Spelling 'one' and 'two' - lexical spelling

I write this on a once-in-a-century day! The date is 11/11/11 - the only day in a hundred years when all those numbers are the same - lots of lovely ONEs. To celebrate and honour the number one, let's look at its spelling.

Learners have asked me "Why do you spell one without a w although you pronounce a w in it? And then why does two have a w when you don't pronounce it?" Great questions!

So why? The simple answer is that these two words are not phonetically spelled. Their spelling shows lexical or semantic links with other words - we are spelling by meaning not sound. All of the words below contain the letters o-n. Can you see how each of them relates to the idea of one?

Wordle: Untitled
one, alone, only, lonely, once, none

And how about two? (I'll deal with that now as I may not still be blogging on 22/2/22!) Where did that w come from? Again - it's about meaning not sound. What's the link with the number 2 in these words containing tw?

Wordle: two 2
two, twenty, twice, twelve, twin, between

Pointing this pattern out to learners can help prevent them writing *tow*, instead of two, and mixing the homophones. It also helps them to see there is some logic and that you shouldn't rely too much on sound when spelling.

Some questions for you:
  • Can you think of any more words related to the number one that include the letters on (together)?
  • And any more tw words related to the number two?
  • Do you know other sets of words in which the spelling can be learned by linking meanings rather than sound? (There are more in my book.)
Answers in the Comments please.



  1. Two further relatives of one: atone (originally at one) and lone (originally short for alone and the root of lonely; now less common than either, but Texas is still the Lone Star State from its flag).

    And here are some other relatives of two: twain, twig (the exact connection with two is not understood; possibly connected with the idea of forking or branching), twilight, twill/tweed (woven cloth in which the weft threads pass over two or more warp threads at a time, not just one; the -d in tweed is from confusion with the name of the River Tweed), twine (two or more strings twisted together), twist itself.

  2. Love this. Highlighting these, and talking about them really should help. Is that our experience?

  3. Hello, do you think none might have come from something like 'not one' or a variation of 'no-one'? It's just a hunch of mine.

  4. Halt the presses! I just looked up none on Wiktionary and it claims the etymology is not one. I must be getting a feel for this kind of thing. I think about this stuff way too much!

    Am looking forward to getting your book and reading more.


  5. Hi Megan, I think you're absolutely right - 'not one'. And that would also explain the pronunciation (as a homophone of 'nun' rather than 'known') - it rhymes with 'one'.

  6. For two, in addition to the tw words I'm also planning some work on

    duet duo double based on the students knowing 'deux' though this is getting a bit fancy. For the tri words we put 'trois' on our list as a reminder. And of couse the uni for one words link to 'un'. Italian might be more helpful in this regard but we have French as the second language at my school. Monolingualism in Australia has a lot to answer for and students really need this stuff pointed out explicitly. It is not part of their everyday.

  7. Sometimes I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to show (though not necessarily ask students to learn) similarities across several languages. It would really help them get a feel for where English fits in, get some feeling of system. And possibly help them learn foreign languages too. What do you think?

  8. I agree it is more in the category of develop a familiarity than learn by heart. I've seen teachers do word sorts across a few languages.


    Latin Italian French Spanish Portuguese English
    aquam acqua eau agua √°gua water
    altum alto haut alto alto high
    caballum cavallo cheval caballo cavalo horse

    (That's a sample done with 9-10 year olds)

    The categories were given to the students ie name of languages and the words all cut up to be grouped by the students. This was in context of an inquiry into written language and provoked a lot of discussion.

    Usually when I have taught students from many languages I send classroom signs home to the families so that 'the door' or 'a window' or 'seven' is written in all the home languages. Students are not asked to learn all this but in the classroom we can see loads of similarities (and differences) between languages and also see the languages that use suffixes and prefixes the same way that English does. I mostly do it so students can see their home language when they come to school.

  9. Johanna, back to 'none'. Someone mentioned today it's like French negation followed by a vowel.
    n'est-ce pas
    n'one and somewhere the apostrophe was lost or perhaps was never there.

    Do you know a good book on this topic? I'm interested in what I call embedded affixes that are so much part of English we don't see them anymore. For instance heal is in health and steal is in stealth but we never consider th a suffix. For many years I've taught units about Healthy Living and never even noticed that. It is a useful thing to know if you spend several weeks talking about the topic.

  10. Megan, as far as I'm aware, apostrophes never came into it. I need to find out about those. Hmm ... I feel a blog post coming on!

    No I don't know a good book specifically about this, (please let me know if you find one) but at the moment I'm reading The Etymologicon which is, as the name suggests, fascinating on the origin of words and very readable.

  11. I'm very busy reading your book!! Praise the postal service - it took about a week, which is excellent considering how slow mail is between western and eastern Australia. (Don't you love the synonyms - mail and postal. Bill Bryson is good on them in Mothertongue.) Anyway from what I have read already there are some interesting things that I agree with and some things less so but lets say I totally agree with your main observations about learning and language and I wish more people thought that way.

    Is there a place on this blog for discussing your book?

    The Etymologicon sounds sound. All the words with the log/logos are Greek aren't they?

  12. John,

    Your information is very interesting. I knew about twilight and had wondered about twig and twine but never suspected tweed and twill. Thanks!
    I love the book 'Atonement' but had never thought about the word being related to one.

    Effective readers, young and old, who think semantically don't always slow down to see these links.