This Poem Reminds Us That English Spelling Will Never Be Easy

A 1920s poem demonstrating how arbitrary English spelling can be is enjoying a new lease of life on social media, reminding us that it's not easy to be an accurate speller.

Typewriter picture from Shutterstock

The fullest version of The Chaos by Dr Gerard Nolst Trenité runs to some 274 lines, though the version I've seen popping up on Facebook is only half that length. (The poem went through numerous versions in Trenité's lifetime.) The first eight lines make the point clearly:

I will teach you in my verse Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse. I will keep you, Susy, busy, Make your head with heat grow dizzy; Tear in eye, your dress you'll tear; Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

You can read the full 274-line version here.

History does mean that English spelling and pronunciation are weird and arbitrary (true of most languages but particularly true in this case). However, that doesn't mean you can throw your hands up in the air and just write whatever you like. Those rules are tricky, but millions of people have learned them. If you start spelling busy as bizzy, you're not going to create a professional impression.

Over time, spelling and usage do indeed change — but this poem is almost 100 years old and most of the variations it catalogues have survived. We're just going to have to buckle down and learn them. Accuracy matters.

Lifehacker's Mind Your Language column offers bossy advice on improving your writing.


    You can write anything you like As long as you understand only the recipient need understand.

      They might be able to decode your message, but they'll also think you're stupid. Taking that approach would certainly cause a lack of trust / respect in you, in a business environment.

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