Spelling Isn’t Magic

By Mark Nichol

Perhaps no aspect of written language engenders more consternation or trepidation than spelling. There’s even supposedly a clinical term for the fear of misspelling words: ortographobia. (Wait — isn’t that spelled wrong?)

Unless you were a spelling-bee champion — and perhaps in spite of that distinction — you might at least occasionally become flustered at the prospect of having to write a word without the confidence that you’ve spelled it correctly. And it’s probably caused you some embarrassment, or at least a pang of self-consciousness: Many poor spellers think they’re less intelligent than spelling whizzes. (That word can be spelled “wiz,” too; it’s actually a variant of the abridgement of “wizard.”)

Get over it. Spelling skills aren’t highly correlated with intelligence level, and good spellers seem to be born, not made; taking all the spelling tests in the world isn’t likely to place you among those who write without fear of misspelling. And consider these two significant obstacles to orthographical optimization:

First, the English language, more than any other, is replete with confusing, counterintuitive, and contradictory spelling rules. Second, spelling by example is increasingly fraught with peril, given the sad decline in care taken in editing books and newspapers (although magazines seem to remain immune to such deterioration in standards) and the preponderance of poor writing on Web sites and in email, chat and texting environments.

So, if you’re a poor speller, and you’re up against a native tongue that defies logic and a world in which good writing seems to no longer be highly valued, what do you do?

Relax. You have several allies:

The dictionary: You could look it up. If I had a dollar for every spelling question I’ve seen in comments on Web sites about writing and editing, I could buy each of the inquirers a pocket dictionary. (Or, better yet, send them a link to www.m-w.com and pocket the cash.) Complication: Neologisms, assuming they survive faddishness to take their place in the lexicon, are years away from inclusion in the next edition. And where do you open a dictionary to if you don’t know the first letter of the word? Also, various dictionaries may differ in preferred spellings. These are minor points, though. Let the dictionary be your friend.

Spell-checking programs: Your word-processing program’s built-in schoolmarm will come to your rescue, and you don’t even have to bring it an apple. Complication: Sometimes it’s wrong. Again, this is a petty quibble.

Common sense: “Born,” or “borne”? (Originating from, or carried by?) “Affect,” or “effect”? (To impact or to fake, or to create an impression or influence a result?) “Ensure,” “insure, ” or “assure”? (To guarantee, to take precautions, or to convince?) Complication: Common sense sometimes isn’t all that common. And variant meanings can overlap among more than one similar word (as with the “-sure” words). Finally, this class of words — homophones and near homophones — constitutes only a fraction of the troublesome words in our language.

Ultimately, though, the best defense against the offense of misspelling is to be a stringent scribe: When you review your writing (you do review your writing, don’t you?), assume that it is a capital offense to misspell a word, and act accordingly.

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20 Responses to “Spelling Isn’t Magic”

  • Jewel

    Really good post. That last paragraph is a beaut . . .

    Someone who recently ghosted an article for me started a sentence with “Four,” when she meant to write “For.” It’s unfortunate that we’re all moving too fast to proofread our own work.

    Of course, your last insightful paragraph made me wonder if my freelancer had read what she mistyped and ignored it, leaving it for *me* to fix.

  • Tony Hearn

    Thanks Mark. A blast of good sense.

  • Kathryn

    Two other strategies–for words that are particularly difficult, memorize the absolutely phonetic pronunciation (pneumonia: puh-nuh-eeeww-monia) [Sorry–being a naturally good speller, I haven’t had to use this strategy much, so I had a hard time coming up with a good example. . .].

    And you can always come up with mnemonics for the homophones (dual/duel: twa [scots for two] epees [French for swords], emphasizing the vowel difference between the two–again, it would work for me, but not necessarily for someone else; the whole point is to come up with something that will stick in YOUR memory.)

  • Norma Vogel

    Actually, it’s the old idea that avid readers make better spellers. I disagree that “good spellers seem to be born, not made.” As a good speller, and as an English Comp. instructor at a small college, I find that students who crack a book once in a while have the ability to recall correct spellings, recognize misspellings, and give a damn either way.
    The environment today does not care about spelling. I say “Spellcheck didn’t catch it” is not a valid excuse for poor spelling–at least not in my classes. Of course, your last statement says it all: no, many of them do not review their writing, even when their final grades depend upon evidence of revision.

