Structured Word Inquiry

The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.

Phonics is a method of teaching reading that posits that sounds correlate with graphemes in an alphabetic writing system. Phonics assumes letters represent speech sounds. Letters can spell sounds, but not all letters spell sounds. Some letters are markers. Other letters are zeroed.

Phonics does not accurately represent the English writing system and fails learners.

Spelling is not just sounds written down.

The spelling of a word reflects its meaning, parts, history, relatives, and finally sounds.

Structured Word Inquiry

English spelling is rule-based. There are no exceptions, just more rules to uncover. I have yet to find a word whose spelling cannot be explained. Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) is a means by which to study spelling. One can use SWI to investigate spelling by asking four questions:

  1. What does a word mean?
  2. How is the word built?
  3. What are morphological and etymological relatives of the word?
  4. What are the sounds that matter? What are the letters doing?

The questions are to be investigated in order.

Before You Begin

The primary function of English spelling is to express meaning. Sounds are still important. Any grapheme cannot spell any sound. But meaning is the main reason for the current spelling of English words.

What is a letter? A letter is a character or symbol in an alphabet. When you learned your ABCs, you learned the letters of the alphabet. Letters are the building blocks of writing. Letters do not make sounds. People make sounds with their mouths, throats, lungs, and voices. Letters can make graphemes and markers.

What is a grapheme? A grapheme is one, two, or three letters that spell a sound. Graphemes are written. Graphemes are made of letters. Single letters can be graphemes. Graphemes can be made of two letters. A two-letter grapheme is called a digraph. Graphemes can be made of three letters. A three-letter grapheme is called a trigraph. Graphemes are enclosed in angle brackets. Graphemes do not make sounds. People make sounds with their mouths, throats, lungs, and voices. Graphemes can spell sounds.

What is a phone? A phone is a distinct speech sound. Phones come out of your mouth. Phones are enclosed in square brackets.

<w>, <sh>, and <igh> are examples of graphemes. The <w> in we spells the phone [w]. The <sh> in she spells the phone [ʃ]. The <igh> in night spells the phone [ɑɪ].

Spelling and Sounds

Sounds do matter in the English spelling system, but investigating only sounds cannot explain pairs such as the following:

  • sign ~ signal
  • fruit ~ fruition
  • vegetable ~ vegetation
  • long ~ longer
  • dream ~ dreamt
  • debt ~ debit
  • doubt ~ double
  • helicopter ~ pterodactyl
  • autumn ~ autumnal
  • phlegm ~ phlegmatic

Homophones provide further evidence that the primary function of English orthography is to represent meaning. Homophones are two or more words that can sound the same but that have different spellings and meanings. The homophone principle states that, when two words sound the same but have different meanings, the spellings will be different whenever possible. Homophones are a feature of the English writing system, not a flaw.

Homophones also show sounds do matter after meaning. For example:

  • heal~heel
  • heal~health

<ea> is the only digraph that can represent the vowel in heal and health.

The <ea> shows the relationship between the two words.

Why not use the same spelling for both heal and heel? Meaning! English prefers to have different spellings for words that can sound alike but have different meanings.

The verb do is another good example of meaning and sound in the English spelling system. Three of the four forms of do are do, does, and done. <o> can represent the vowel in do and does/done while maintaining the relationship between the words.

Spelling Rules

(1) Lexical spellings have three or more letters, e.g., bee, inn, will, can. Functional spellings can have one or two (or more) letters, e.g. be, in, is, a, am. The lexical word ox comes from Middle English oxe and the lexical word ax comes from axe; the grapheme <x> never doubles.

(2) A complete, native, lexical English word cannot end in <i>, <o>, <u>, or <v>. A replaceable <e> prevents a word from ending in <i>, <o>, <u>, or <v>, e.g. tie, toe, blue, have/give. Words that end in <i>, <o>, <u>, or <v> are not complete, not native, and/or not lexical, e.g., bikini, taco, tofu, rev.

(3) Suffixes that begin with a vowel and the -le suffix cause doubling when affixed to a base that ends in one vowel and one consonant other than <w>, <x>, or <y>, e.g., bigger, jogging, runny, snuggle. The graphemes <w>, <x>, and <y> never double, e.g., wowed, foxes, spying. (See also rule 7 for <y>.) Suffixes do not cause doubling of graphemes in other suffixes, e.g., reddened, zippering.

(4) Suffixes that begin with a vowel and the -le suffix replace a replaceable <e>, e.g., hoping, ladle, fusion, primate.

