How to Spell Question: a Discussion

Without ever having seen the word, would you know how to spell question? Probably not. If asked, the sound of the letter “K” at the beginning of the word might fool you. But in English, letters don’t stand for the sound that they spell.

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    Why Doesn’t Question Start With “kw”?

    We spell question the way it is because of the root of the word. This is a Middle English word that has to do with procuring or laying a question or question.

    The etymological spelling comes from the word’s Latin form, Quaestio. It then developed as Questiona, Questiono, and Questionum, until finally settling as the current spelling.

    Because of this, we get the root of the modern “question” with “qu” at the beginning of the word. This is how it has come down to us.

    Why Doesn’t It Change to Match the Letters It Sounds Like?

    It’s a fair question. Spelling question would certainly be easier if we could just write it out the way it sounds. After all, other words have changed to match what they sound like. Why do we keep the “qu” in front of this one?

    The real question is, if the “qu” dropped off the beginning of the word, what do you end up with?

    One popular answer is “not the word question”. Of course, the first step in figuring out a word’s spelling is listening to its sounds.

    In this case, the “q” is retained simply because the “u” is silent. But like the explanation given above, there’s a reason for this too.

    Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

    How to Spell Question – Why the “qu” Is Maintained

    We turned to Dictionary.com to help us with this explanation. Paraphrasing their explanation, “QU” has tended to be used as a digraph.

    They defined a digraph as a letter pair sound using a single sound for a pair of letters. In this case they sound like the letters “kw”.

    This digraph sound is very old. It goes back to English’s Latin and Greek roots. Apparently, the letter’s Q’s coupling with U is based on the Greek letter “Koppa”.

    In order to keep certain letter sounds, this “koppa” pairing began to replace more and more sounds where “k” sounds would otherwise be used.

    Other letters, like C, also had the same sound but in different letter combinations. As Greek and Latin evolved, C gradually came to represent more and more of these sound examples. Q came to rely on U more and more to express any sound at all.

    And this how “qu” gradually made its way to the English language and alphabet as a sound.

    To Wrap Up

    Many people have misconceptions about how to spell the word ‘Question. ‘ Oddly, it starts with the letter “Q” and not the letter “K”. This is because most dictionaries consider “K” to be the “soft” or common sound of the letter “Q” in English.

    There are still a few cases in which “Q” is spelled with “K,” but “Q” is not considered as soft/commonly spoken like the letter “K”.

    How to Spell Question: a Discussion

    Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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