The terms "spelling" and "orthography" seem to be largely synonymous. What is the difference really? Is it that "orthography" is a more formal or technical term and hence more well-defined? Or is it just a fancy word to make me sound smarter when saying the same thing? (-:

4 Answers 4


I agree, they sound similar and synonymous, but they have a definite difference.

Like Lefteris Gkinis said, orthography comes from the Greek and means "Correct way of writing".

It includes also punctuation and spelling. So, rather than a mere activity, it's the part of the Grammar that studies, and is related to, the correct way of writing, whether it is about single words, punctuation, etc.

The spelling, like the NOAD says, is "the process or activity of writing or naming the letters of a word." So it's something more specific, since it's only related to how the single words are "made".

  • 2
    Why the downvote? Is there some mistake?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 16:05
  • @TsuyoshiIto, Could use the "non-character" characters as fodders, it works, e.g. just type data:text/html,͏ in Chrome's URL bar then Ctrl-A Ctrl-C to copy it. A couple others like #x200d; etc used to work too but looks like SE has patched that.
    – Pacerier
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 5:04

In order to answer your question, we have to first investigate the exact meaning of orthography. Orthography is the standardized procedure of a writing system, which includes punctuation, capitalization, word breaks, emphasis, etc. This means that spelling is only a part of orthography(spelling is part of a writing system), but orthography includes a lot more than just spelling. That is where the difference between orthography and spelling lies.


This might help. (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=orthography)

Interestingly, German Rechtschreibung directly translates the Greek.

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    The etymology might help, but when it's the meaning you want you always have to keep in mind the "Etymological fallacy" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymological_fallacy Commented May 6, 2011 at 6:19
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    Well I thing the etymology is not only "might" help but allways help. It is the leading tool to understand the right use of the words. Commented May 6, 2011 at 7:09
  • @hippietrail, Lefteris. Yea it depends on each individual word, there's the etymology-fallacy and also the fallacy of the etymological-fallacy.
    – Pacerier
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 5:09

I take this opportunity to approach the real meaning of this question. I found it very accurate and a nice topic to think about.

The word orthography is a Greek word passed as is in the Latin language. In order to understand the meaning we have to divide the word into two parts:

  • ortho -> sosto => the right action (to take, make, write, act). By "right" we mean "following the rules which stand in our life."
  • graphy -> grapho => the verb "write."

Taking the meaning of first word (leading us what to do) and the second word (which field to do that action), it altogether means "do the right in writing" or "correct way of writing."

To spell, or "name the letters of", derives from O.E. spellian "to tell, speak," via Frankish, Germanic, and Gothic terms, ultimately from PIE spel-, "to say aloud, recite." Also, spelling is translated in Greek as silavismos which has two meanings:

  • To divide a word in certain pieces under certain rules for grammar use
  • To divide the word in as many pieces as there are letters (also for grammar use)

This can be done whether the word was written with right rules or not ("un-orthographic"). While "rightness" is built into the word orthography, such is not the case with spelling.

Thus we conclude that orthography and spelling are two different words with quite different use and meaning.

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    Just for the history I really want to know whos downvote my answer Commented May 6, 2011 at 15:57
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    @Lefteris: I don't know who downvoted but I assume it is because of the difficulty in understanding your answer. There are a handful of minor grammar and spelling errors which, if fixed, would probably help.
    – MrHen
    Commented May 6, 2011 at 18:16
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    Yes thats the naked true, I'm not good in orthografy either in Greeks nor in English. So I'll leave it to someone who knows better than me the English grammar to correct my answer. But the importand is for those which they need the real answer to understnad it. Commented May 6, 2011 at 18:50
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    The fact the answer explains the meaning of the Greek word for spelling could also be the reason of down voting.
    – apaderno
    Commented May 6, 2011 at 20:10
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    @Lefteris Gkinis Orthography is an English word that had origin from a Greek word; translating a word in Greek, and reporting what that means in Greek is essentially wrong because the topic of this site is English. If you report from which Greek word the English word has been originated, that is fine, but saying "the Greek word means this; therefore, the English word must mean the same" is not exact. To make an example, it would be like translating cocoa in Spanish, and then reporting that cacao is used in phrases like pedir cacao, ser gran cacao, or no valer un cacao.
    – apaderno
    Commented May 7, 2011 at 19:40

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