English students at any level will no doubt discover that English has an extremely “interesting,” but often times confusing spelling system. Here are some weird English words that you need to watch out for when studying, along with some patterns that will help you understand English spelling a little better and improve your writing skills.
The amount of words with unusual spellings is almost impossible to count, but let’s go over some important spelling patterns and anomalies that you will need to know to get a firm grasp of the English writing system.
Through, Dough, Enough
Now, this is a very interesting case. All three of these words clearly use the ough suffix, and as you probably know the gh sound of the word isn’t pronounced like the g of giraffe.
But what makes the spellings of these words even weirder is that each of these words has a completely different pronunciation, even though they all end with ough. You would think all these words should rhyme, but in reality they actually sound quite different from each other.
- Through (Throo) The road passes through a valley.
- Dough (Doe) You need dough in order to make bread.
- Enough--(Enuf) I have enough sodas for everyone at the party.
Plateau, Bureau, Gateau
Here is another set of interesting spellings. The part that confuses a lot of English students is the combination of two vowels to form eau, and how to correctly pronounce it. Now, here’s something intriguing: If you put these three vowels together, they end up sounding like a 4th vowel (o).
- Plateau (Plaat-o) The peace process had reached a plateau.
- Bureau (Byur-o) I work at the National Bureau of Statistics.
- Gateau (Gaat-o) My grandmother made me a chocolate gateau for my birthday.
The main feature of these words is the x consonant at the beginning of each word. X alone has a sound more similar to the sound eks, but when it is put in front of words, it usually makes the sound z.
- Xylophone (Zai-la-fone) I used to play the Xylophone when I was in high school.
- Xenophobia (Zee-na-fobe-eea) Xenophobia is a major issue that needs to be addressed.
These words both end with a bt but instead of making a bit or bet sound when you read them aloud, the b is completely silent!
- Doubt (Dowt)I doubt his ability to do his job.
- Debt (Det) I’ve finally paid off all of my debts.
Critique, Torque, Mosque
In this situation, the key understanding how que is pronounced. You might think it’s pronounced similar to the que in queen, but it really only creates a k sound at the end of a word:
- Critique (Cri-teek) He has asked me to critique his artwork.
- Torque (Tork) The three-litre engine has lots of torque.
- Mosque (Mosk)There is a beautiful green mosque in our city.
Know, Knight, Knife
This is arguably the most odd spelling that English learners will encounter. When Kn is placed in front of a word, it almost always is read out as N and the letter K becomes silent.
- Know (No) I don’t know what this means.
- Knight--(Nite) The knight left the castle to look for the princess.
- Knife--(Nife) Please out the knife down  .
Colonel, Island, Receipt
Now these three words are weird in their own unique ways:
Receipt is another example of a word with a silent letter (in this case the letter p) and this is similar to the words debt and doubt mentioned earlier.
Island also contains a silent letter, and this silent letter is s.
However, the weirdest of these three words is colonel. This is because colonel actually is pronounced quite differently than how it’s spelled; the olo part of colonel is pronounced as er!
- Colonel (Kernal) He was a high ranking colonel in the navy.
- Island (I-land) Jamaica is a beautiful island in the Caribbean Sea.
- Receipt (Reseet) I was given a receipt after I bought my groceries.
Why do these words have weird spellings?
Briefly, English words have been borrowed from other languages, and have also kept their original spellings and pronunciations. In other words, when you speak English, you often speak a couple words of French, Latin, Greek, some Arabic and many other languages.
When English borrows a word from another language, it’s often difficult to change its spelling to make it suitable with the language, and thus the word will maintain its spelling. Examples of this are bureau, plateau and gateau, which all have French origins and still maintain their French spellings.
However, as a language evolves, the ways we speak words change, as well. For instance, in the case mentioned of knight and know, there once was a time when the K of these words was actually pronounced! But as spoken English changed, people decided to ignore the k sound in the front of these words, but this didn’t mean the spellings of these words changed.
There are often huge debates on the origins of various words, but that’s a topic for another day. The fact of the matter remains, English is a beautiful but complex language, and one of its major complexities is its spelling system.
So how are you supposed to remember all these unusual spellings? Well, the short answer is, you just kind of have to know them! Just like in any other language, memorization is almost always the only way to remember anomalies. And try this:
1. Read as much as you can.
2. Write short passages.
3. Immerse yourself in the wealth of the vocabulary English has to offer.
Spelling is no easy thing, but it is something that can easily be improved upon if you have the motivation to practice every day.
If you know any other weird English words with really unusual spellings, make sure to leave a comment. Good luck!
Hero Image cropped from the original "It Looks Insoluble" by David Goehring (CC BY 2.0)