and “typical”, “mime” and “mimic” and “crime” and “criminal”. 

And that is just one of many categories calling for exceptions. As people attempting reform have found in the past (see the next section, Number IV), the exceptions needed will be endless, and consistency – one of the primary purposes of reform – would very soon be lost.

– Yet another obvious problem is: on what basis is a spelling decided when regional accents change the sound of a word, as with the English and Scotch pronunciations of “good” (versus “guid”) and the English and American pronunciations of “what” (versus “whut”)? And who would decide how “scone” should be spelt?

– Finally under this heading for the time being (though there is plenty more that I could add), I actually like, and find useful, such distinctions as those between “profit” and “prophet “, “see” and “sea”, “peace” and “piece”, “sight” and “site”, not to mention the distinctions between “right” and “rite” and “write”, and not to mention, even more so, the distinctions between “pause”, “pours”, “pores” and “paws”. And I am confident that I am not being eccentric in this regard.

IV. Lessons from history.

In my opinion, my case is already strong enough for us to be able to have an informed discussion about it. And I could leave it there. Having gone to the trouble of putting this document together, however, I should like to try to be as helpful as possible, and I think it worth adding just a little more that is certainly relevant.

For what my opinion, after some reasonably careful study of the matter, is worth, it is that history shows that the task that the Society is at present trying to promote is, in practice, actually impossible as a means of improving our ability to handle our precious language. My reasons are the following facts in combination:

(a) The only genuinely successful attempt to reform the spelling of our language in its entire history was the one achieved by Dr. Samuel Johnson, with the publication of his famous dictionary in 1755. And his success was based on the fact that he revered our language as he found it, in its origins and in its development, and was aiming at preserving its basic spelling, with a reasonable standardisation which everybody could comfortably agree on.

(b) All other attempts at reform so far have been failures, even when people with both high linguistic competence and political influence have been involved.

The most obvious example of such an attempt is that made by America at the turn of the nineteenth century, where a reform did end up triumphing. After the rebellion of the American colonies, many intelligent and scholarly people tried to rebel against the traditional spelling of English as well. All of the attempts failed other than the one eventually promoted by Noam Webster. And, in the first place, Webster’s changes were minimal. And, in the second place, those that actually made a difference sometimes made spelling more difficult. Unbelievable, but true.

The most obvious example was the change of “-ise” at the end of some words to “-ize”, so that that the spelling would look more like the sound. But Webster found it impractical to include words such as “advise”, “advertise”, “chastise”, “despise”, “exercise”, “supervise” and “surprise” under the umbrella of this new rule. And the result was, and is, (a) ridiculous inconsistency where there had been consistency before, and (b) to make this part of English spelling more difficult than it had been before. 

And yet spelling reform is meant to make learning spelling easier? Bonkers! Is it even a small exaggeration to suggest that the American spelling revolution stinks?

Webster originally tried a more radical solution, for instance, "speek" for "speak," "determin" for "determine," "bred" for "bread," "bilt" for "built," and "groop" for "group", but that first attempt was a hopeless failure, and indeed he was ridiculed for it. What is more, he ended up not even merging the spelling of “high” and “height”.

The Webster revolution is not the only example for us to learn from so as to avoid similar mistakes and difficulties in future. The problems involved in reforming our spelling are actually intrinsic to the nature of our precious language. And this is proved by the fact of other attempts having been even greater failures.

(c) In 1906, an effort with surely the best possible prospect of success was made, again in America. President Theodore Roosevelt made use of both his authority as president and his access to the most learned people of his day, to produce the best possible solution that he could come up with, and ordered the Public Printer to alter the spelling of 300 different words for all future official documents. 

Was a collection of a mere three hundred words really worth the time of the effort involved in making such a small difference? Be that as it may, examples included: 

Many words that ended in “-ed” were changed so that they now ended in “-t”, so that "mixed" became "mixt”, "pressed" became "prest", "possessed" became "possest", and so on. 

And the "-ugh" was dropped for words like "although" ("altho"), "though" ("tho"), and "thorough" ("thoro").

Despite all the advantages (a) of his position and (b) of the assistance available to him for the purpose, President Roosevelt got nowhere. Critics had an enjoyable time ridiculing his list, and indeed they had plenty of fun with the spelling his name. He ended up retracting the order, and the Public Printer returned to conventional American spelling. 

Given the status of Roosevelt and the support by “high-ups” that he had for the project, this story is, if nothing else, proof that spelling reform is an extremely difficult thing to achieve. And, in the light of the various points to which I have drawn attention in Number III above, it can fairly be asked: what is the point?

