Spelling, especially in English, often presents a challenge to writers. However, spelling often has less to do with intelligence than the way we remember things. And people who are called visuals have an easier time of it than others. This post contains some ideas that you might find useful.
Let’s start by defining what spelling actually is. It’s writing a word, using an alphabetic system, that contains all appropriate letters and marks (e.g., accent marks) in an order that can be understood by others. So, askjflaj means nothing to anybody. Usually, there’s some degree of standardization that determines how the smallest chunks of a writing system are supposed to be pronounced.
It would be great if every language had the same representations for sounds, but that’s not a reality. It would also be great if any one language had consistency of writing and sound. Again, that never reaches perfection. Some languages do better than other, but sadly, English is not one of them. There are a number of reason for this, including 1) pronunciation changes over time, in all languages (e.g., produce and produce / PRAH-doos and proh-DOOS), with spellings tending to change more slowly; 2) words from other languages are added, but are not adapted to that language’s spelling system (e.g., champagne / sham-PAHN-ya / sham-PEIN); and 3) different meanings of a word may be deliberately spelled in different ways to differentiate them visually (e.g., ensure, insure).
Following are some suggestions to improve your spelling, but as with any regimen (like a diet), it takes diligence and practice.
Use a spell-checker
This is an easy one. It’s mechanical, and requires little work. Today’s word-processor software (even on many websites) makes spell-checking almost foolproof—almost. There are instances where a word looks right to a computer, but it isn’t; or cases where a spell-checker indicates that a word is wrong, even though a human being knows it’s right, or intentionally wants the word misspelled, for any number of reasons. So, while a spell-checker is extremely useful, the ultimate responsibility for spelling is yours.
Use a dictionary
In years past, most good authors had a printed dictionary at hand, ranging from small pocket-size versions to huge unabridged tomes. And today, if you prefer outlining or doing preliminary writing off line, a small pocket-size version might be just right. However, there are any number of free online dictionaries available. These are easy to use and are really helpful. Just go to your preferred browser and type in “online dictionaries” and take your pick. You’ll ultimately find a favorite. Whichever way you go, the key is to have the resource immediately at hand when you’re writing.
Use memory aids
Memory aids help you remember how to spell words. An oldie but goodie example is “How do you spell Chicago? Chicken in the car, but the car can’t go. Another oldie is the word “stationery” (versus “stationary”). Just think of the ‘e’ in the word “envelope”. But beware, some memory aids might be harder to remember than trying to learn and memorize the way the word is spelled. You may have learned to use a memory aid to remember a person’s name, like memorizing and using a personal characteristic of that person. Just use the same idea when you’re trying to remember how to spell a word.
Keep in mind that, though these are called “rules”, they’d be better called “guidelines”, because they’re rarely, if ever, perfectly applicable.
‘I’ before ‘e’, except after ‘c’
This is one of the first rules we learn as children, and was developed to help remember how to spell words that have an ‘ie’ (with no ‘c’ before) or ‘ei’ (following a ‘c’). It’s easy to memorize, and it sounds simple. In both cases, the combination is pronounced ‘ee’. Here are some examples of each:
- fiend, hygiene, believe, piece, brief, friend, grieve; except heir, protein, their, seize, weird
- ceiling, deceive, receipt, conceit; except species
However, a fuller version of the rule actually goes something like this: ‘I’ before ‘e’, except after ‘c’, or when sounded as ‘ay’, as in neighbor or weigh. Other examples include: beige, freight, sleigh, and vein.
Still, even with exceptions, the rule is a good one to keep in mind. But when in doubt, there’s always the printed or online dictionary.
Adding a prefix to a word does not usually change its spelling (e.g., dissatisfied, disinterested, misstated unnecessary). Humorously, misspelled is often mispelled.
That final silent ‘e’
When a word ends in ‘e’ and a suffix is added, the rule is to drop the final ‘e’ when the suffix starts with a vowel (e.g., commence / commencing, replace / replacing).
However, if the ending starts with a consonant, the final ‘e’ is not dropped (e.g., commence / commencement, replace / replacement).
Exceptions: When the silent ‘e’ at the end follows another vowel, the rule is to drop the ‘e’ when adding any ending (e.g., argue / argument / argued).
There are other situations where keeping the final is retained in order to avoid mispronouncing a word (e.g., mileage) and in words where the final ‘e’ follows a soft ‘g’ or ‘c’ (e.g., changeable, courageous, manageable, management, noticeable).
That final ‘y’
When a word ends with a ‘y’, and a suffix is added, the ‘y’ changes to an ‘I’ when it follows a consonant (e.g., reply > replies, marry > married, sorry > sorrier). However, this rule does not apply to -ing endings (e.g., try > trying, bury > burying). And it does not apply when the final ‘y’ follows a vowel (e.g., okay > okayed, prey / preying).
Improving your spelling takes some personal commitment, whether that means keeping a printed or online dictionary handy and looking up a word you’re unsure of, or even maintaining a list of words that you often have trouble with.
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