Irregular words?

12 Replies

There are dozens and dozens of irregular words in English, which can’t be sounded out, and must simply be memorized as wholes. Correct?

Well, maybe not.

Firstly, it depends on your definition of irregular words.

What counts as irregular?

Is the word “league” an irregular word because it’s not spelt “leeg”? There’s nothing irregular about its first two spellings, and the final spelling “gue” is also found in “morgue”, “Prague”, “colleague”, “demagogue”, “dialogue”, “epilogue”, “monologue”, “synagogue”, “travelogue” and the UK spellings of “catalogue” and “analogue”.

If you add “brogue”, “fugue”, “plague”, “rogue”, “vague”, “vogue”, “fatigue” and “intrigue” to this list, it starts to look like a proper spelling pattern, quite learnable and sound-out-able, and not irregular at all.

Is “receipt” irregular, when its “ei” is also in “ceiling”, “conceit”, “counterfeit”, “deceit”, “perceive”, “protein”, “receive”, “seize”, “Sheila” and “Weipa”, and even its weird “pt” spelling also appears in “pterodactyl”, “Ptolemy”, “ptomaine”, “ptosis” and “ptyalin”? Though I think “receipt” is the only time it appears at the end of a word.

 “Asthma” and “isthmus” are the only words I can find that have “sth” for the sound usually spelt “s”, but does that make these entire words irregular? The other sounds in these words are spelt just as you’d expect, so “asthma” with four sounds is 75% regular and sound-out-able, and “isthmus” with five sounds hits 80%.

The words “friend” and “straight” are usually deemed irregular words and put on "memorise holus-bolus" lists. They each have five sounds, but four or 80% are about as regularly-spelt as you can get. The only funny spellings are the “ie” and the “aigh”. The “ch” in “choir” appears in lots of other words, and even in “hors d’oeuvre”, the “d” is regular.

A dozen words with the same pattern

Let’s for the sake of argument define a spelling as regular if its sound-letter(s) relationship occurs in at least a dozen common words that older kids can be expected to have heard of, and thus it can readily be taught as a pattern e.g. turned into a worksheet or used as the organizing principle for a primary school spelling list.

There are 315 words on the Dolch “sight words” list, perhaps the best-known of such lists, which children have been taught to swallow whole since 1948.

However, about 80% of them are regularly-spelt, so why anyone is taught to memorise not decode them is a mystery.

Even being generous and including words like “because” (despite ‘”assault”, “auction”, “austere”, “Australia”, “cauliflower”, “caustic”, “fault”, “hydraulic”, “Launceston”, “laurel”, “somersault” and “vault”), by my calculation only the following Dolch words contain irregular spellings:

  • 100% irregular: a, are, eye, who
  • 66% irregular: laugh, one
  • 50% irregular: bear, buy, do, door, egg1, eight, four2, if, of, shoe, the, their, there, they, to, two, us, were, where, your
  • 33% irregular: any, come, could, does, done, floor, give, have, live, much, said, shall3, some, this, walk, which, yes
  • 25% irregular: again, every, many, once, today, very4, water
  • 20% irregular: pretty, always, because, goodbye
  • 17% irregular: together

These "highly-irregular" words are 63% regular

Out of the 160 sounds in these 56 words, only 59 are spelt irregularly, or 37%. The remaining 63% of the sounds are spelt just as they are in “regularly-spelt” words. This to me says we should be zooming in on the irregular spellings in these words, not tarring words that are mostly decodable with the entirely-irregular-word brush.

As far as I can work out, the only words in English that have 100% irregular letter-sound relationships are (drum roll): a, are, awe, aye, ewe, eye, heir, oh, ooh, owe, sure, who.  A tidy dozen.

Actually now that I think about it:

  • the “h” in “heir” is also in “annihilate”, “Delhi”, “exhaust”, “exhibit”, “Graham”, “gingham”, “honest”, “hour”, “honour”, “piranha”, “posthumous”, “shepherd”, “vehement”, “vehicle” and a bunch of other words,
  • the “s” in sure is also in “asphalt”, “capsule”, “censure”, “glockenspiel”, “insulate”, “peninsula”, “spiel” and “sugar”,
  • and apart from their final letter “e”, the words “are”, “awe”, “aye”, “ewe” and “owe” have regular spellings.

Anyway my point is that the great divide between “regular” and “irregular” words is IMHO a false one, and sounding-out is a still a useful strategy to apply to written words in general, including the ones that contain funny spellings.

