Draft revision of this post on April 12, 2022

Hello all! 

I was recently reminded about this post when I was alerted to a question about it. The description of 'orthographic markers' below reflects an understanding that I gained from working with Real Spelling and then reinforced and expanded by conversations with Gina Cooke and my interpretation of Richard Venezky's (1999) American Way of Spelling. However, Real Spelling and Gina Cooke and others have subsequently raised excellent challenges to a key part of the analysis below. I've been in the process of trying to understand the challenges to the description below for some time. In a discussion with Gina Cooke at LEX  she presented some additional arguments which convinced me that I needed to change how I talk about these minimal orthographic units of 1- to 3-letters that do not represent a phoneme in any of the pronunciations of the morphemic element in which they are found. 

My previous understanding of a grapheme was that it must represent a phoneme. Based on that assumption, a letter or letter-combination that does not represent a phoneme in any pronunciation of the morpheme in which it is found could not be considered a 'grapheme'. For example consider the following letters or letter combinations in the following words (all are free bases):

  • the <w> in "two"
  • the <o> in "people"
  • the final, non-syllabic <e> ('single, silent <e>' if you wish) in words like "make" or "love" or "please" 
  • the <ugh> in "caught"

In the description of my old post below, I would have described these as "orthographic markers" because whatever word these bases build, the identified orthographic structures do not represent a phoneme. My previous assumption was that a necessary function of a grapheme is that it must represent a pronunced phoneme in some member of the morphological family. As a result I treated these letters or letter combinations not as graphemes, but 'orthographic markers.' This phrase 'marker' for this function is used by Venezky (1999). However, when Gina Cooke thought of orthographic markers as separate from grhaphmes yeaas ago, she also identified 'markers' that were comprised of more than one letter (like the <ugh> in "caught"). Since the term 'marker letter' could not include mult-letter markers, I moved away from saying 'marker letter' to saying 'orthographic marker'.

Some colleagues that were changing their thinking on this topic had started to present me with linguistic sources that did not restrict their definition of graphemes such that they had to represent a phoneme. I already knew that graphemes always play many functions. The function we are most familiar with is that of representing phonemes. But it is also the case that all graphemes have etymologies - so that means every grapheme that represents a phoneme is also marking etymological information of some sort. And we know that the pronunciation of some graphemes can be marked by subsequent letters in the word. For example, in the word "noticing" the <c> grapheme is representing the /s/ phoneme. We know that the <c> grapheme can only represent the /s/ phoneme if it is followed by the letters <e> <i> or <y> as reflected by this grapheme-poneme diagram from Real Spelling.

 Screen Shot 2022 04 12 at 3.58.54 PM

With that understanding, let's consider the <i> in the <-ing> suffix of "noticing" and see what functions we can see it plays in this word.

  • It is associated witht he 'short i' (/ɪ/ phoneme) 
  • It is marking the pronunciation of the <c> grapheme as /s/ (otherwise, the <c> could not represent the pronounciation of the word "practicing.") 

So in "noticing" the <i> grapheme is a minimal orthographic structure that is performing two functions. It is representing a phoneme and it is marking the pronunciation of a previous grapheme (the <c>).

In my previous understanding, I would classify this <i> as a grapheme because one of the jobs of this minimal orthographic structure is to represent a phoneme.

But now let's consider the final, non-syllabic <e> in the word "notice" on which "noticing" is built. When we say this word, we see that there is no phoneme pronunced in association with that final, non-syllabic <e>.

I would propose the full morphological analysis of "notice" as having a base <note> and an <-ice> suffix with this word sum: note/ + ice --> notice.

So this final, non-syllabic <e> is not in the base, but in a suffix. 

Nontheless, not matter what word I can find in the morphological family of the base <note> with the following <-ice> suffix, that <e> is never pronounced. In the wider search on the Word Searcher, I find only 13 words with the spelling <notice>:

FreeBSD Search Results for "notice"
(13 matches)

In this case, we have a final, non-syllabic <e> that is not there to mark the pronunciation of the vowel letter <i> with a single consonant letter between it like we see in "make" or "cute". Instead, this <e> has the function of marking the pronunciation of the <c>. But this final, non-syllabic <e> does not represent a phoneme in and of itself. Based on my previous definition of graphemes as having the necessary function of representing a phoneme, I refered to such a letter as "an orthographic marker" to distinguish it from graphemes that can provide many marking functions, as well as marking an association to a phoneme. 

What has changed?

At this point, I am convinced that all these different functions of minimal orthographic structures can still be fulfilled by graphemes - even if they do not represent a pronounced phoneme. 