(5) The difference between the plural and third person singular suffix -s and -es is that (a) -es adds an extra syllable after a sibilant, e.g., matches, washes, waxes, glasses; (b) forms the third person singular of go and do, e.g., goes, does; (c) forms the plural and third person singular of nouns and verbs that end in the grapheme <y>, e.g. babies, stories, buries, carries; (See also rule 7 for <y>.) (d) forms the plural of some nouns that end in a consonant and <o>, e.g., tomatoes, potatoes, echoes, heroes; and (e) -s occurs in all other regular nouns and verbs. An -es begins with a vowel and can cause doubling.

(6) For some nouns spelled with a final <f> or <fe> in the singular, the base of the plural is spelled with a final <ve>. Then the –s suffix affixes to the plural base, e.g., wolf ~ wolves, leaf ~ leaves, wife ~ wives, knife ~ knives. The same rule applies to some verbs spelled with a final <f> or <fe> in the third person singular, e.g., knife ~ knives.

(7) Suffixes that begin with a letter other than <i> cause the grapheme <y> to toggle with <i>, e.g., happiness, livelihood, replied, busiest. A suffix that begins with <i> does not cause toggling of the grapheme <y>, e.g., babyish, flying. Toggling never occurs in a digraph that contains <y>, e.g., monkeying, stayed, destroyer, buyer.

(8) A connecting vowel is a vowel that connects morphemes. The connecting vowels in English are -e-, -i-, ­-o-, and -u-. A connecting vowel must follow a base or suffix, e.g., geography, biology, acidify. Connecting vowels can replace the replaceable <e>, e.g., museum, vacuum, abbreviate. (See also rule 4.) Connecting vowels do not cause doubling.

(9) Some suffixes and bases have a potential vowel (<e> or <o>). Every phonemic syllable must be written with at least one vowel letter, so a potential <e> or <o> surfaces when needed, i.e., to spell the unstressed [ə] and to be the vowel letter in a syllable, e.g., actor, ancestor, aster, meter, winter, December. The potential <e> or <o> does not surface when not needed, i.e., when a suffix contains a vowel grapheme that becomes of the written vowel of the syllable, e.g., actress, ancestral, astral, metric, wintry, Decembrist. Some bases also have a potential <e> that surfaces to prevent doubling when affixing a suffix, e.g., naval, bureaucratic, octagonal, oxygenate, but that does not surface when compounding with another base, e.g., navigate, astronym; when word-final, e.g. bureaucrat, octagon, oxygen; or when affixed with a suffix that starts with a consonant, e.g., judgment, fragment.

(10) Some bases with a morpheme-final double consonant have a simplified base in the terminal position of a word or when affixed with a suffix that begins with a consonant, e.g., terror ~ deter, horror ~ abhor.

(11) Compounding a base and base does not cause any spelling changes, e.g., drywall, baseball, grapefruit. Affixing a prefix to a base or another prefix does not cause any spelling changes, e.g., reread, unencumber, presuppose, disincline.

(12) Note that some words have multiple spellings, e.g., gray ~ grey, theater ~ theatre, wintry ~ wintery, judgment ~ judgement, doughnut ~ donut, mosquitoes ~ mosquitos, likable ~ likeable, linchpin ~ lynchpin, advisor ~ adviser, savory ~ savoury, authorize ~ authorise, canceled ~ cancelled, reenroll ~ re-enroll. Many times the spelling differences depend on English variety, i.e., American versus British. If in doubt, consult a dictionary.

Word Sums

A word sum shows you how a word is built. When you encounter a new word, a word sum can help you figure out the meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.

A morpheme is the smallest meaningful linguistic unit of a language. You can think of a morpheme as a word part that consists of one or more graphemes. A morpheme is a word part. Morphemes are made of graphemes. Bases, prefixes, suffixes, and connecting vowels are morphemes. A morphemic boundary is where two morphemes meet, like a window is the boundary between inside and outside. In other words, morphemes are building blocks of words.

Every word consists of at least one morpheme. The words sign, signal, and signature all contain the morpheme <sign>.

  • Sign -> sign
  • Sign + al -> signal
  • Sign + ate + ure -> signature

If writing were sounds written down, sign could be spelled *sine or *sain. But removing the <g> that spells the zero phone [Ø] would remove the relationship with the words signal and signature.

Because the primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning.

To understand the spelling of any word, you must look at the meaning, parts, history, relatives, and finally sounds.

Word Matrices

A word matrix is a visual representation of the morphology of related words. Neil Ramsden currently offers a Mini Matrix-Maker.

To create a word matrix, complete the following steps in order.

  1. Choose a word to study.
  2. Figure out the base(s), prefix(es), and suffix(es) for the word.
  3. Write the word sum for the word. Capitalize the base(s).
  4. Gather related word(s) built from the base of the original word.
  5. Write the word sum(s) for the related word(s). Capitalize the base(s).
  6. Copy and paste the word sums into the Mini Matrix-Maker.

For examples of word matrices, browse Linguistics Girl: Word Matrix.

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