Orthographic Features

Orthography is a term that refers to the conventions and rules of written language. The three orthographic features in English are spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation.

Orthographic Features Orthographic Features

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Table of contents

    If we look at the etymology of the word orthography we can see how it relates to its definition. The word orthography can be broken down into two Ancient Greek words, roughly translating 'to write correctly':

    Ὀρθός “orthos” (correct)

    γράφειν “graphein” (to write).

    What are orthographic features?

    Orthographic features are the standard grammatical rules that are followed when writing a language down. The technicalities of the orthographic features of a language depend on the writing system used by the language.

    Take road signs, for example. While they are not a language, they can be almost universally understood as they use symbols to communicate general ideas rather than specific meanings. With this understanding of them in mind, it is clear that they don't require certain orthographic features.

    Orthography is important as it helps the reader to understand the text and makes the text more appealing to read.

    English orthography examples

    The orthographic features of the English language encompass the spelling, punctuation and capitalization of letters within writing, which the next few paragraphs will expand on.

    These factors set parameters around the way we read and write. Next, we will go into detail about how these elements work and what happens when orthography isn't used properly.


    Spelling is the way that we order the alphabet to form words in a standardised way.

    Without a standardised spelling system, it would be hard to communicate through writing as we would have to decipher the meaning of words.

    In certain situations, poor spelling can completely alter the meaning of a word; for example with the frequently confused pairings of homophones:

    Stationary and stationery:

    • Stationary = still

    • Stationery = writing and office materials

    There are also situations where the meaning may seem similar but, in fact, there is a difference in word class:

    Practice and practice:

    Affect and effect:

    On the other hand, bad spelling in more formal contexts (i.e. a job application, a newspaper article) impacts the way a text is received as gives the impression that little effort has been put in. Misspellings, themselves, can be amusing to readers.


    Punctuation is used to break up and organise text. It can be used to show where to pause, where to stop, and what kind of utterance is being used (an exclamation, a question, a quotation etc). There are 14 punctuation marks:

    NamePunctuation MarkWhat does it do?
    Full stop.Denotes the end of a sentence
    Question mark?Ends a sentence that is a question
    Exclamation mark!Ends a sentence with emphasis and a loudness
    Comma,Inserts a pause in a sentence, makes a list, separate phrases
    Colon:Introduces something, emphasises something, presents direct speech, introduces lists.
    Semi colon;Joins two independent clauses
    Slash/Substitute for "or"
    Dash (En-dash and Em-dash) or En-dash is shorter and is for ranges, Em-dash is longer for parenthesis
    Hyphen-Joins two connected words
    Square brackets[ ]Clarifies information further that might have been omitted
    Parenthesis( )Supplies further details on something
    Apostrophe'Shows letters have been omitted, indicates possession
    Speech marks" "Denotes speech
    Ellipsis...Suggests omission of words or a moment of suspense

    Here is a funny example of why punctuation is so important!

    With punctuation:

    "Let's eat, dad."

    Without punctuation:

    "Let's eat dad."

    Orthographic features, spelling, family dinner, StudySmarterSpelling is important to avoid misunderstandings! (Pexels)


    Capitalisation means putting a capital letter at the start of certain words. There are several reasons why we do this.

    Begin a sentence

    Most commonly, capitalisation is used at the beginning of a sentence, for example:

    There's no denying that the rain was heavy. Water was already beginning to spill from the walls. "

    The new capital letter acts as a signpost, indicating the start of a new sentence.

    Proper noun

    Proper nouns also need to be capitalised in a sentence (no matter where in the sentence they occur). Proper nouns include names of people, places and months, among other things, that don't adopt a modifier in a sentence. An example:

    "Jane was looking particularly happy as she walked idly through a field in Dorset."

    In this example, both Jane and Dorset are proper nouns, and therefore need to be capitalised even if found at the end of a sentence.


    Capital letters are also used at the beginning of quotes.

    "He turned to look at me and whispered, "It's not safe out there. Just don't go outside. ”

    As the speaker is starting a new sentence, the first word of the spoken part needs to be capitalised.


    Most of the words in titles also require capitalisation, except conjunctions (words that join phrases together like and, because, etc), articles (words that indicate if a noun is specific or general like a and the) and prepositions (words that show where nouns are in relation to each other, like between, in etc). The words that require capitalisation are as follows: the first word of the title, nouns, verbs (no matter how short) and adjectives.