Reconsider the words I presented above above:

  • the <w> in "two"
  • the <o> in "people"
  • the final, non-syllabic <e> ('single, silent <e>' if you wish) in words like "make" or "love" or "please" 
  • the <ugh> in "caught"

Not only is their no pronunciation assosicated with the identified letters or letter combinations, but if we analyze the phonemes of thes words and the corresponding orthographic structures, we can see that the phonology of these words can be accounted for by the the graphemes that ar left if we if we recognize that the bolded letters are graphemes that do not represent any phoneme at all. 

There is no *<wo> digraph in "two". The <t> and the <o> graphemes are available to represent the phonology of this word.

There is no *<eo> digraph in "people" for that 'long e'. The <e> grapheme can represent that phoneme. The <o> is there to mark a connection to related words like "popular" and "population".

There is no *<augh> four-letter grapheme in "caught". The <a> grapheme is available to represent the vowel phoneme /ɔː/ in <caught> (compare "ball"). Thus we do not need the <ugh> for any aspect of the pronunciation of "caught". Instead as I learned from Gina, the <ugh> often marks a relationship to a related word with a <tch>. Think "caught" / "catch". 

There is more to all of this than I'm describing here, but I felt obligated to provide at least a brief message of the changing of my thinking on this topic since my old thinking is reflected in this post below.

For the moment, I think it is more productive to keep this old description of my thinking in contrast to my current thinking for others to consider.

The key thing to keep in mind is that all of the functions I described about what I called "orthographic markers" below are still exactly the same - its just that I now agree with the argument of Gina and others and established  linguistic definitions that present graphemes as the minimal distinctive orthographic structure (a form) which can take on multiple linguistic functions, but that it is not necessary that one of those functions be the representation of a phoneme.

I will leave this note on my revised thinking here for now, but I will need to re-read and think more clearly about how to articulate my thinking on this. But for now, I'm delighted to be able to share the evolution of my understanding. I hope this helps the reader as well. 

Here is my original post...


One of the prime way I deepen my orthographic understanding is by responding to questions I receive from people I study with. 

Jenny Moody is a teacher educator in the UK who started studying in my on-line courses a little while ago. It was immediately apparent that she saw the implications of the orthogrphic concepts I was presenting and she dug in deeply. One reason her orthographic learning has grown so fast is not just that she studies hard, but when she identifies something she is not sure about, she works hard at posing her questions in a clear scientific manner. (See another recent post on posing scientific quesitons here.)

The other day Jenny wrote with excellent questions about "orthograhpic markers" that we studied in my 5-session course. I thought I'd share questions and my response here so that more can learn from this discussion of this important orthographic structure. 

My text is in bold.

Hey Jenny!

Hello Pete

Please can you help – I am trying to make sure I understand 'orthographic markers' and how to identify them in words.

1. Is 'Orthographic Markers' an umbrella term which would include the different types of markers?
Yes! In the same way that “grapheme” can be used as an umbrella term for single letter graphemes, digraphs and trigraphs.

2. A plural cancelling marker where the <e> at the end of the word <please> is not a grapheme but differentiates it from the word <pleas>?  Are there any other words where this happens?  Do I need to look at homophones?
Yes the final non-syllabic <e> (single silent <e>) is ALWAYS an orthographic marker. In the word “please” it can be described as a “plural cancelling marker” which is also functioning to prevent this word from being spelled the same as its homophone “please.” But a word does not need there to be a another word that is homophonic plural to have a plural cancelling marker. The word “house” has a plural cancelling marker, but I have no knowledge of a base <hou> that could be made plural by adding an <-s> suffix.

3. A letter that marks the pronunciation of a preceding letter in a word, for example, in the word <fleece> is the <e> marking the pronunciation of the preceding <c>?  What about <police>, <disease>, <produce> – are these the same?
In the words “fleece,” “police” and “produce,” the orthographic marker <e> is signaling the pronunciation of the <c> grapheme as /s/. 
But in “disease” that <e> is functioning as a plural canceling marker — it is playing no role in the pronunciation of the <s>. The <s> grapheme can spell /s/ or /z/ in almost any circumstance. The only circumstance I know of in which the <s> does not spell /z/ is when it is word initial. 

4. What about the <w> in <two> <twin> <twice> – could this be an etymological marker, not a grapheme, because it is providing relevant historical meaning for understanding the spelling <two> and explains why there is a <w>?
Yes the <w> in <two> is an orthographic marker (umbrella term). If we want to describe the kind of marker that it is, we can refer to it as an “etymological marker” . 