  • Rebecca

    Excellent advice! I’m amazed at the amount of spelling mistakes there are in print materials. I often wonder who’s ‘double checking’ manuscripts, newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, brochures, flyers, and online articles.

  • T. Vilaça

    What would we do without you guys?

    Thanx again.

    Kathryn ( I had to check how it spells), I guess I didn’t quite understand your examples.

    Not sure, but there might be a good reason for all those words which are spelled so differently than they are written.

    The letters we DO NOT pronounce in some groups such as in:

    – KN ( NO K- know, knot, knife…)

    – PS ( NO P – Psych, psycho, psychic, psychiastrist, psalm…)

    – PN ( NO P – Pneumonia)

    – GN ( NO G – Gnash, gnarl, gnome…)

    Am I right?

    Not mentioning words that escape from my logical control:

    Recipe – Shouldn’t it be spelled ‘Recipy’ according to the current standard pronunciation?

    What about Colonel ( Yes, the one we say ‘Kernel’).

    Any thoughts on that?

    Regards y’all

    Tiago

  • Kathryn

    Tiago–yeah, I knew those examples weren’t great. However, your “Colonel” offers a better illustration of the first strategy I described. The actual pronunciation of colonel offers no clue to its spelling; in order to remember how to spell it, you would memorize “Col-oh-nel”–bearing in mind that that was not the correct pronunciation–and call that to mind when you needed to write it. This (and my other suggestion) have to be used sparingly, as you have to be able to remember that you have a special spelling strategy for that word. . .

    As far as how things “should” be spelled–part of the glory of English is the confusing, counterintuitive, and downright ridiculous spellings of many words. You’d never get agreement on what an entirely phonetic spelling system should look like, and you’d lose great beauty in the attempt.

  • Don

    Dictionary spell checking occassionally leads to the frustration of not being able to find the word in the dictionary because you aren’t spelling it right. (I had the urge to hyphenate the second and third words.)

  • Stephen Thorn

    Rebecca, I agree completely. Unfortunately, many editors/publishers/etc. are content to let SpellCheck (or some other lazy program) proofread for them. It’s cheaper than having a human do it, and they assume that it is safe to denigrate the intellect of their readership by believing that nobody will notice. Well, _I_ notice. I pay good money for a book and expect the product I take home to be free of errors.

    Mark, I know your article was about spelling, rather than context and word choice, but shouldn’t it be (Wait — isn’t that spelled wrongLY?) You wouldn’t say “spelled incorrect” or “spelled bad,” would you?

    Okay, the nit picking is over for the moment.

  • Mark Nichol

    Rebecca:

    As your fellow commenter, Stephen Thorn, mentions here, the deterioration of editing standards is the consequence of cynical and pragmatic negligence. Once upon a time, it was strikingly rare to see a typographical error in published material, but because economics has replaced esthetics as the driving force in publishing, the editorial process has more or less disintegrated.

    Some publishers I work for (I’m a freelance copy editor) value rigorous editing, but too many others consider anything more than a cursory edit a superfluous expense. Bean counters have replaced bibliophiles as the gatekeepers of quality across the spectrum of written media.

    In addition, the democratization of media (especially online media) means that amateurs — and I use that word without a sneer — who lack an aptitude for good writing and editing and/or a familiarity with the editorial process inundate the page and the computer screen with careless and unpolished writing.

    The result is that the reading — and writing — public has a paucity of models not for just good writing, but for elegantly clear, concise writing, and therefore the quality of writing in general is spiraling downward.

    I don’t mean to sound hopeless, though. Great writing — and editing — prevails in professional and amateur writing everywhere. Keep coming back to this site, and help me and others fight the good fight!

  • John

    A great post.It is true the spell checker can get you wrong. It should be monitored carefully.Even there are spellchecker generated kind of spelling mistakes – mistakes you make only because you used the spellchecker.Mostly readers are good spellers while those who learn their language from DJs, the TV… are bad spellers.

  • naomi hamm

    Yeah well now I feel much better after reading your words. Perfect. In a inmperfect world. Hey if I am a writer maybe that is all I need to be. Not a perfect speller. Now I can churn out a few thousand pages or less and not worry of my level of intelligence and why in my fifities am I a much lousier speller than when I was younger? I am also wondering if spellling bees can bring a level of good luck in order to help you spell much better. Is it better or bettah?

