Spelling

English is considered a Germanic language, which means it is heavily influenced by the same language roots as German.  It is believed that English is 35% Germanic, 30% French, 30% Latin, 2% Greek, and 3% other.  Because of the various influences English is not a very phonetic language.  That means that you often don’t know by looking at the word how it should be pronounced.  In some languages like Spanish and Portuguese you can usually tell how the word is pronounced by how it is spelled.  That’s why spelling bees are not as popular in non-English speaking countries.   

One of the problems with English is that many words are pronounced the same way but are spelled differently and have different meanings. We call these words “homophones“. Here’s a list of some of them.

to, too, two – “to” is a preposition (to the store) or part of an infinitive (to think), “too” means “excessively” (it’s too hot) or “also” (I want one too), and “two” is a number (2, two times)

there, their, they’re – “there” is a reference to location (it’s there on the table) or existence (there is a book about that subject”), “their” refers to possession (their house) or a characteristic (their smile, their idea), and “they’re” is a contraction for “they are” (they’re coming with us)

your, you’re – “your” is possessive (your house) and “you’re” is a contraction of “you are” (you’re coming with us, right?)

its, it’s – “its” is possessive (its best feature is the price) and “it’s” is is a contraction of “it is” (it’s snowing)

one, won – “one” is a number (1, one time) and “won” is the past tense of “win” (my team won the game)

sun, son – “sun” is the star in the sky (the sun is bright) and “son” is a male descendant (he has a son and a daughter)

ant, aunt – “ant” is an insect (there are ants in my kitchen) and “aunt” is a relative (my aunt and uncle live there)

hi, high – “hi” is a greeting and “high” is the opposite of “down”

ad, add – an “ad” is an advertisement and “add” means to increase by a certain amount

hey, hay – “hey is an exclamation and “hay” is what horses eat

blue, blew -“blue” is a color and “blew” is the past tense of “blow”

air, heir, err – “air” is what we breathe, “heir” is somebody who inherits money, and “err” is to make a mistake (also pronounced “ur”)

ate, eight – “ate” is the past tense of “eat” and “eight” is a number

sell, cell – you “sell” an item for money and a “cell” is where a prisoner stays

aisle, I’ll – an “aisle” divides two sections of seating and “I’ll” is a contraction for “I will”

our, hour – “our” is possessive (our house) and “hour” is a unit of time (one hour ago)

see, sea – you “see” with your eyes and “sea” is a body of water

be, bee – to “be” is to exist and a “bee” is a flying insect

I, eye – “I” is me and “eye” is what you see with

oh, owe – “oh” is an exclamation and you “owe” a debt or an obligation

kernel, colonel – “kernel” is from corn and “colonel” is a military rank

pee, pea – “pee” means to urinate and a “pea” is a vegetable

tee, tea – a “tee” is used in golf and “tea” is a drink

naval, navel – “naval” means “on the water” and “navel” is left from the umbilical cord at birth

aloud, allowed – “aloud” means “out loud” and “allowed” is the past tense of “allow”

you, ewe – “you” is a reference to a second person and a “ewe” is an animal

threw, through – “threw” is the past tense of “throw” and “through” means from one side to the other

site, sight, cite – “site” is a location, “sight” is what you see, and “cite” is a verb that means “to reference”

led, lead – “led” is the past tense of “lead” (pronounced leed) and “lead” (pronounced led) is an element or the writing part of a pencil

cord, chord – a “cord” connects two objects and a “chord” is formed by musical notes played together

principal, principle – a “principal” is a person or the base amount of a loan and a “principle” is a basic truth or guideline

past, passed – the “past” has already occurred and “passed” is the past tense of “pass” (We have passed that location many times in the past”)

bare, bear – “bare” means naked and a “bear” is an animal

cellar, seller – a “cellar” is a basement and a “seller” sells something

flee, flea – “flee” means “to run away” and a “flea” is an insect

flour, flower – “flour” is for cooking and a “flower” is a plant

new, knew, gnu – “new” is “not old”, “knew” is the past tense of “know”, and a “gnu” is an animal

heal, heel – “heal” means “to recover” and “heel” means “to follow” or a part of your foot

herd, heard – “herd” is a pack of animals and “heard” is the past tense of “hear”

