Everyone who has difficulty with spelling words correctly can derive some comfort from knowing that some very good writers have been notoriously bad spellers. It's also comforting to bad spellers to know that this business of spelling seems to have little to do with intelligence. It has more to do with how we remember things. Some people, once they've seen a word spelled correctly, will never misspell that word again. Those are the people who, if you ask them how to spell a word, will first say, "Wait a second. Let me write it down." If you are not a strong visual learner, but learn in other ways, you will have to learn some other tricks to become a strong speller.
The following suggestions about spelling are only that—suggestions. Spelling, like vocabulary building, is ultimately a personal matter, and only a planned and sustained effort to improve spelling will have the desired results.
Using A Spell-Checker :
Writing with modern word-processors has changed the game of spelling somewhat, but not entirely. Spell-checkers are capable of discovering misspelled words for us — sometimes even as we write them — and most of them will suggest alternative spellings. Very good spell-checkers are even capable of asking whether we've confused a correctly spelled word with another word (e.g., we've used the word "they're," but do we really mean "their"?). Studies show, however, that papers written with the help of a spell-checker are only slightly better than papers written without a word-processor. The reason seems to be that a word-processor makes our text look so professional that we're apt to overlook misspelled words. Never blame a spell-checker for failing to catch a misspelled word in your paper. That is your responsibility! Perhaps the best we can say about spell-checkers is that they've taken away another excuse for bad spelling.
Using The Dictionary :
For online use, we recommend the Merriam-Webster's WWWebster Dictionary. For the purposes of checking your spelling, however, a small pocket dictionary will probably suffice. In fact, bookstores will often sell dictionaries that have nothing but spelling, and those can be very efficient, indeed, for this purpose. Small but powerful (and rather expensive) digital dictionaries are also available, and if they make looking up words more fun and if you have the money lying around to buy one, they can be a good investment. The important thing about owning any kind of dictionary, though, is that you must have it immediately at hand when you are writing. Putting the dictionary on a shelf in the den when you do your writing at the kitchen table doesn't do much good.
Using Mnemonics :
Mnemonics (Now there's a toughie to spell! It's pronounced as if that initial m didn't exist.) are little memory devices you can use to remember how to spell words. Geography students will remember that George Eliot's Old Grandfather Rode A Pig Home Yesterday. Some mnemonics seem more difficult to remember than the spelling they're supposed to serve. Mindy McAdams remembers the three e's in cemetery as three tombstones in a row. When you think of stationery, think of the e in envelope. Does it help to think of the r in separate as separating two like letters?
Coming up with mnemonics to help you remember things is a device you probably use in other studies all the time. Extend the habit into your personal mission to improve spelling. Be as inventive as you wish and have fun with the idea. It will pay off in the long run.
Homonyms and Plurals :
Homonyms are words that sound alike or nearly alike but have different meanings and different spellings: affect-effect, they're-their-there, the list goes on and on. Our section on NOTORIOUS CONFUSABLES contains over 400 words that people find confusing. The words are used correctly in full sentences and brief definitions are provided in the status line of the browser window. Sometimes, if you have a properly configured browser, you can even hear the sentence being spoken.
Creating plurals in English is usually quite simple: just add s to the end of the word. Sometimes, however, it isn't that easy and the rules can be a bit perplexing.
Sounding It Out :
Writers who try to rely too completely on the sound of English words for hints on how to spell often have trouble with some of the peculiar sound-spell combinations in the language. One apocryphal (apokrifil?) story tells about a girl who, when asked to spell "fish," wrote GHOT on the chalkboard. It makes perfect sense, of course, if it's the same "gh" we see in cough, the same "o" we hear in women, and the same "t" we hear in nation. A thorough acquaintance with prefixes and endings and roots will help some, and studying the way words are broken down into sound units will help also.
It also helps to pronounce words correctly in the first place. It's hard to spell strictly unless we hear that "t" in the word; and the words February and library must retain their first "r." If we try to change the noun accident into an adverb, we'll end up with accidently, which is a really bad accident but is how many people say the word. Try, instead, to change the adjective accidental into an adverb: accidentally. (The same goes for incidentally and coincidentally.)
The ability to sound things out correctly doesn't help us much with Wednesday, though, especially with the inexplicable American pronunciation which puts an "nz" sound before the "d." And words like often and handsome, in which the "t" and "d" sounds have disappeared (at least in the U.S.), continue to defy phonetic spellers (fonetik spelurz).
Writers who grow up in England, Canada, the Barbados, or
any place where spelling habits conform to British
preferences will be perplexed when the word colour
comes back from an American instructor with a slash mark
through the u. When Noah Webster started putting
his dictionary together, he thought it would be a good
idea to simplify some English spelling and that -our
was one ending he thought we Americans could do without.
Standard American spelling, ever since then, has been
sometimes different from British, and it extends to other
words as well. A good dictionary, even a good American
dictionary, should account for these differences.
Instructors should also be equipped to account for them,
if not to allow for them.
Writers who grow up in England, Canada, the Barbados, or any place where spelling habits conform to British preferences will be perplexed when the word colour comes back from an American instructor with a slash mark through the u. When Noah Webster started putting his dictionary together, he thought it would be a good idea to simplify some English spelling and that -our was one ending he thought we Americans could do without. Standard American spelling, ever since then, has been sometimes different from British, and it extends to other words as well. A good dictionary, even a good American dictionary, should account for these differences. Instructors should also be equipped to account for them, if not to allow for them.
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