5. In words where a consonant at the end of the base element has to be doubled when a vowel suffix is added, for example, chop(p) + ed ➞ <chopped>? Is that added <p> the marker or is it the doble consonant that acts as the marker?  What sort of marker is it?  Would it be a morphological marker?
Yes, I consider a “doubled consonant” due to suffixing -- like the second <p> in <chopped> -- to be an orthographic marker. 
Otherwise we have to multiply entities unnecessarily to a ridiculous extent. If that <p> is not a marker, it would have to be considered part of a <pp> digraph. Then we would have to have  a <p> grapheme and a <pp> digraph — and then we’d have to do that with every consonant other than <w> or <x> (the two words that can be considered consonants that never double). (Click HERE for a page on my website on the principle of 'elegance' that informs this understanding.)
It is not necessary to give a name to every function of orthographic markers. We can just use the term to identify a letter or letter sequence that is not a grapheme. 
But if I were to choose to give the “doubled consonant letter due to suffixing” a name — “morphological marker” would be a totally valid description.
Consider the word sums for “hopping” and “hoping”.
hope/ + ing —> hoping
hop(p) + ing —> hopping
The “doubled <p>” orthographic marker is marking the morphemic boundary, and the fact that the base of “hopping” is NOT <hope>. The doubled consonant letter marker can tell us whether or not the base the vowel suffix is fixed to is spelled with a final, non-syllabic <e> or not.
When I talk about this orthographic structure - the “orthographic marker” I try to be very clear that we do not need to have names for all the types of markers. 
There are some useful descriptive phrases like “plural cancelling marker” or “etymological marker” that we can provide clear definitions for. But instead of thinking “What is the name of this orthographic marker in this word?” I recommend focusing on first determining if the letter or letter sequence you are looking at  is a grapheme, part of a grapheme, or an orthographic marker. 
We can do that without having a “name” for that marker. 
But what we should do is try to understand the function or functions of any letter or letter sequence we have identified as an orthographic marker. 
Hope that helps!
Jenny then responded with a follow up. Her next question and my response follows...
Good stuff!

not sure I understand why the <e> at the end of <disease> is a plural cancelling marker. 

In terms of “disease” that <e> is a plural cancelling marker which means the spelling conforms to the  convention that no complete English word is allowed to appear like a plural if it is not.
That convention applies whether or not there is a spelling <disea> or not. 
I use <please> and <pleas> as a way to introduce the concept because it is easier to see, but that’s why I move right to <house> right after - to give an example of a word where removing the final <e> does not leave a word that actually is a plural — just one that could be confused for a ‘plural something’.

Are <disease> "not at ease" and <disease> "disorder of structure or function"  homophones? 

You have described two connotations of the word <disease>. But we can see that “disorder of structure and function” is just a kind of “not at easeness”.

What you have identified is not that these are two different words (with different historical roots bringing their own sense and meaning). Instead you have found a single word “disease” that is polysemous. One word with many meanings.
We only call words homophones if they are two different words that can be pronounced the same. On the relatively rare occasions in which we have words we think might be homophones that are also homographic the only certain way to determine if they are actually homophonic instead of polysemous, is to do the ‘meaning test’ — see if they share a historical root.
When the spelling is the same, the ’structure test’ cannot distinguish them. The ‘meaning test’ is not just is there some kind of connection I can perceive. Instead it is a falsifiable test — do the two words I’m wondering about get their sense and meaning from the same historical root, or do they get that from distinct roots.
Take these pairs
bat — the animal
bat — the base ball bat
It is not surprising that these words do not share a root — so these are homophonic homophones. 
block — a wood block
block — I will block you in football
If you look up this noun and verb in your dictionary, you will find they share the same historical root. The word “block” is polysemous. We can’t call them ‘homophones’ because it is one word with many meanings. The verb is a ‘metaphorical’ sense of putting a physical block in your way. 
Polysemy can get quite extreme. Think about the ’table’ you eat dinner on and the ’table’ with numbers on in in your computer spreadsheet. I could say, ‘let’s table that discussion for now’. That base even constructs the ‘computer tablet’ (<table/ + et —> tablet>)! 
In a deep sense these are all some sort of ‘flat thing we put things on. Even 'tabling that discussion" is metaphorically letting an idea sit on the table until we come back to it. 
From Etymonline...
table (n.)
late 12c., "board, slab, plate," from Old French table "board, square panel, plank; writing table; picture; food, fare" (11c.), and late Old English tabele "writing tablet, gaming table," from Germanic *tabal (source also of Dutch tafel, Danish tavle, Old High German zabel "board, plank," German Tafel). Both the French and Germanic words are from Latin tabula "a board, plank; writing table; list, schedule; picture, painted panel," originally "small flat slab or piece" usually for inscriptions or for games (source also of Spanish tabla, Italian tavola), of uncertain origin, related to Umbrian tafle "on the board."
Jenny, there is something about they way you pose questions that forces me to to find ways to try and be clearer about how I describe ideas I discuss all the time. 
I learn so much from your questions!