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Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  696 ratings  ·  123 reviews
In Spell It Out, David Crystal takes on the task of answering all the questions about how we spell: "Why is English spelling so difficult?" Or "Why are good spellers so proud of their achievement that when they see a misspelling they condemn the writer as sloppy, lazy, or uneducated?" In thirty-seven short, engaging and informative chapters, Crystal takes readers on a hist ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published June 18th 2013 by St. Martin's Press (first published September 1st 2012)
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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 ·  696 ratings  ·  123 reviews


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Start your review of Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling
Paul Bryant

Scene 1 : Scriptorium of the monastery of St Giles the Bleeding.

Year : 874 AD




Winter sunlight streams through the recently installed stained glass. Outside, several peasant children are dying from scrofula.

Aethelfried : Hey, Cuthelbearthth, I think we have a problem.

Cuthelbearthth : Yeah? Whit’s oop?

Aethelfried : Well I'm trying to translate the beautiful words of Our Lord into plain English and I’m finding that three letters in the alphabet, h, c and g are being used to spell seven different s
...more
Al Bità
On the one hand, those readers who might approach this book in the hope that it will assist them in learning how to spell English words will, sadly, be quite disappointed. Indeed, one might argue that such readers should avoid this book like the plague!

What this book does is present a brief but extensive historical overview showing how and why English spelling is as “difficult” as it is (at least for those comparatively new to the language). Thus, ironically, one needs to be quite adept at Engli
...more
Jonathan Karmel
Nov 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
I found this history of English spelling interesting enough to skim to the end but not really interesting enough to read every page. English has irregular spelling for a number of reasons. The original Anglo-Saxon language did not correspond to the sounds of the Latin alphabet that was used to write it; there were a number of sounds for which there were no letters. Different scribes wrote words in different ways, and a variety of conventions developed for writing ch, sh, 2 kinds of th, hard and ...more
Tracey Sinclair
Dec 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Obviously not a book for everyone - even a word geek like me realises that not everyone wants to read a book about spelling - but if this is a subject that interests you, it's fascinating and readable and broken down into easily digestible chunks.
Julie MacKay
Jan 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a fascinating book about the development of English spelling with a bit of application as to how spelling can be taught to children or learners of English. It is written for anyone to be able to read, so it really was quite readable. As a trained linguist, I found it to be rather 'light' reading, but I think others would find it easy to read too. It did seem to go on a bit at times, but there is also so much to talk about in the development of English spelling that it would be hard to n ...more
Magdalena Golden
Sep 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not as entertaining as Making Sense (The Glamorous Story of English Grammar) but it definitely convinced me that there is some method to the madness of English spelling :D
Justin Neville
Jun 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As ever, David Crystal writes accessibly about language. He doesn't have a Bill Bryson flair for storytelling or making potentially dry subjects entertaining, but he's not without skills in that department.

As he confesses in his intro, he shied away from a book about English spelling for many, many years - and with good reason. It's a complicated story, with so twists and turns and side-streets and cul-de-sacs, that it's hard to write about it simply without too much clutter or conjecture.....

He
...more
Richard Thomas
Mar 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As someone who has an entirely regrettable penchant for pedantry, this book is a delight. It is an exhaustive examination of the evolution and development of English spelling from the earliest times - or at least Anglo Saxon speech, for then it was a spoken language not written. It’s organised into easily digestible chapters and it is well written with a sharp wit underlying the learning.
Lee
Feb 16, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The history of English spelling is not the most thrilling of subjects. David Crystal takes this not-very-interesting topic and manages to craft a slightly-less-uninteresting book from it. Parts even rose to such dizzying heights that I thought “Huh, that's kind of interesting.”

It's easy and maybe even accurate to blame the book's mediocrity on the fact that David Crystal is on a mission. English spelling is difficult. Everyone knows this because we're forever being told that English spelling is
...more
Quiver
Mar 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
Readable and enjoyable. Short chapters and down-to-earth explanations of why we spell as we do.

