I understand that English speakers have dictionaries, manuals of style, and grammar books at their disposal to know how to write correctly, but is there the most basic book of rules on which all British or American spellings are based?

I have seen the list of most notable proposed reforms, but they all look like mere recommendations:


Some of which were accepted by people, and some not. And I don't really understand why, for example, Americans suddenly changed their way of writing 'centre' or 'humour', just because Webster recommended to do so more simply.

For example, in Belarus during the previous century we have had three reforms of Belarusian orthography, each enforced by a government act accompanied by a guidebook with the basic outline of new rules and a set of various dictionaries. After a short transitional period all schools, newspapers, magazines, etc. had to comply with the new rules. As I know, Germans reformed their orthography twice, in 1901 and 1996, through the international conference of linguists, and implemented it in the same way. Russians did the same in 1918 and 1956. But what aboutEnglish?

And if today some simplification like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cut_Spelling or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplified_Spelling_Board#Handbook_of_Simplified_Spelling were adopted and agreed to by all English-speaking nations, how would they make their citizens use this new spelling?

  • 1
    Ain't gonna happen. No one cares about orthography, and what's considered the "norm" or "correct" in the language at any time is based on usage - which evolves. "How would they make their citizens...?" Dunno what to say - this is so wide of the mark. Anyway, in a century we'll all be speaking Chinese...
    – Drew
    Jul 27, 2015 at 19:45
  • 2
    Mostly, the English orthography was not reformed. There is no centralized language authority either.
    – herisson
    Jul 27, 2015 at 19:45
  • The only way it will happen in Britain is if the European Union decide to do it and we decide to stay in. Jul 27, 2015 at 19:54
  • TTBOMK there is no central authority attempting to control the English language. As English seems to be in no danger of dying out or radically changing, there seems no need for this kind of "discipline", so any group making a claim to this authority are likely to be perceived (I would say, accurately) as making a power grab. As for what nations would do if they decided to make some reform(s) mandatory: presumably they would just pass laws as usual. Jul 27, 2015 at 19:58
  • No English-speaking country believes in making laws dictating how people can write.
    – tchrist
    Jul 28, 2015 at 0:04

2 Answers 2


English is a rather unique world language in that it does not have official (state-sponsored) bodies existing solely as language authorities. Sure, you have the Modern Language Association in the USA, and there were famous attempts at phonological prescriptions over the pond (Received Pronunciation), but still nothing anywhere comparable to the Cervantes Institute or La Francophonie.

It has been said that USA and UK are two countries separated by a common language, however the USA has no de-jure official language. Interestingly, the 19th-century U.S. President Martin Van Buuren was a native Dutch speaker--of course, he learned English. The U.S. Constitution requires that a president be natively born, but it doesn't say anything about native language. There are now nearly as many Spanish speakers (if not more) in the USA as there are in Spain.

So, at least in the USA, any prescriptions as to orthography would be purely academic and I suspect that most US citizens would not allow themselves to be forced to use a new spelling--unless the innovation spread organically.

  • 2
    It is also odd in that its spelling system is hideously ineffective at representing the spoken language. If you see an English word spelled out, you may be able to pronounce it, if you've studied hard for many years; and if you hear an English word, the same. Rather like Chinese characters. Jul 27, 2015 at 22:03
  • 2
    There is no connection whatever between Received Pronunciation and any attempt to prescribe a standard. RP is a descriptive term used to refer to a de facto standard, which was prescribed only in the sense that the pundits and schools taught it, more or less.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 28, 2015 at 0:10
  • 1
    Regarding the orthography, there was an attempt at reform by the Mormons. They developed a phonemic alphabet called Deseret (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deseret_alphabet), which did not gain significant traction. It does get a mention from SIL Ethnologue.
    – senyb
    Jul 29, 2015 at 19:56

I'm not sure I have an answer for your question, but I do know my heart stopped a little when I read it. To me, part of the richness of the English language comes from the way it has historically absorbed words from other languages, which of course has led to unusual spellings. To think about changing that seems to me to be negating the language's history and taking away its richness and power.

That said, you can find any number of sites that will give you rules for spelling in English. However, I find it almost impossible to imagine that a person could study and memorize these rules and have all their spelling problems solved.

I know that English spelling is hard for native and non-native English speakers alike and to suggest that they need to just get with the program, no matter how difficult, sounds obnoxious and elitist. What I wish is that the power of English be accessible to all.

The best way to learn spelling (and many other literacy-related subjects) is to read. And read and read and read. Because the more familiar you are with words, the easier it will be for you to spell them, and you acquire that familiarity by seeing how they are spelled and used in authentic texts.

I'll step off my soapbox with one additional observation: They tried to get the United States to adopt the metric system. Didn't happen, and changing spelling isn't going to happen either.

  • The metric system was only because Reagan decided he wasn't going to do it. It was a good idea, and will likely happen in the future, but mandating an English orthography will never happen.
    – IchabodE
    Jul 27, 2015 at 20:46
  • You could be right about metric, but I won't live long enough to see it, I'm sure.
    – ewormuth
    Jul 27, 2015 at 20:55
  • 1
    +1, but can one's heart stop "a little?" In any event, it is what makes the language a living language rather than fossilized. But if I be'ed dictator of the world, I'd regularize more verbs. Spelling is for the machines.
    – stevesliva
    Jul 28, 2015 at 3:58
  • Okay, how about "heart skipped a beat"?
    – ewormuth
    Jul 28, 2015 at 4:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.