Student Guide: Spelling Variation

black student reading

The way that we spell varies according to our linguistic identities and life experiences.

Student writers may vary their spelling, including for rhetorical reasons, based on the sounds of African American English.

For example, all varieties of English may vary consonant clusters at the end of words, but African American English uses this pattern more widely than other English varieties.

Example of consonant cluster variation: guests pronounced gues

In writing, this pattern relates to spelling variation in past tense verbs. Students who use consonant cluster variation may spell past tense verbs the same as the present tense forms:

  • accustom for accustomed
  • gossip for gossiped

An instructor may respond to this pattern as about grammar rather than pronunciation and spelling:

  • “make tenses consistent”
  • “use past tense”

In some cases, the absence of an -ed suffix may indicate variation in tense rather than spelling. However, there also may be cases where a student pronounces and spells the past tense form of particular words in particular contexts without –ed. Comments about tense may thus not recognize this pattern in students’ language.

Implications for Grading your Writing

As with grammar patterns, your instructor may be unfamiliar with African American English pronunciation patterns that influence spelling. In office hours, you might say something like, “I see that you noted I need to use past tense here. The form gossip can be a past tense form in African American English because it can be pronounced without the ed.” Then, you can decide if you want to continue with that pattern in your revisions or use a more standardized spelling. Either way, it will be helpful for your instructor to know what you were originally aiming for.

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