Word class and spelling in English

Word class and spelling in English

First Author: Rebecca Treiman -- Washington University
Additional authors/chairs: 
Rebecca Jewell; Kristian Berg; Mark Aronoff
Keywords: Spelling, Grammar and syntax
Abstract / Summary: 

Purpose: The spelling of an English word may reflect the word’s syntactic category, not just the sounds within it. In two experiments, we asked whether experienced spellers are sensitive to one proposed effect of word class: that content words (e.g., the noun inn) must be spelled with at least three letters, whereas function words (e.g., the preposition in) may have two letters.

Method: University students heard VC (vowel-consonant) and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) nonwords that were used as nouns (content words) or prepositions (function words). Participants either spelled the items on their own or chose between options with single and double final consonants (e.g., ib vs. ibb).

Results: Participants in the choice task favored final consonant doubling for VCs that were used as nouns. They usually chose single final consonants for VCs that were used as prepositions and for CVCs. Effects of word class and phonological length were also found in the spelling production task. Final consonant doubling was less common in the production task than the choice task, reflecting participants’ reluctance to produce this relatively uncommon spelling pattern.

Conclusions: The English spelling system includes some cues to lexical category, including that words with short spellings are often function words. Our results, together with those of other studies, suggest that adults have some implicit knowledge about these properties of English spelling. However, their influence on spelling performance is qualified by other factors, in line with the theory that performance reflects the combined influences of multiple patterns.