Words used to be spelled in as many as sixty different ways. Depending on which influence—personal, cultural, practical, accidental—outweighed the others, a certain spelling of a word became the preferred one, then eventually, became the one we are familiar with today.

Having flexible spelling was a gift for printers trying to make their pages look good to the eye, with a nicely justified right-hand ma
...more
Anne
Aug 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I certainly didn't expect that I'd be able to read an entire book on spelling but I guess the author was just that good at making his points in a clear and, dare I say it, enjoyable way. It didn't hurt that the font was extra large and the margins extra wide.

But now I have a whole pile of reasons why I can't spell very well (Whoo-hooo! I'll be coasting on these for a while). Some of the reasons are nicely summed up by Joseph Worcester from his 1859 dictionary (so much for the modern decline of s
...more
David
Jan 22, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this book, or rather it found me, on the freebie shelf at work, and it was a happy encounter. Chapter 18, on pronunciation patterns at the time of the Great Vowel Shift, was particularly interesting. My big takeaway was that writers in the time of Donne could indicate stress with spelling changes: "me" is unstressed, while "mee" is stressed. (Trying to figure out how a line of Shakespeare works? Check an online copy of the Folio.)

Crystal makes an interesting thesis is that spelling rules
...more
Sarah Mayor Cox
OK so I am a bit of a GEEK when it comes to spelling - but this is such a fabulous book!!! What can I say? David Crystal is so good at storytelling - and really what's not to love about the story of English spelling and why it seems to be so weird (when really it's not - it's just a long story!!!!).

Laura Franey
Aug 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Why a great read! Well-researched, well-written, and overall delightful. I had a few quibbles with some of his claims (such as his statement that certain words in the Renaissance were called 'ink-horn words' because a writer had to use a lot of ink to write them; i believe it was because these words were exclusively written and never spoken) but I found him to be very convincing in general.
Susannah Bell
Jun 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Both wonderfully entertaining as well as immensely interesting, in “Spell It Out” you find out just exactly why English is so full of peculiar spellings. With sensible chapters covering the history of English, its roots and why words are spelt the way they are, there are also very funny extracts from famous books.

The first extracts are from Winnie the pooh stories in which I remember Eeryore spelt his name “EOR” and Owl “WOL”. There’s also Churchill’s school report (“spelling as bad as it well c
...more
Kathy Davie
Sep 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business, self-help
A history and explanation on how English came to be spelled and the issues involved.

My Take
This was excellent with Spell It Out being easy and fun to read. ! I am so impressed with the work that has been done over the centuries in figuring out how to spell words in English. And completely amused with their efforts, frustrations, and Crystal's writing!

Yup, Crystal includes "the first two stanzas of an ode to a spelling checker by Mark Eckman and Jerrold H. Zar" which proves the uselessness of a s
...more
Katherine
Aug 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: language, non-fiction
Good writing, as with the author's other books, but the subject is… quite aggravating. At times horrendously fascinating in its seemingly random convolutions, but it makes me feel for those learning English as a second language.

The book is highly thorough, with chapters about new vowel sounds, new consonant sounds, old vowels for new purposes, etc etc—super interesting to see (and, inevitably, as with most things about vocabulary and spelling, to mouth or whisper) the many examples of etymologi
...more
Clint Joseph
Aug 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
It's really hard to beat Mr. Crystal when it comes to anything English-language related. Granted, he doesn't have a lot out there, but the first of his I read, "History of English in 100 words" (or roughly that) is what one would call (I suppose) a "bathroom" type book. Small, short, to the point. About a page or three on 100 different words that help explain (a little) where in the world English came from.

This one does something similar, but in broader strokes. There are plenty of examples, al
...more
Robert
Mar 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
I love David Crystal's book "The Story of English in 100 Words." It was the perfect bedside book to pick up every now and then when I couldn't fall asleep: short, witty, humorous chapters that made both bizarre and mundane words fascinating. And to top it all off, a progressive, descriptivist approach to language. So much general audience writing about the English language is so conservative and fatalist, essentially stating that the internet will bring about the end of the English language. Eve ...more
Lara Liz
Jun 16, 2020 rated it liked it
It breaks my heart a little tiny bit to say this, because I love David Crystal, but I don't think I took a lot from this. There were a lot of individual words and idiosyncracies to read about, but I don't think I learned a lot about the English spelling system as a whole. Maybe that's because I already had a general impression of how English spelling works? Maybe I'm underestimating how much I did learn?

I'd definitely recommend this if you haven't done a lot of English language study, or you ge
...more
Tim
"Approached in the right way, spelling can be fun." That's how David Crystal ends this entertaining read on the spelling of the English language.

Of course, spelling isn't the most interesting subject to read about, especially when all of us have been confronted with it in school. Speaking of which, spelling and languages were among my favourite subjects.

As you can imagine, you must have a certain interest in language, spelling, and/or linguistics to read this nifty little reference work. There a
...more
Ivan Zullo
Feb 15, 2018 rated it liked it
After reading "The Story of English in 100 Words", David Crystal had enough credit to lead me to "Spell it out". For sure, he didn't waste an ounce of it.
He loves English and he lets the reader knows it. Page after page, you keep thinking "oh, so this is why we pronounce/write this word that way".
Spelling is part of English and, by knowing it, you make your English knowledge much more easier.
I'm not English native but I found a very useful tool in order to be more and more interested in this won
...more
Sacha
Feb 27, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
was given this for christmas the year i started doing english language at uni and this is me finally reading it after i’ve graduated. the first 3/4s of the book are basically the lectures i had in 1st and 2nd year which makes sense bc my lecturers looooved david crystal. and maybe since i noticed that i’d learned all this before shows that i’ve retained some of my university degree? the parts i was most interested were the ones towards the end about the internet and the future of spelling and ho ...more
Gruia
Jun 02, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reads easily as a story about the struggles of isolated medieval scribes and of expat Flemish printers of the Renaissance. The human aspect makes the evolution of English orthography easy to perceive and you get to see sense in the recourse to etymology or in lazy analogies.

At the end Crystal advises that correct spelling emerges as a consequence of erudition and seeking it for its own sake is useless in itself.
Jae
DNF at pg 216.

It's not that this is a bad book, it categorically isn't. My problem with this book is that I know most of what it's talking about anyway, having studied linguistics to some degree when I was younger. I think it's a great book if you don't know much about English etymology, or why words are spelt certain ways, though, and I think it's all explained in a nice, clear fashion, which is something I've always liked about David Crystal's books.
Iñaki Tofiño
May 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not an easy book to write, taking into account the complexity of the subject, but somehow David Crystal manages to make it. There are some repetitions and redundancies, but all in all it is a good introduction to English spelling, even if the sad conclusion is that unless you speak Latin and have a good grasp of etymology, it is going to be a difficult task anyway!
Estelle
Jul 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
For sure, English spelling is complicated. After reading this book spelling is a bit more crystal clear. As a non native English living in England David Crystal's well documented and illustrated story is a necessity in the English language jungle. I will keep the book on my day to day working shelve. Hope my spelling is okay. And yes, English grammar is another story to endeavour.
Hmy
Jun 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
This makes for quite a hearty meal but with small bites and time to digest, the reader will find plenty of tasty morsels. It's a sad choice though when we have to choose between The Times and the OUP who have different style guides even today.
Salomé
Nov 01, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction, language
Literacy comprises of reading, writing, and spelling.
Shiraz Esat
Certainly interesting, but has whole sections that are just too technical to bother following.
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David Crystal works from his home in Holyhead, North Wales, as a writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster. Born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland in 1941, he spent his early years in Holyhead. His family moved to Liverpool in 1951, and he received his secondary schooling at St Mary's College. He read English at University College London (1959-62), specialised in English language studies, did some rese ...more

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In these strange days of quarantine and isolation, books can be a mode of transport. We may have to stay home and stay still, but through t...
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“The story of the English writing system is so intriguing, and the histories behind individual words so fascinating, that anyone who dares to treat spelling as an adventure will find the journey rewarding.” 10 likes
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