Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

Hello all, 

I've been getting tons of great questions lately, and can't resist sharing them here.

A teacher from Alberta recently emailed me with this questions:

I have been asked about 2 words and the cannot figure out. Why is there a g in align? Why is “straight” spelled the way it is?

I have some ideas of how to start to answer these questions, but I'm sure I can use the RS community's help too!

First let me look at <align>.

I assume that this question arises as it seems like a "silent g" which doesn't seem like a real spelling feature. There are a number of reasons why this question makes sense though. The idea of "align" seems so related to the base <line>, so why not the spelling <*aline>? 

Well, the fact is that is not the spelling, so there must be a good reason out there somewhere. What I can say, is that this is not the only base in English with a final <gn> for the phoneme /n/. By typing gn$ into the search field of the Word Searcher, I get 20 words with a final <gn>. Getting rid of derivations, I end up with the following words:

sign, align, deign, feign, benign, impugn, araign, foreign, campaign, and soverign

Hmm. Interesting that all but one of these words has an <i> preceding the <gn>. That's worth keeping in mind. 

Also in all of these words, the final phoneme is /n/. This looks like good evidence of a digraph <gn> for /n/. With that I consult my trusty LEX grapheme cards and I find this information: 


So the first key response to this question is that there is no "silent g" in <align>. Instead, this word simply uses the digraph <gn> for the final /n/. We can still ask, though, why not <*aline>? I just checked etymonline and found some very interesting infromation to share on that:


align (v.) Look up align at
early 15c., "to copulate" (of wolves, dogs), lit. "to range (things) in a line," from M.Fr. aligner, from O.Fr. alignier "set, lay in line," from à "to" + lignier"to line," from L. lineare, from linea (see line). Transitive or reflective sense of "to fall into line" is from 1853. International political sense is attested from 1934. No justification for the French spelling, and aline was an early native form. Related: Aligned; aligning.

When we see a suprising spelling, it is always a good idea to check the history of the word. Perhaps some other references can shed more light on this. For now all I can say is that I see <gn>s in the French influences too, so this grapheme seems to signal that history to us. 

How about <straight>?

One thing that comes to mind right a way is that this word has the homophone <strait>. So even if I can't go any farther than that, at least I can tell my students that its a good thing that the spelling for the word <straight> as in a 'straight line' isn't spelled the same as the word <strait> as in the "Strait of Gibraltar."

For those who have the Real Spelling Tool Box, Theme 2A presents this convention:

  • the pattern of < vowel + igh > as a way of representing the ‘long < a >’

The word <straight> then, seems to be following this convention. 

Now, other than to avoid colliding with the spelling <strait>, I can't say why, this word uses the <igh> trigraph, but I suspect that the answer lies in the history of the word. I will let others investigate their resources for that. 

Whether or not we arrive at a final answer to this question, there is certainly much to learn from the investigation so far!

Any other ideas welcome!





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