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Hello Dr. Cummings, I'm wondering if you could give me any sort of rhyme or reason to the various r controlled spellings? Are there reasons to when /er/, /ir/, and /ur/ are utilized. How about /or/ or /ar/ is the /er/ sound? So confusing for young (all) spellers!
Meg, if this is you: I didnt recognize the name until I started to upload the answer to the website. If we have talked about this before, I apologize for the repetition. But, then, it is about all Ive got on the subject, I guess. Don.

I wish I could be more help than I think I am going to be. I wrote a chapter on [r]–colored vowels in American English Spelling, but I don think it would help much either. Neither did the pre-publication reviewer.

Lets concentrate on cases where the spelling comes at the end of the word: In Commonwords there are 648 total instances of <er>, of which 376 come at the end of the word. There are 148 for <or>, 100 of which are word-final; as are 36 of the 66 for <ar>. The other ones are infrequent enough not to worry about. The <er>, <or> and <ar> spellings often mark an agent noun as in beggar, teacher, doctor . These numbers suggest “When in doubt, choose <er> because it is far and away the most common, especially for agent nouns.”

Another allegedly helpful clue for choosing between <er> and <or> for agent nouns is that <or> is usually used for agents that are considered more important. That has always irked me a little as a teacher. But then I am also a doctor, so I guess it evens out.

I remember a student once suggesting that there is a bit of a negative connotation to agent nouns that end in <ar> as in beggar and liar, but I dont know how far that extends. I cannot find lawyar, nor senatar, nor legislatar in the list of past spellings in the Oxford English Dictionary. Alas.

There just do not seem to be any easy answers that are very helpful. If you really want to dive into the problem, Id suggest going to the website and clicking on CommonWords. Then in the blue menu on the left click on “Correspondences: Sounds to Spellings”, which will take you to the table that lists the 356 sound-to-spelling correspondences in CommonWords. The ones you are interested in are the eight for [u1r] <er, err, ir, irr, or, orr, ur, urr> and the five for [u4r] <ar, er, ir, or, ur>.

One of the nice things about this table is that if you click on the sound-to-spelling correspondence in the left column, you are taken to a user interface page in which all of the words in CommonWords that contain that correspondence are listed at the bottom.

With all of these example words at hand, you can maybe begin to see some patterns that will lead to some useful generalizations. At least I hope so. I would like to learn more useful things to say about this question.

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