  • Carole

    Like Stephen, I notice spelling errors. Notice them? They jump off the page at me! I know it’s not an indication of intelligence or education, but an article with misspelled words automatically loses a little credibility with me. I realize not everyone has an innate ability to spell, but we all have access to a dictionary and now we have spell check as well. To me, spelling mistakes show a tendency toward laziness, and if the writer can’t be bothered to proofread, why would I put great faith in his subject matter?

  • Michael Corey

    Excellent work!

    I also find a good guide to usage invaluable.

    I know I’m not an ace speller which is why I strategically place dictionaries everywhere: I have the Oxford on my smart-phone, on my laptop, on my desk and beside the pile of books that lies beside my bed.

  • Garrison

    @Mark Nichol,

    Once upon a time you also had a person (known as a typographer) who spent all day typesetting. Such an individual was an expert in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Even more amazing this work was done looking at the letters in mirror image. This person was often the final arbiter in decisions of spelling. The painstaking process of setting the type represented a lengthy and detailed review of the material being printed.

    You make a good point on the economics of the printing business. Long ago, the paper cost more than the labor. Now, the labor costs more than the paper.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about the general decline in the quality of writing that has infiltrated our society; a decline which I feel may be due to a lack of study of the great literature of the past and present. In most schools there is a fleeting perusal of the classics, but there is a paucity of detailed analysis. The result is that many people can recognize good writing when they see it, but they do not understand what makes it good writing, and furthermore, how to recreate those elements in their own writing.

    In fact, my experience is that writing skills are just not being taught much in schools these days. In a college course I taught recently I discovered that many of my students were writing at about a sixth or seventh grade level. Not just a few of them. Most of them. And its not just the undergraduate students. In proofreading some doctoral dissertations I was floored by some of the basic errors I found.

    About the only serious writing people seem to do nowadays is for the occasional essay or research paper required in the upper grades or college. While report writing can be a creative process and requires its own set of skills, it is not necessarily conducive to “great writing.” Many good report writers are at a loss when asked to work outside that style of expression.

    However, there are some great websites like this where people can go to hone their skills. Perhaps from the seeds planted here will grow a new appreciation of the language and in time a renaissance in the art of written expression.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  • tuxgirl

    speaking as an american who studied chinese for a few years, I just have to say that I am very grateful that we even have spelling to struggle with. Trust me, that is one language that has it *way* worse than we do.

  • NEB

    I am a naturally bad speller. At thirty-seven years old, with two university degrees and a burgeoning career as a fiction writer, I still cannot spell ‘privilege’ without looking it up! It’s not through lack of intelligence or education. Neither is it because I don’t read enough – I’m the most avid reader I know. It’s just the way I am. Maybe there’s a name for it …

    I have a variety of different methods of coping with this though: I sound things out phonetically (like my five-year-old daughter), and I make up mnemonics. I say the words in my head the way they’re spelled rather than the way they would sound if I were to speak them aloud. I always have a dictionary within reach of my laptop, and I permanently have spell-check switched on. Even so, I still spell words wrong, so before I submit anything anywhere, I always have a trusted beta-reader look over my work. They invariably find one or two mistakes that I’ve missed.

  • Kathryn

    NEB–the second set of eyes is an important strategy for ANY writer who plans to publish seriously. . .even for good spellers. When you reread your own work, you tend to read what you meant to write, and often will simply not see places where you actually wrote something different. Someone who has no idea what you intended to say will read what you actually said. Good to have one you can trust. . .and it does help if your beta-reader has good spelling skills!

  • Elizabeth

    One suggestion for finding the spelling of a word when you have no idea how to spell it: Google it! Yes, Google is our friend on this. It’s a pro at taking badly misspelled words and making sense of them. Just make sure you read the fine print at the top of your search results. Google will usually search for the correctly spelled word but give you the option of continuing your misbegotten attempt to find the misspelled word.

    And this works for weird spellings, too. Try Googling “numonia.” Right away, it suggests the correct spelling of the word, even though the correct word starts with a different letter. Of course, you do need to be careful when you use this trick. Google is programmed to suggest what most people are really looking for when they search for a misspelled word. For instance, if you search for “condence,” Google first suggests “condescending.” You have to tell it to search for “condence” again to see the suggested correct spelling.

  • Dianne

    One way that I have greatly improved my own writing is by keeping a high-quality dictionary/thesaurus handy. More recently, I have installed the free version of wordweb onto my computer, the search feature saving me time that I’d much rather spend doing other things.

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