Spelling reform in English: Webster's attempt at systematization


Webster, Noah. [1868?]. Webster's improved dictionary of the English language, exhibiting the origin, orthography, pronunciation, & definition of words; embracing all the principal terms used in literature, science & art, according to the best authorities; and likewise giving the synonymous terms for nearly all the words explained. With a sketch of the origin and progress of the art of writing by Henry Noel Humphreys, and a treatise on shorthand, or stenography, by Isaac Pitman. 2 vols. London, Glasgow, & Edinburgh: William Mackenzie. Pp. xxi-xxii.

Orthography of Dr. Webster, as exhibited in this volume

  1. Terminations in our changed into or. -- Such words as favor, labor, &c., formerly ending in our, drop the u. One word, however, is here given in both ways, viz., Savior, Saviour.
  2. Terminations in ck changed into c. -- Words of more than one syllable, ending in ic or iac, which formerly ended in k, have dropped the k, as in music, maniac, &c. Add to these almanac, sandarac, limbec (from alembic); also havoc. The k is retained (1) in a few derivatives, as colicky, trafficker, mimicking, &c., to prevent an erroneous pronunciation; (2) in all monosyllables, as sick, stick, &c, and hence in their compounds, as candlestick, &c.; (3) in all other terminations except ic and iac, as in arrack, &c.
  3. Terminations in re changed into er. -- Such words as centre, metre, &c., with their compounds, have the re changed into er, as center, meter, &c. Some hundreds of words like chamber, cider, diameter, &c., have already undergone this change, which is here extended to about twenty more, to complete the analogy. Acre, massacre, and chancre are necessarily excepted, because the change would lead to an erroneous pronunciation. The above words, however, are here given in both modes of spelling.
  4. Words in which the Final Consonant is not doubled in adding such Formatives as ing, ed, er, &c. -- It is a rule extending to many hundreds of cases, that, in adding to a workd such formatives as ing, ed, er, &c., a single consonant at the end of a word is doubled when the accent falls on the last syllable, as in forgetting, beginning; but is not doubled when the accent falls on any preceding syllable, as in benefiting, gardener, &c. This rule has been violated in the case of about fifty words ending in l, whose derivatives have had the l doubled, as traveller, &c. These words are here restored to their true analogous spelling, as recommended by Walker, Lowth, Perry, and others, as in traveling, canceled, leveler, counselor, duelist, marvelous, &c. On the same principle, woolen is spelled with a single l. It odes not interfere with this rule that chancellor, and the derivatives of metal and crystal as metalline, metallurgy, crystalline, crystallize, &c., have the l doubled, since they come directly from the Latin cancellarius and metallum, and the Greek krýstallos. The above rule is also applied to the derivatives of worship and bias, making them worshiping, worshiped, worshiper, biasing, biased. Bigoted has already taken its true spelling with but one t, and such should be the spelling of carburated, sulphureted, &c.
  5. Distinction between Verbs in ize and ise. -- Verbs from the Greek izo, and others formed in analogy with them, have the termination ize, as baptize, legalize, &c. Catechise and exorcise are exceptions. Verbs, and also some nouns, derived directly from the French, with a few from other sources, end in ise, as advertise, advise, affranchise, amortise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, criticise, demise, despise, devise, disfranchise, disguise, emprise, enfranchise, enterprise, exercise, manumise, merchandise, misprise (to mistake), premise, reprise (to take again), revise, supervise, surmise, surprise.
  6. Terminations in able. -- Able, when incorporated into words ending with silent e, cuts it off, as in blamable, except after c or g, as in noticeable, changeable.
  7. Compounds of Words ending in ll. -- Such compounds as befall, miscall, install, forestall, inthrall, enroll, retain the double l, to prevent a false pronunciation, befâl, enrôl, &c. For the same reason, double l should be retained in the nouns installment, inthrallment, thralldom, and enrollment.
  8. Defense, offense, and pretense. -- In these words, s is substituted for c, because s is used in the derivatives, as defensive, offensive, pretension. The words expense, recompense, and license have, on this ground, undergone the same alteration within comparatively a short period, and a change in the three mentioned above would complete the analogy. These words are here given in both forms of spelling.
  9. Foretell, distill, instill, fulfill. -- These words retain the ll of their primitives, for it must be retained in the participles and other derivatives, as foretelling, distiller, &c. In this case it is only necessary to remember the rule, that the spelling of the original words tell, still, fill, is retained in all the derivatives.
  10. Connection, deflection, inflection, reflection. -- These follow the spelling of their verbs connect, &c.
  11. Derivatives of dull, skill, will, and full. -- These retain the ll, as dullness, fullness, skillful, willful, to prevent the inconvenience of exceptions to a general rule. Walker says, there is no reason why we should not write dullness, fullness, skillful, and willful, as well as stiffness, gruffness, and crossness.
  12. Derivatives of villain. -- The derivatives of villain ought to retain the i, as in villainous, villainy, &c. This is the case in all similar words when the ain is not under the accent, as mountainous from mountain, captaincy from captain, &c. Both modes of spelling, however, are given in the volume.
  13. Mould and moult. -- These words should be written mold and molt, like gold, bold, fold, colt, &c., in which the u has been dropped or was never introduced; but they are here given in both ways.
  14. Terms in Chemistry. -- The orthography oxyd (from oxýs) is considered preferable to oxide, because in all other derivatives the Greek [upsilon] is represented by the English y, as in oxygen, hydrogen, &c. In such terminations as chlorid, ammid, &c., the final e is not used, because they are formed in analogy with acid, and the e is unnecessary, and might lead to the error of giving a long sound to the preceding i. Such words as salacin, cerin, veratrin, &c., also omit the final e in most cases, because it is unnecessary, though it is retained in bromine, chlorine, fluorine, iodine, and a very few others. The spelling of the last class of words has the authority of Brande, the Penny Cyclopedia, and some others.
  15. Woe. -- This word takes the final e, like doe, foe, hoe, sloe, toe, and all similar nouns of one syllable. The termination in o belongs among monosyllables to the other parts of speech, as go, so,and to nouns of more than one syllable, as motto, potato, tomato, &c.
  16. Practice, as a Verb. -- This verb should be spelled like the noun, with a c, as in notice, apprentice, and all similar words in which the accent precedes the last syllable. The distinction of spelling between the noun and verb belongs properly to words accented on the last syllable, as device, n., devise (pronounced de-vize´), v. To apply the distinction here, and spell the verb practise, tends to give it the same pronunciation (prac-tize´), as we often find in uneducated persons; but as this spelling, though in opposition to the regular analogy, is more prevalent, the verb is here given in both ways.
  17. Drouth is given as spelled by Spenser, Bacon, &c., and as still extensively pronounced; and hight as spelled by Milton, and derived from high. They are, however, placed under drought and height, the more ordinary spelling, though on some accounts, the old spelling is to be preferred.


  1. Commentary forthcoming....

Michael Everson, Evertype, Westport, 2001-09-21