grown, groan – “grown” is the past tense of “grow” and “groan” is a sound made from pain

genes, jeans – “genes” determine your biological makeup and “jeans” are pants

presence, presents – “presence” means “in attendance” and “presents” are gifts

him, hymn – “him” means a guy and a “hymn” is a religious song

made, maid – “made” is the past tense of “make” and a “maid” is a house servant

pain, pane – “pain” is what you feel and a “pain” is a sheet of glass in a window

plain, plane – “plain” means regular and “plane” means a flat region or an airplane

pear, pair – a “pear” is a fruit and a “pair” is two of something

steel, steal – “steel” is metal and “steal” means to take something that’s not yours

steak, stake – a “steak” is beef and a “stake” is a piece of wood or a wager

sweet, suite – “sweet” is a taste and “suite” is a large hotel room

wood, would – “wood” is from trees and “would” is future tense subjunctive

tale, tail – a “tale” is a story and a “tail” is what a dog has

pray, prey – “pray” means talking with God and “prey” is something that’s hunted

do, dew – “do” is an action and “dew” is water on the grass

sum, some – “sum” means total and “some” is an uncertain amount

roll, role – “roll” means to push on the ground or a piece of bread and a “role” is for actors

hole, whole – a “hole” is something you dig and “whole” means “entire”

reel, real – a “reel” is for fishing and “real” means “genuine”

root, route – a “root” is in the ground and a “route” is how you travel

so, sew – “so” means “very” and “sew” is what you do with clothes

band, banned – a “band” is a musical group and “banned” is the past tense of “ban”

bread, bred – you eat “bread” and “bred” is the past tense of “breed”

council, counsel – a “council” is a committee and “counsel” is advice

brake, break – a “brake” stops a vehicle and “break” means to destroy or render unusable

cash, cache – “cash” is money and a “cache” is a reserve or a place to hide something

by, bye, buy – “by” means “next to” (by the fire) or “before” (by the first of the month), “bye” is short for “goodbye”, and “buy” means “to purchase”

deer, dear – a “deer” is an animal and “dear” is a term of affection

none, nun – “none” means “not any” and a “nun” is a Catholic woman in a monestary

accept, except – you “accept” a gift and “except” means “other than”

marry, merry – you “marry” your spouse and “merry” means happy

capitol, capital – a “capitol” is a building for a legislative body and “capital” is money that you invest or a governing city

compliment, complement – you “compliment” somebody when you say something nice about them and you “complement” something when you add to it or complete it

fishing, phishing – “fishing” is when you catch fish and “phishing” is a technique to obtain information on the internet under false pretenses

stationary, stationery – “stationary” means motionless and “stationery” is writing paper

 

Homographs are words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently. For example:

lead (to go in front) and lead (an element or the writing part of a pencil)

wind (as in an alarm clock) and wind (as in a storm)

bass (as in a singer or guitar) and bass (a type of fish)

close (the opposite of open) and close (near to)

desert (a dry place) and desert (to abandon)

dove (a bird) and dove (past tense of dive)

minute (60 seconds) and minute (very small)

object (a thing) and object (to protest)

present (in attendence or a gift) and present (to show)

sewer (for plumbing) and sewer (one who sews)

tear (rip apart) and tear (from crying)

wound (injury) and wound (past tense of wind)

console (to comfort) and console (a control unit)

conduct (behavior) and conduct (to direct)

content (happy) and content (information or substance)

 

Another problem is words that rhyme but have different spellings. For example:

stuff, rough
go, show, foe
great, state
grew, shoe, clue
weigh, stay
rhyme, crime
whine, align
piece, fleece, grease, peace

 

And then there are words that look like they should rhyme but they don’t. For example:

post, lost
fury, bury
mint, pint
shoes, goes, does
dull, bull
storm, worm
tour, four
cough, dough

In such cases all I can tell you is that English is a mixture of different languages and the spellings and pronunciations aren’t consistent, so you just have to keep learning and practicing until you can make sense of all this insanity. The good new is that you don’t have to be a good speller to become fluent in English.  In fact, many native English speakers don’t spell any better than non-native speakers.  But of course you should always try to improve in any area of English and spelling is no exception.  Fortunately these days we have many good resources to help with spelling.  Good luck!

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