The English language is a peculiar beast. In what other language would you pronounce 'law', 'caught', 'sure', and 'poor' with the same vowel sound? Or pronounce all these words with different sounding 'o' sounds? ‘Stop', 'hope', 'London', 'now’?
I know of no other language in the world with such irregular spelling, and yet we love it for its inbuilt melody, its refinement, its passion and its music. All this is contained within its combinations of vowels and consonants.
Believe it or not, 84% of English spellings are fully regular. A further 13% are irregular, but governed by rules or patterns. The final 3%, though, follow no rules whatsoever. In fact, they are often bafflingly irregular. More often than not though, this final 3% are the most common words we use. The word ‘was’, for example – which most of you will know how to pronounce.
So here I've written 5 tips you can use to help you make your way through English spelling, to make sure you don't trip up.
Tip 1 - Note down the tricky words
Now I know it may be a big ask, but what I’m about to suggest will be the game changer to you taking English for your own and feeling more in control. I would like you to start carrying around a notebook, and jotting down any words where the spelling and the pronunciation don’t match up or where you think the spelling doesn’t make sense. Then when you have a minute at the end of the day or week, you can check them out online, or ask a native English speaker for their pronunciation (although remember, us natives make mistakes too – for years I thought yacht was pronounced Yak-t!).
Look out for the ‘or’s, the ‘er’s as they tend to be particularly tricky.
Also, and this is not for anyone, if you are chatting to someone and you feel comfortable, ask them if there are any words that they noticed that you pronounced incorrectly. Usually an English native will notice (if there are any) but be too polite to comment and only to happy to help. This is a speedy route to quick improvements.
Tip 2 - Watch for w's
If a word starts with a ‘w’ and followed by an o or an a, the sound will often be different from what you think. Was and wash are both ‘o’ sounds (as in hot). Warm and walk – are both ‘ore’ sounds (as in horse) wonder and wonderful are ‘u’ sounds (as in hut).
Tip 3- The alphabet rule
If a word has a vowel followed by a consonant and the letter e, the vowel becomes the sound of its alphabet name.
Ok, I know that sounds convoluted, but it’s simple really. Let me show you.
Take the word ‘hop’. Its vowel is the short ‘o’ sound right? Now add an ‘e’ on the end – and it becomes the letter ‘O’ (or Oh) like you would say it in the alphabet. Look – Hop turns to Hope.
And that works across the board. So say these sounds to yourself, the vowel alphabet names if you will – I’ll do them in capitals to make it easier – A, E, I, O, U.
And now look what happens when we add an e:
- Cap +e turns to CApe
- Pet +e turns to PEte
- Sit +e turns to sIte
- Hop +e turns to HOpe
- Tub +e turns to tUbe
Tip 4 - Learn your o's
The letter ‘o’ is probably the trickiest little letter of the English language. It is a chameleon, and can be any number of sounds. A common ‘o’ trip up is when it is pronounced as the letter ‘u’ (as in hut), this of course is unexpected and confusing if you are not prepared. For example, London is actually pronounced as ‘Lund’n’. Here’s a list of common words that are spelt with the letter ‘o’ and pronounced as ‘u’ (as in the above example). and remember to keep adding to your list!
Love, wonder, won / done / come / some / above / nothing / tongue / oven / brother / money / month./ one/ once/ country, dove.
Tip 5 - there's more than one way to spell 'er'
The ‘er’ sound (as in 'perfect') is one of the English language’s most common sounds with a wide range of different spellings so, along with ‘o’, it is likely catch people unawares. This is one of those sounds that you need to listen out for rather than visualise so you don’t get baffled by the spellings. But here’s a closer look so you can see what you are dealing with.
All of the following words employ the ‘er’ sound:
Learn/ fur/ nurse/ perfect/ shirt/ stir/ sterling/ worst.
So the sound ‘er’ can be spelt with the letters er, ear, ir, ur and or!
These five quick spelling tips will hopefully give you a little more awareness of the landscape of English spelling. It can feel intimidating, but remember: knowledge is power, and your ears and listening are your greatest tool. Also take heart - most of these spelling issues won’t actually lead to people misunderstanding. They will likely just lead to a second of two of the English person working out what you said, if that. And also, we live in such a glorious melting pot of different accents speaking English that the English ear is getting attuned to other pronunciations anyway!
If you do decide this is something you would like to tackle this year, then the best place to start is with a Taster Session. In it, you'll get a full professional assessment of your accent, along with elocution tips and tools you can start using right away to bring your accent closer to neutral English.