On English Spelling: Does GHOTI really spell fish?

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Is English spelling really as bad as you think? Does GHOTI really spell fish? Here are some answers.

If you think that English spelling needs reform, you might be right, though it's really not as bad as you think. If you think that ``ghoti'' spells fish, you're wrong, though you're in good company: this mistake is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw, though he seems not to have been directly responsible.

The reason I call it a mistake is that ghoti==fish violates several rules of English orthography. The explanation for ghoti is: "gh" says ``f'' as in "cough", "o" says ``i'' as in "women", "ti" says ``sh'' as in "nation". Unfortunately for the ``ghoti spells fish'' theory, gh==f works at the end of a word, but never[1] at the beginning, o==i is unique[1] to the spelling of women, and while ti==sh works near the end of a word, it is always[1] followed by ``on'', to make tion==shun.

English spelling isn't nearly the mess it's made out to be. It's complicated by the fact that there are two sets of rules (one for the words with Anglo-Saxon/Scadinavian roots, another for the words with Latin/romance roots), and by the fact that many words which we think of as English are actually foreign words which retain their foreign spellings[2]. Still, there are rules, and they _are_ generally followed. Yes, every rule has exceptions, but they are usually few in number, relative to the number of words which follow the rule. More importantly, the exceptions are usually common words, whose spelling you will memorize quite naturally, because you write them so often.

There is a book called The ABCs and All Their Tricks by M. Bishop which does a wonderful job of laying out and explaining the rules and exceptions of English spelling. You can read my brief review of it at my homeschooling books page.


[1] Reports of exceptions to ``never'', ``unique'' and ``always'' are welcomed. You can contact me at .
[2] Retaining the foreign spellings of the foreign words is a blasted nuisance, but it does seem a little more cosmopolitan and accommodating and tolerant than the German habit of changing the spelling to match their conventions (but I admire the ease of spelling German), or the French habit of coining neologisms to avoid loan-words.

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