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Because of the complex history of English, spellings can be very confusing. The rules that exist
are complicated and have many exceptions. Irregular spellings are common.
Some people have very good visual memory and can recall the actual look of a word, helping
them to spell correctly. For many people, however, good spelling does not come easily.
Whenever time permits, don’t simply guess at spelling. Edit your work patiently using a dictionary.
Electronic dictionary systems are useful, but a simple paperback dictionary will serve you well.
When looking up a word, don’t just check the spelling and move on. Take a moment to examine
the syllable divisions and to read the definitions. Looking at the origin of the word might help you
to understand why it is spelled that way, and this will help you to remember its correct spelling.
After correcting a spelling mistake, take a moment to look at the word, fixing its appearance in
your memory.
While computer spell-check systems work well, they are no substitute for your own editing. They
will tell you that a certain word exists, but you must be sure that it is the right word. For example,
if you write principal instead of principle, or loose instead of lose, the computer will accept it as a
correct spelling, but you will be left with errors in word usage—more serious than simple spelling
Certain pairs of words are very similar, and some spell-check errors can be difficult to notice,
such as
stationery for stationary;
envelop for envelope;
posses for possess
Edit carefully. If you are not certain that you have the correct word, look it up.
When you have difficulty remembering the spelling of a frequently used word, use a memory trick.
Write down the word or the difficult part of it, and make up a phrase based on the letters.
Example: In the word necessary, the difficult part to remember is N-E-C-E-S-S—Nice Elephants
Can Even Sit Silently. Remembering this odd line about polite elephants will allow you
to spell this word correctly until it becomes automatic. The sillier the phrase, the easier
it is to remember.
Using simple memory aids for troublesome words can be much easier than struggling to
memorize spellings. It’s easy to think up your own quick reminders like the examples below:
Remember that—ironically—the word believe contains the word lie.
Remember that an army doctor is called a medic. That makes it easy to spell medicine correctly.
Casually, we might say “Congrats!” which helps us to remember how to spell congratulate.
Committees often have too many members, reminding us that all possible letters in the word
committee are duplicated.
When too refers to an excessive number—too many or too much—the word has too many O’s.
Keep a list of words that you have misspelled and words that you have had to look up in the
dictionary. Consult the list when editing your work and refresh your memory about the words that
have given you trouble in the past.
Look over your list from time to time to fix the look of the correctly spelled words in your memory.
Certain areas require special attention, and dictionary use is often necessary:
ABLE vs. IBLE endings (allowable vs. permissible)
ANT vs. ENT endings (variant vs. lenient; dependent vs. dependant)
ANCE vs. ENCE endings (reliance vs. independence)
Dropping or retaining a silent E when adding a suffix (movable vs. noticeable; truly vs. surely)
Words in which a vowel sound is unclear (hypocrisy, separate, calendar)
Words that contain confusing pairs of double letters (tobacco, accommodate, vacuum)
Keep a dictionary on your desk, within easy reach. (If you have to get up to use it, you probably
won’t bother.)
Remember that time spent using your dictionary—even just to verify spellings—is an excellent
investment in improving your command of English.
WM 2004