(d) At our recent A.G.M., I asked the Chairman if there was a published booklet of some sort giving the spelling-changes that the Society would want to recommend if there was agreement in principle that changes were desirable. Very much to my surprise, the answer was that there was no such publication, and indeed that there was not yet any agreed recommendation by the Society of what changes ought to be instituted. I wonder if I am being unreasonable in considering having a policy without knowing what the policy involves in practice to be actually irresponsible. How can it be even remotely possible to judge whether or not an idea is a good one without a reasonably clear and exact knowledge of what the idea is? 

Specifically, two things that can be said at once about the Society’s having no agreed recommendation on what a new spelling should consist of are:

(1) This would very much tend to confirm what I have said earlier in this Part IV: that the task that the Society would be setting itself is, practically speaking, a task that is as impossible of useful fulfilment as all the previous attempts that have been attempted (see (b) to (d) above), while, nevertheless, carrying plenty of the disadvantages that, in Part III of these notes, I have put into the category of as likelihoods.

(2) A society of any kind is a group of individual members. The likelihood of every member agreeing with every other member as to what the best new spelling will consist of is non-existent. This in turn means that, as the Chairman confirmed when I raised the matter at the meeting, for a specific policy to come into existence, objections by a number of members would have to be overridden. And who is to say that any objections thus-overridden would not be serious ones – especially given that, human nature being what it is, any proposed reform that ended up being adopted would be more the policy of a dominating personality in the Society than that of people most qualified in more relevant respects?

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The question of course must be asked: if, however improbably the Society were to reach genuine agreement among its members as what changes were desirable, how would the proposed reform be implemented? By law or purely voluntarily? – both alternatives are suggested here and there in the Society's publications.

If by law, this would be for the first time in the history of the English language. And it is at least arguable that what would be imposed in this way would in fact be confusion and cultural disruption.

If not by law, it is inevitable that countless people, including me until someone comes up with satisfactory answers to my objections, would refuse to cooperate, and would fight the proposed changes.

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Overall, it is not clear to me from the Society's website that the whole matter of spelling reform has been thought through with anything approaching the care and thoroughness that such an important matter deserves and indeed needs.

V. Conclusion for the time being.

There is plenty more that I could add that would be useful, but I do not wish to overload readers, and I have by now probably said enough to give adequate support for my present case.

While I am open to be convinced otherwise, my present thoughts, based on such reasoning and evidence as I have put forward, is that it would actually be desperately sad if the Society were to achieve its present policy. I look forward to discussing the above at any suitable time, with or without the help of our American friends the American Literacy Council.

Nevile Gwynne.

April 2016.


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Did You Know:

• Ask your friend what Y-E-S spells. They won't have any difficulty saying yes. Then ask what E-Y-E-S spells. It's easy when it's written down, but surprisingly difficult when it's spoken. See a YouTube video of this.

• Who has not heard i before e, except after c. A University of Warwick statistician put it to the test. He plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to see if the math checked out. It didn't.

• When Adam met Eve for the first time, he said Madam, I'm Adam. This is a palindrome — a phrase or sentence in which the letters, words or even lines read the same in either direction. Adam hoped to impress the most beautiful woman in the world, but she more than matched him by replying simply, Eve. Not bad given that writing, and therefore palindromes, and English ones in particular, had not yet been invented! More palindromes, and a wonderful palindromic poem.

• How would you pronounce ghoti? Pronounce it like this:

and you get ... fish! Thanks to Charles Ollier for writing this in 1855 — and for showing that English spelling has been ludicrous for quite some time.

• One of the arguments in favour of keeping English spelling unchanged is to show the etymology of words. For example, the silent s in island shows the link to the Latin insula. But island actually derives from the Old English íglund, not from the Latin at all. More examples at Mental Floss.


Page editor: N Paterson. Contact by email or form.

​Spelling reform is not a new idea!

Benjamin Franklin "The same is to be observed in all the letters, vowels, and consonants, that wherever they are met with, or in whatever company, their sound is always the same. It is also intended that there be no superfluous letters used in spelling, i.e. no letter that is not sounded [...]"  Franklin proposed a spelling scheme with 6 new letters. (Franklin 1806 p359)

Theodore Roosevelt "It is merely an attempt [...] to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic." Theodore Roosevelt promoted the Simplified Spelling Board's gradual reform (see Twain below). (Roosevelt 1906, p3)

Mark Twain "It is my belief that an effort at a slow and gradual change is not worth while. [...] It is the sudden changes [...] that have the best chance of winning in our day. Can we expect a sudden change in our spelling? I think not. But I wish I could see it tried. [...] By a sudden and comprehensive rush the present spelling could be entirely changed and the substitute spelling be accepted, all in the space of a couple of years; and preferred in another couple. But it won't happen, and I am as sorry as a dog." (Twain 1997, pp208-212)

Page editor: N Paterson. Contact by email or form.