Home » Post-16 & Adult Literacy » Ghoti = Fish (no it doesn’t)

Ghoti = Fish (no it doesn’t)

Ghoti spells Fish. This thing still shows up on social media and still makes me sigh heavily for two reasons:


It still gets used by literacy professionals as 'proof' that the English language is 'not phonetic'.

Of course, we're honest that English has a complex written code. There are a lot of ways to represent the sounds that we say. However - and this is a big deal for teen and adult literacy learners - the language is most certainly phonetic and the phonetic code is limited and learnable.

If you want to learn more about the patterns and frequency of phonemes and graphemes in English, get a copy of Greg Brooks' Dictionary of the British English Spelling System

According to Professor Brooks:

<gh> represents /f/ in draught, chough, cough, enough, laugh, rough, slough, sough, tough and trough.

<o> represents /i/ only in women

<ti> represents /sh/ only when followed by the letters <a, e o, u> He gives the examples: confidential, inertia, infectious, nation, quotient and Ignatius

Proof that ghoti cannot ever spell fish in English.


Erroneously telling struggling readers that ghoti spells fish is creating a barrier to reading when our job as educators is to tear down barriers as thoroughly and quickly as we can.

Saying to a vulnerable learner, 'Don't worry, you're right, this language is a mess and really really difficult' is actually saying, 'You're right, you'll probably never learn this'.

it is simply wrong to think that learning the English code is beyond struggling readers or that they can't read because the language is so complex. Rather:

  • Most teens and adults arrive at their first TRT lesson simply not knowing that the squiggles on the page represent the sounds that we say out loud.
  • They have personal sight vocabularies but don't know how to approach new words that matter in age-appropriate and life-appropriate text.
  • If they haven't completely given up on reading for meaning, they rely on skipping unfamiliar words, guessing (badly) from initial letter and shape and looking for unrelated words within words (like hen in then).
  • They have quite a lot of latent knowledge about the English code but need some way of unlocking it for reading and spelling.

During the first few hours of That Reading Thing they learn to read through long words from left to right and listen for a word they know. The goal is to get our students from reading words like fax and plug to words like conditioning and instructions in 5 hours or less. Most will be able to spell astonishment and establishment in hour 3. When they get into the Advanced code, they learn there are patterns (not rules) to how we spell various sounds and read various graphemes. They learn that English isn't random or chaotic and that they can approach unfamiliar words with a consistent plan which frees up their working memory to think about meaning.

Learning to decode using age-appropriate phonics is not a boring slog but a satisfying challenge.

4 Responses

  1. Although I sincerely appreciate your motivation for wanting to refute GBS’s amusing respelling of “fish”, I also initially sighed upon reading your take, which obscures his motivation and an indisputable reality re the current state of English spelling and pronunciation.
    You’re right that anyone claiming that his ‘ghoti’ proves that “English isn’t phonetic” is wildly misunderstanding what phonetics is or what it’s about—standard stuff when field-specific concepts and jargon are presented by, and at, the popular level—but, unfortunately, the manner in which you present ‘decoding’ is contextually not relevant, as for the goals and the examples you present; “accomplishment” may be a longer word, but all that’s wrong with English, which GBS’s ‘ghoti’ captures and illustrates, isn’t exemplified in what you present/discuss.
    The real issue: There’s a serious lack of fixed and logical paradigms, and no direct and stable correlations between spelling, environment, and prosody (accent, stress, and vowel length) and proper/accepted pronunciation, which a phonetic examination of English clearly illustrates.
    This is related to the fact that, due to its place and development, over 80% of English words are, in fact, borrowed from other, unrelated languages (such a Latin, French, and Greek) rather than having evolved and descended from a parent within the same language family. No other language presents such proportions.
    As such, English is plagued by historic forms that have nothing to do with the original pronunciations that gave us these spellings (such as knight, originally pronounced ka-nicth), as well as retaining old forms for words affected by ‘the great vowel shift’ of the middle ages, as well as forms corresponding to the spelling from whence it was borrowed, which deviates from exemplars / cases proper to English. All of this is extremely confusing, and counter-intuitive, for L2 learners, especially past a certain age, and depending on the rigidity of their L1.
    English is badly in need of a spelling reform, period.
    As a linguist and, therefore, a descriptivist, I see no problems with adopting logical forms like ‘nite’ for ‘night’, etc., which prescriptivists (grammarians) are determined to oppose.

  2. Tricia

    Hi Pascal-Denis, Thank you for taking the time to respond. First – YES! I have a degree in English Language (first UBC grad through that programme) so I understand what you’re talking about and I technically support spelling reform. However, that’s a top-down answer and sociolinguistically complex. Do you remember when the Canadian print industry removed the u’s to align with the Americans’ arguably simpler spelling to save ink or something and Canadians demanded they be put back? It was an economic decision that was reversed for reasons of national identity. People don’t necessarily want spelling to be simple as every spelling reformer has discovered.

    We start from the mundane truth that if an adult writes “I’m avalable for nite shifts” on a job application, they are less like to get the job than the person who writes ‘available’ and ‘night’ even if they’re better qualified. We work on tearing down barriers to writing and reading within the current system because currently there’s only one written English of power. Telling vulnerable learners the language is too complex for them by showing them examples like ghoti = fish is excluding them from that language of power. It’s as political as it is linguistic.

  3. Jameson

    Hi Tricia, Thank you for this The conversation between two professionals was certainly interesting and informative but as you explained the reality of applying these theories in the real world is never that simple; there are many other factors to consider

  4. Tricia

    Thanks for commenting. And you’re right, we can have all the theoretical discussions but, in the end, it’s one person at a time learning to read and write and that’s what has kept me going all these years.

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