    An example of a title could be:

    Some Tips on How to Write Titles Properly

    Capitalisation is important because it impacts the way a piece of writing is received. It may seem quite insulting if someone's name isn't properly capitalised. Alternatively, if there isn't proper capitalisation throughout the letter itself it may make it seem that there was minimal effort put into it, suggesting it hadn't been proofread properly.

    Writing systems in linguistics

    There are several writing systems:

    Pictographic / ideographic

    This is a writing system that uses ideograms (ideograms are pictures and images that exhibit certain ideas and concepts) in order to communicate. Whilst historically there are a few examples of this writing system, they are difficult to translate without a direct communicator between the verbal language and its written form. This is because ideograms are open to interpretation.

    Although this type of writing system might be considered dead, it isn't entirely. It is still used in day-to-day life by many individuals in the form of emojis.

    Naturally, this writing system lacks most of the orthographic features that we are used to in English. There is no need for certain elements of grammar such as capitalisation of letters because there are no letters to capitalise.


    This system uses glyphs and symbols to represent entire words or morphemes. That said, there are no purely logographic writing systems. This is because some phonetic symbols are required to create new words when they expand under the influence of phonetic languages.

    Some examples of logographic writing systems include, but are not limited to, the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or the Ancient Sumerian cuneiforms. Similarly, Chinese characters can be considered logographic.

    Orthographically speaking, Ancient Egyptian would be a lot easier to write because it didn't have any punctuation as it was written to look beautiful. It doesn't mean all logographic languages don't use punctuation; for example, the various Chinese dialects use very similar punctuation to English. However, the symbols used to display these concepts are different and are deployed both horizontally and vertically.


    This type of writing system uses written symbols (graphemes) to represent phonemic sounds (phonemes).

    As a result of linguistic development, there are little-to-no languages that are perfectly phonemic. While Middle English was much more phonetic in its spelling than Modern English, ME has discrepancies between spelling and pronunciation, for example:

    -Spelt: colonel Pronounced: ker-nel

    -Spelt: choir Pronounced: kwy-uhr

    Esperanto was conceived by Polish Ophthalmologist LL Zamenhof to be a universal language. It was created without any exceptions to any grammatical rules or pronunciation discrepancies to make it easier to learn. It is an entirely phonemic language, albeit an artificial one.

    Phonemic languages use very similar grammar to English as they largely use the Latin alphabet and thus similar rules.


    This writing system uses letters and symbols to represent the speech sounds in the language. In English, the letters in our alphabet go from A to Z. We put these letters together to form words.

    Orthographic features, alphabetical writing system, StudySmarterThe letters in our alphabet can be put together to represent speech sounds (Pixabay)

    What confusions might there be with Orthography in English language?

    Writing systems and orthography are very closely intertwined. However, both are distinct terms in regards to language and linguistics.

    A writing system usually refers to the way in which we visually represent speech (e.g. symbols, the alphabet, phonemes, etc.). However, orthography usually refers to the conventions for writing a language such as spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation.

    What is an orthographic word?

    The term 'orthographic word' can be used to refer to a single word that is separated by spaces on either side. For example, the sentence 'I love cheese pizza' has four orthographic words.

    Orthographic Features - Key takeaways

    • Orthography is a term that refers to the conventions and rules of written language such as spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation.
    • There are various writing systems; Pictographic/ideographic, logographic, phonemic, and alphabetical.
    • Spelling is the way that we order the alphabet to form words in a standardised way.
    • Punctuation is used to break up and organise text.
    • Capitalisation refers to putting capital letters at the start of some words to signal the start of sentences, titles, proper nouns, etc.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Orthographic Features

    What is an orthographic word?

    The term 'orthographic word' can be used to refer to a single word that is separated by spaces on either side. For example, the sentence 'I love cheese pizza' has four orthographic words.

    What is orthography?

    Orthography is a term that refers to the conventions and rules of written language such as spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation.

    What are orthographic features?

    Orthographic features are specific and standardised grammatical rules that are followed in written language.

    What orthographic features are used in English?

    The orthographic features in English are spelling, punctuation and capitalisation.

    What is an example of orthography?

    Examples of orthography include:

    • Spelling- correct spelling is important as it can change the meaning of a word (e.g. stationary vs. stationery)
    • Punctuation- good use of punctuation helps to break up and organise a text.
    • Capitalisation- we use capital letters to signal the start of sentences, titles, proper nouns etc.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many IPA symbols are used in the English language?

    Which of the following spellings are correct?

    Which of the following spellings are correct?

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