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.