Beneath the Surface of Words

December 2021

When I started this website in 2017, my plan was to write short essays that would lay out the logic of the spelling system in bite-sized pieces. I wanted to help explain some of the lesser-known aspects of the system to anyone who has a connection to literacy. That goal turned out to be more difficult to accomplish than I’d imagined, as every piece I wrote necessarily left out parts of the story. The English spelling system is totally coherent and logical, but it’s complex and can’t be explained in just a few pages. Moreover, anytime we consider new perspectives, we bring a lifetime of assumptions with us. Rethinking these assumptions is challenging, to say the least. 

Almost five years later, I’m excited to share the book on spelling that I’ve just published. A book format has allowed me to lay out the concepts that underlie the writing system one step at a time with carefully chosen examples and many stories of intriguing words. The book is called Beneath the Surface of Words: What English Spelling Reveals and Why It Matters. It’s available through at this link. To find it on Amazon outside the US site just type the site name (for instance, in the search bar on your web browser and follow it with /dp/057832671X to go directly to the book. Or just go to Amazon and search for the name.

This writing project helped me solidify and clarify my own understanding, and I am hopeful that the book has something to offer even those who have been studying spelling for years. (My colleague and friend Gail Venable has also just published a book that has a similar goal, coming at things from a different direction: Backpocket Words: Sharing the Essence of English Spelling. We’re both excited about the way that our books complement one other.)

Beneath the Surface of Words explains and illustrates three foundational concepts: 1) the English language is structural; 2) written language has evolved to clarify the identity of words, using more than graphemes alone; and 3) written and spoken language are distinct systems, parallel—with many connections between them—but not direct translations of one another. The book includes discussions of morphology, the role of etymology in understanding spelling, the purpose of spelling conventions, and the ways in which spoken language is represented in writing. You can “Look Inside” the book at Amazon to get a sense of its scope and focus, and see the Table of Contents below.

I hope you find this book useful and I’m so happy to be able to share it with you. As always, you can contact me with questions or comments here.

Beneath the Surface of Words: What English Spelling Reveals and Why It Matters


How Does Spelling Work?

Introduction: Perspectives

Chapter One: How Do We Spell?

The Framework of Spelling

Chapter Two: Words Have Internal Structures

Chapter Three: Words Come in Families

Chapter Four: Where’s the Consistency?

Chapter Five: Morphology Can’t Wait!

Chapter Six: Things Aren’t Always as They Appear

Chapter Seven: It Runs in the Family

Relationships Between Spoken and Written Words

Chapter Eight: Writing Down Spoken Words

Chapter Nine: Say What?

Chapter Ten: English Is Morphophonemic and Alphabetic

Establishing the Identity of Words

Chapter Eleven: What’s That Letter Doing There?

Chapter Twelve: Are Rules Made To Be Broken?

Chapter Thirteen: Form Follows Function

Chapter Fourteen: What Else Can Etymology Teach Us?

Putting It All Together

Chapter Fifteen: Reframe What You Know

Chapter Sixteen: What Lies Beneath the Surface

Afterword: Learning More



Appendix A: Applying Suffixing Conventions

Appendix B: Using Etymological Resources

Appendix C: Working With Word Sums and Evidence Banks

Appendix D: More on Orthographic Phonology




Index of Figures and Matrices

Index of Selected Words