Short Articles

The following are short articles dealing with various aspects of English spelling and vocabulary. Some are old, some new. Some are fairly finished, many are works in progress, for which I especially invite comments, questions, and suggestions.

Making the Familiar Strange: A late summing up or swan song offering some why's-to-do-it and how's-to-do-it for language arts teachers. (August, 2021)
This folder contains three dozen lists of very high frequency words. The lists are based usually on shared spellings and sometimes on shared suffixes. The words are taken from over 6,500 words tagged "AA," "A," or 10 or above and deemed appropriate up through grades five and six in E. L. Thorndike and I. Lorge's The Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words (NY: Teachers College Press, 1944, 1972). The lists were compiled over the years as aids to preparing spelling materials. For more information see the CommonWords database on this site or my American English Spelling (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988).
This folder contains various notes, letters, and working drafts dealing with five areas related to orthography:
  • Content vs. Meaning, and Metaphor vs. Metonymy – two contrasting pairs that have been very important to my orthographic efforts
  • Linguistic Evolution – various aspects of change as it affects language across the centuries
  • Ruthie – To and From, letters to and from Ruth Nathan, a friend and Language Arts specialist, that deal mostly with pedagogical applications of my work
  • Explication – some issues dealing with the analysis of written words into their elements, particles, procedures, and processes
  • Miscellaneous – pretty much what the name implies
This piece discusses some of the changes and continuities as bases have evolved into Modern English from the Proto-Indo-European root *dhē "to set, put." It also proposes a map of cognitive space to help plot this evolution.
Since its publication in 1988 I’ve written notations in my copy of AES. And since it seems unlikely that AES is ever going to be profitable enough for Johns Hopkins to do a full 2nd edition, I decided to collect all my expansions and corrections in this file as an ersatz new edition.
This table was prepared in answer to a question concerning the frequency of vowel digraph and trigraph and diphthong spellings. It is based on an analysis of 6,100 high frequency words from the Thorndike-Lorge Teacher's Word Book of 30,000 Words (NY: Teachers College Press, 1944, repr. 1972). The phonetic analysis is essentially that given in the American Heritage Dictionary.
A short article that argues that there is a wide range useful information and knowledge that can help students of spelling. Teachers don't have to settle for the ol' "Give 'em a list on Monday and a test on Friday." It presents an ordered list of rule-like propositions that illustrate how orthographic knowledge expands to include information from phonology, word structure, grammar, etymology -- and in some cases areas outside the study of language, like geography and history.
Admittedly, the 1-2-3 doesn't have much to do with spelling, but over the years it has helped a lot of novice writers. In one form or another it has been taught to 4th graders, middle school students, high schoolers, university undergraduates, and even some Master's candidates struggling with particularly intractable theses. For years I taught it not only to my college composition classes but also to English majors who were tutoring writing students in Central Washington University's Academic Skills Center. They then used it with their Center students, and many of them continued to use it after they graduated and went on to become middle and high school and college English instructors. For a time it may well have been the most widely pirated composition "text" in the state of Washington.

If you think the 1-2-3 would be useful, download it and use it with your students in whatever way works best for you. The only constraint I place is that you not sell copies of it. And I would appreciate hearing your impressions of how it worked for you and your students.
Continuing the academic tradition that a dead horse once beaten is worth beating again, this piece continues the discussion of the vowel-consonant distinction, but it includes a look at distinctive feature analysis, prototype theory, syllabic consonants, and some Welsh tongue-twisters.
An article that covers some of the same ground covered elsewhere on this site but which provides more historical and pedagogical rationale for a distinction often treated shabbily.
A reprint of an article published in the April, 2003 issue of California English, dealing with strategies for using word analysis and etymology as aids in teaching spelling and vocabulary.
A post-sabbatical talk given at Central Washington University in May of 1985, which attempted to demonstrate that paying an English teacher to travel in the South Pacific and read and write about English spelling was not really a candidate for the Golden Fleece Award.
A collection of misspellings from college remedial spelling students in a controlled test environment, compiled in the late 1980's and early 1990's. There are also some observations on possible implications of those misspellings. We were interested in what these misspellings could tell us about working on the individual students' problems, but we were also interested in seeing if there was some way that analyzing misspellings could provide a clue to what makes some words more difficult to spell than others. If there is such a way, we did not find it, but the orderly listing of misspellings may be of use to others.
Brief descriptions of the dictionaries and other books on English words that I have found most useful.
The Journal of English and Germanic Philology rejected this article because it was neither Medieval nor literary enough, the Journal of English Linguistics because it had too few footnotes. Be that as it may, the article argues that English orthography is an evolving adaptive complex system and that during its early centuries that evolution led to a high degree of bottom-up standardization, without any top-down help from dictionaries, printers, orthoepists, or orthographers.
Arguing that English orthography is an evolving symbolic system, this article describes various components of the system: code vs. performance, content vs. meaning, and words vs. elements. It also discusses tactical and procedural rules and sound-to-spelling correspondences, and other syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships. It argues that metaphoric and metonymic thinking are drivers of orthographic change and that a combination of emergent properties and self-reorganization have caused English to evolve from its alphabetic beginnings to our current more information-dense post-alphabetic orthography.
The analysis of English vowel sounds, especially low back and [r]-colored vowels, is complicated enough that a few words seem in order to explain some of the thinking that went into their treatment in CommonWords.
My hope is that at some time the explication of written words into their elements will be taken with the same seriousness as has been the analysis of spoken words into their morphemes. Thus this still disorganized essay, which shows some of the thinking behind the analysis in Lexis and CommonWords – some of the principles, some of the maybe dead ends, and several of the known but not yet answered questions.