The Spellings of “Shun”

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Commenting on my post about the spelling “thru” for through, a reader writes:

And, I faintly remember that there are some 52 ways of spelling the syllable -shun. Can you please, in one of your articles, or series of them, [list] them? As far as I can remember there are only two words that end with the spelling -shion for shun. Fashion and cushion. -tion, cion, sion, ssion, and how many more can be listed this way? It should be an interesting exercise.

I think it would take considerable effort to come up with “52 ways of spelling the syllable -shun,” but I have seen lists of as many as thirteen.

Critics of English spelling delight in cataloging as many different ways of spelling a sound as possible in an attempt to prove that English spelling is impossible to master. I tend to agree with Romalda Spalding that the problem isn’t English spelling; it’s the way that spelling is taught:

It is the failure to combine the sounds with the spelling of English which makes it seem so difficult to learn and makes so many common words seem to be exceptions to the general rules of spelling. —The Writing Road to Reading.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a great many English words that defy all phonetic explanation, but when the beginner is taught the sound/symbol correspondences as thoroughly as they can be taught, fewer exceptions remain to be memorized.

Building on the work of Anna Gillingham and Dr. Samuel Orton, Spalding presents the sounds of English in terms of phonograms, not letters or syllables. Most of the spelling permutations of “shun” are covered as the beginning reader learns the four phonograms that can represent the “sh” [ʃ] sound: sh, ti, si, ci.

English spelling isn’t easy, but it is not the arcane science that it’s made out to be. If schools would adopt some version of the Gillingham-Orton Multisensory Method of reading instruction beginning with kindergarten, the appalling reading failure rate in U.S. schools could be significantly reduced. As things are now, this efficient method for teaching reading, writing, and spelling is kept in reserve for children who fail to learn to read by grade three or four. In some school districts, that can be as many as half the children in the fourth grade.

Here are some “shun” spellings from Page Four of the student-kept notebook at the center of Spalding instruction:


Words like fashion, and coercion are covered by different rules. The example “ssion” is not a valid spelling of “shun.” In a word like succession, for example, the first s belongs to the second syllable: suc-ces-sion.

It’s easy to ridicule English spelling. It’s a little harder to master the rules and patterns.

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7 thoughts on “The Spellings of “Shun””

  1. Hello,
    The problem with English spelling is, of course, that it is not completely phonetic.

    This causes problems for people who do not have strong “visual” memories—for in order to get the spelling right one has to first “see” the word in the mind’s eye. One has to “see” the word “nation” as a single figure, a single design.

    I once asked my Chinese friend, “How can you remember hundreds of thousands of ideograms?” He replied “You do same thing when you read English.” Until that time I had never focused on the fact that, when we read English, we are not “sounding out” each word phoneticaly, but are basically seeing each word as a single “ideogram”.

    Although the word “nation” can be sounded out, it is also an ideogram which is instantly recognized by its shape, its design—not unlike a Chinese ideogram.

    Perhaps we should teach spelling by flashing a word, for a tenth of a second, on a screen—thus forcing the student to burn the shape of the word into his mind.


  2. Thanks for responding to my sugges’tion’. Though the word is pronounced sugges-tion… like question… most of the Indian speakers pronounce it as suggeshun. Now, let us keep expanding the list. Think of more possible -shuns…. (BTW, if you are a Pitmanite, a follower of Pitman’s system of Shorthand (whose outlines are meticulously based on Oxford pronunciation) you will agree that mission and fission are written as -shun in Pitman’s system.

    Now. How about the name Goschen? (See: _1st_Viscount_Goschen)There used to be a building in Chennai, India, with the name Goschen block. This name was pronounced as another -shun in India. How do you pronounce it.

  3. Perhaps my tonge has been tripped up by my New Jersey grade-school training, but as I sound out some of the examples given in The Spelling of Shun I hear and “feel” different spellings. Mansion sounds to me as man-chun more than man-shun, and my tonge moves differently. (Also pen-chun, ten-chun.) And at Hari’s suggestion, I hear it as sugges-jun. My tonge seems to have difficulty in the transition between the two syllables.

  4. Phil,
    On this occasion I must disagree with you. The problem with the way children are being taught to read in U.S. schools is that English IS being taught as if it were Chinese.

    The experienced reader does recognize English words as wholes, but the beginning reader needs to be taught to sound them out if the goal is to produce independent readers and competent spellers. Rudolf Flesch explains the difference between Chinese and English in Why Johnny Can’t Read.

  5. Love your work Maeve! These are amongst the most interesting entries on the subject.

    I wonder if you might comment on the role of language history in teaching English spelling and grammar? I have an armchair penchant for the subject, so it may just be me (I’ve long since learnt to accept my oddness or geekiness), but I wonder if giving the student an insight into historical changes in spelling and pronunciation might not help. Or would it simply make a tricky problem more complex?

    Moreover, how is it that Europeans (e.g. Swedes, Dutch, et al.) and Asians (e.g. Singaporeans) taught English from an early age seem better able, on average, to grasp spelling than those in the Anglosphere? Or is this just a cultural cringe on my part?

    And spare a thought for those of us with a non-rhotic accent; frequently mispelling words which – to our ears – sound very similar, e.g. splendoured/splendid, fishes/fissures/fishers, founded/foundered, metered/meted. (Do North American students confuse ‘caught’ and ‘cot’?)

  6. Hi Maeve,
    I agree with you that phonetic spelling MUST first be understood by English readers. Yes–Nollo contendere! I was just ASSUMING that the reader already understood the phonetics of the situation. But phonetics is not enough–for English. For Turkish, phonetics alone is sufficient—but not for English.

    In general—people make spelling errors because many English words are not sufficiently phonetic to be able to uniquely identify the spelling. French is that way also. In either language, just hearing the word does not allow you to correctly figure out how to spell it.

    That is why I suggested to flash the word before the student—so that he is forced to perceive its image. It is the remembered image that makes the difference between the correct and incorrect spelling.

    Yes–one MUST first understand the phonetics—and then one MUST remember the image of the word–for otherwise the speller might make the wrong choice among the many phonetic spellings that exist for a word.

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