A volume examines the quirks of English in a logical, no-frills manner.
In this work, Fulford (To Reach the Sea: The Creation of Bolivia and Its Extraordinary Struggle to Survive, 2014, etc.) asserts that despite the English language’s reputation as a lawless territory, there are certainly patterns to be found and studied. He begins with a brief history of the language and notes the contributions of familiar figures such as Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin, and Melville Dewey. The author also explains why spelling reform movements have met with varying degrees of success over the years, for reasons both linguistic and sociological. Early chapters may resurrect memories of long-forgotten school lessons on syllabification, apostrophes, plural formation, and doubling the consonant. But the bulk of the text focuses on the workings of individual letters or common letter groupings.
The author identifies illogical usages, sharing a student’s understandable frustration with the more difficult spelling groups. For instance, he writes: “Without a doubt, the most annoying spellings in the English language are the ancient igh, ough, and augh. They are thousand-year-old relics that should have vanished centuries ago, but never did.” Near the end of the book, Fulford straightens out potential confusion concerning homographs, homophones, homonyms, and heteronyms. One minor quibble involves formatting issues, whereby some boldfaced passages featured in the margins of one chapter actually refer to text in a different chapter.
Nonetheless, the author strikes a difficult balance, as each chapter presents a well-chosen number of examples that fit the patterns discussed alongside notable exceptions. Thus, the guide is not as dry as one might imagine. Fulford wryly remarks on the exceptional pronunciation of the NBA’s Boston Celtics (Seltics, not Keltics) and includes the following historical note: “In the overly quaint Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, the word ye was originally pronounced the. The y takes the place of an ancient letter called a thorn, now no longer used, that had the th sound.” For those who have always wondered about such matters, the mystery is solved.
A supremely useful spelling resource for native and non-native speakers alike.