The Problem of English Spelling

“Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”
— Clarence Darrow


Use a browser extension to reform English spelling. The extension changes traditional spelling to an improved spelling. Reform happens organically as people become familiar with the new spelling via reading and start using it in their writing.


English spelling is notoriously inconsistent and archaic. It causes endless confusion for people learning to read and write English and it takes far longer to master than it should. While everyone agrees that English spelling is a mess, major reform has not occurred despite more than 70 serious proposals over the centuries. The reasons spelling reform has failed are numerous with the most important being:

  • There is no central authority that can impose any reform —  “No English Academy”.
  • There is strong resistance to change from people who have mastered traditional spelling —  “Spelling is easy so why should we change”.
  • Reform would change the spelling of most words and alter the appearance of written English —  “This writing looks funny and is hard to read”.
  • At the start of any reform there are no readers familiar with the new spelling. This discourages writers using the new spelling which prevents readers learning the new spelling —  Chicken-and-egg problem“.
  • There is an enormous body of existing texts that use traditional spelling —  “If we fixed spelling we would have to reprint all the books”.

Can English be Reformed?

These seemingly intractable problems have made English spelling reform the classic “lost cause” favoured by eccentrics and cranks. While history predicts that any “big bang” reform (i.e. updating all English spelling at once to a new system) is doomed to failure, Noah Webster’s limited success in improving English spelling showed that reform is possible. Webster succeeded where he removed redundant letters from words (e.g. colour » color, traveller » traveler) and failed where he tried to make large changes to common words (e.g. tongue » tung).

Webster’s reforms demonstrated that better spellings can displace archaic forms via familiarity alone. A recent example of this effect is the usage change in Australia from the archaic English gaol to the newer (and better) American jail. No authority in Australia imposed this reform — it just occurred spontaneously as Australians became familiar with the jail variant and chose to use it in their writing over the less clear gaol.

Cut Spelling

Many of the English words which cause the most spelling and pronunciation difficulties are those that contain redundant letters. Simply eliminating the redundant letters in words would solve many problems without significantly changing the appearance and use of written English.

This simple idea was developed by Christopher Upward and colleagues into Cut Spelling. Their approach removes the redundant letters, along with a small number of letter substitutions, to simplify English spelling and improve writing speed. Cut Spelling does not try to solve all the problems caused by English spelling (this would require changing to a totally phonetic system), but it does remove the worst difficulties. Cut Spelling allows people accustomed to traditional spelling to quickly adapt to using it with little or no effort.

Cut Spelling uses a small number of cutting and substitution rules to transform traditional spellings.

Cutting Rules

  1. Cut letters irrelevant to pronunciation. This rule removes most silent letters, except when these letters (such as the “magic e”) help with pronunciation (e.g. people » peple, knife » nife, low » lo).
  2. Cut unstressed vowels before l,m,n,r (e.g. symbol » symbl, lemon » lemn, permanent » permnnt, churcheschurchs, edible » edbl).
  3. Cut doubled consonants except when both consonants are sounded (e.g. innate » inate, spell » spel, but the “ll” in holly is kept).

Substitution Rules

  1. gh” and “ph” become “f” when pronounced as the “f” in father (e.g. draught » draft, sulphur » sulfr, photograph » fotograf).
  2. g” is changed to “j” when pronounced as the “j” in jump (e.g. judge » juj, rouge » ruje).
  3. ig” and “igh” are changed to “y” when pronounced as the “y” in fly (e.g. flight » flyt, sign » syn).

Cut Spelling also has a number of optional rules such as replacing “ch” with “k” when it is pronounced as the “k” in keep and replacing “–tion”, “–cian”, “–sion”, and “–ssion”  with “–shn”.

One of the most attractive features of Cut Spelling is that if a writer is in doubt if a letter should be cut or substituted from a word then they should make no change. This “no-change first” rule enables Cut Spelling to be mixed with traditional spelling without issues.


Despite the great potential of Cut Spelling to improve written English, it has failed to attract mainstream interest. It faces the classic chicken-and-egg problem in that until people are reading text written using Cut Spelling, writers will not use it. Readers cannot become familiar with Cut Spelling unless they read text written using it. To break Cut Spelling out of this vicious circle I have written a free Google Chrome Extension (CutSpel) which automatically converts the text of webpages from traditional spelling to subset of Cut Spelling.

CutSpel enables readers to become comfortable with Cut Spelling while allowing writers to use traditional spelling until they believe their audience will read text written using Cut Spelling. As more readers become familiar with Cut Spelling (via CutSpel for example) more writers will use it, thus creating a virtuous circle where spelling reform can occur organically within the population without the need for it to be imposed from above by some non-existant English language authority.

Installing CutSpel

CutSpel is available from the Chrome Webstore.

The CutSpel source code is also available on GitHub and it is MIT licensed.

Using CutSpel

CutSpel is very simple to use. It is turned ON or OFF by clicking on the CutSpel Icon ONin the Chrome Toolbar (Green = ON; Grey = OFF). When ON all text is automatically converted to the “cut” form as the web page loads. CutSpel has two modes that are accessible from the chrome extension options page – Basic and Advanced.

Basic Mode

Modifies the 1000 most common English words while avoiding the more disruptive Cut Spelling changes such as eye » y. Names of people and objects (proper nouns) are left unchanged. The text generated by this mode is very easy to read.

Advanced Mode

Modifies the 4500 most common English words and uses most of the Cut Spelling substitution rules. Names of people and objects are left unchanged. The text produced by the advanced mode requires slightly more effort to read, however I have found most people quickly adjust and are reading at a normal pace after only a few hours using it. I personally find that I forget that I have it on most of the time.

Example of CutSpel

I have added a short example of CutSpel text.

CutSpel FAQ

I have added a FAQ for CutSpel. If you have any other questions just ask.