This is especially true because you can help yourself remember funny spellings by saying funny-spelt words a funny way – who else says “fuch-see-uh” in their heads when they write “fuschia”, and “buzz-i-ness” when they write “business”? A topic for a future post.



1. The usual final consonant spellings after a checked or "short" vowel are:

  • The sound "g": plain g, as in bag, peg, dig, fog, lug (making the gg in "egg" irregular)
  • The sound "f": ff as in riff, off, puff (making the single f in "if" irregular)
  • The sound "s": ss as in crass, less, miss, toss, fuss (arguably making "bus", "gas", "this", "us" and "yes" irregular).
  • The sound "ch": tch as in batch, retch, stitch, scotch, hutch (making "much", "rich", "such" and "which" irregular)

2. But "four" and "your" are like "amour", "court", "course" "gourd", "gourmet" "mourn", "pour", "source", "tourmaline", "tournament" and "troubadour", so whether this "our" is an irregular spelling or a pattern in its own right, I'll leave you to decide.

3. Because the pattern "all" usually sounds like "ball", "call", "fall", "hall", "wall" etc, the word "shall" is here deemed irregular.

4. The word "very" would be more regular if spelt "verry" (like "berry", "cherry", "ferry", "Kerry" and "Terry"). But there is a lot of this sort of non-doubling after a checked vowel around, e.g. body (not boddy), copy (not coppy), seven (not sevven, except that we don't usually double the letter v) so whether this is even irregular is arguable.


12 responses to “Irregular words?”

  1. Onlyamanatee says:

    NB 'who' = 'wh' as in whole and 'o' as in to (and the multiple derivatives/compounds of each). So unusual, but not alone 🙂

  2. Matt says:

    Ummm… the “h” in posthumous, vehement, and vehicle do not match the pronunciation of heir, rather they sound as the “h” in humor, hello, and high. Also, the “s” in asphalt, capsule, insulate, and peninsula sound as the “s” in aspire and sun.

    • alison says:

      Hi Matt, maybe this is how you pronounce the words, but in the phonetic transcriptions in the Macquarie Dictionary I used when compiling these lists, there is no /h/ sound in posthumous, vehement or vehicle, and the letter s in asphalt, capsule and peninsula is pronounced as the palatal fricative /sh/. I daresay your accent is different from mine. As I say on my website, my lists reflect general Australian English.

      • Stephen Coleman says:

        It was interesting to learn that Australian English pronounces all of those ‘su’ words with the /ʃ/ sound. I’m American and we use /ʃ/ only for sure, censure, and sugar, although some may pronounce it also in loan words like glockenspiel.

        • alison says:

          Very interesting! I thought accent differences were mostly about vowels, but the more I look the more I find consonant differences. In this office we were all very surprised by the US pronunciation of ‘buoy’ (booey? do you all say that?) and wondering why it’s not pronounced the same way as ‘buoyant’. Or maybe you pronounce the ‘u’ in ‘buoyant’ as well?

          • Stephen Coleman says:

            It’s been “boo-ey” for buoy and “boy-ant” for buoyant all of my life, but I never noticed the inconsistency until now.
            However, I remember as a boy hearing ads for Lifebuoy soap and it was definitely pronounced “life boy”, so I don’t know what’s up with that.

  3. Kcurt24 says:

    People. I can’t fit people into any pattern.

    • alison says:

      True, I couldn’t find any other word with “eo” for the sound /ee/ either, and I went through the whole dictionary. I tell kids that the original word was Latin “populus”, and keeping an “o” in it was a way of linking it to words like “population” and “popular” and “vox populi” that have something to do with people, see Often very weird spellings have an etymological reason for them, which can be looked up in an etymology dictionary, and can be used to show kids there is a pattern/reason, it’s not just random. This helps make studying spelling an interesting, meaningful activity, a bit like hunting for fossils in words, instead of just a dull, rote memorisation activity.

    • Brian T. McKinnon says:

      In people, the o is silent, because it is the second of two vowels where the first one usually sounds as its alphabet letter. The pl is a consonant (one sound, not the blend, but written with two letters. Vowels and consonants are Sounds, not letters. The e doesn’t do anything but is needed in a word like sampled, or sampling. Would love your comments on my reply. Thank you. Retired teacher, 50+ years experience, but still tutoring with guaranteed progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *