Seventy years ago the British author George Bernard Shaw tried to get us to use a new alphabet because, he said, "Our present spelling is incapable of indicating the sounds of our words and does not pretend to."¹ Things haven't improved much since his time, and the main reason is that English is an incredibly vital language, constantly changing and evolving, stealing words from other languages.
This is very interesting (and fun, too) for linguists, but for ordinary students, English spelling is a nightmare. My students seem to have trouble in three distinct areas:
The usual advice (and mine too) is to read a lot and to own a dictionary. It's good advice, but if you are paying attention to spelling rather than content, you will always be an awkward reader. Immersion helps, though—immersion in the world of printed words.
All modern word processors have a spelling checker built in.
Sometimes I will mark Sp above the place where the problem occurred, but usually I will just write in the correct word.
English spelling has many hold-overs from its roots—odd letter combinations which do not sound the way they are written. Some examples are light, through, and knife.
There is a lot of pressure to "modernize" our spelling, and sometimes with good reason. A traffic sign which says "No Thru Street" communicates very quickly, and a beer company which advertises a "lite" brew instead of a "light" brew is safer from lawsuits which complain that people still gain weight when drinking the stuff. When I was a boy, one large electronics company labeled their product as a "fonograf," probably as a product trademark. I have heard (though it might be urban legend) that the Chicago Tribune newspaper changed their spelling from "through" to "thru" as a move to save money on ink.
You are not writing advertisements or traffic signs, so even though you see these "lite" spellings on signs and advertisements, use full standard spelling when you are writing a formal essay or business letter:
Regular English nouns form plurals by simply adding s to the end (and yes, it is required).
Some words, however, cause trouble. There's a general discussion in Writer's Reference §P7, and the computer's spelling checker will help you with these. (So will a dictionary.)
The computer cannot read your mind, however, and if you don't specify plural, some grammar checkers will not force the issue. You just have to know how many you are talking about:
My mother is abscessed with modern art.
You may be familiar with the word homonym. It's the same thing I'm discussing here, but I like homophone better because it's a more accurate word: it's from Greek words for "same sound." And that's the problem. When you spell by ear, you have no way to tell the difference between your and you're. They are quite different, though. Some of the homophone sets are pretty standard: your/you're, their/they're/there, and so forth. You can memorize the ones that cause you trouble. Other sets, like the abscessed/obsessed set are unusual. Your best strategy is (1) build a better vocabulary so you know what to write, (2) use a dictionary to look up words that are on the edge of your comfort zone, and (3) find a friend you can ask to help you (that's probably the easiest way to straighten out abscessed/obsessed).
Contractions (you're = you are) are correct grammar, but they cause trouble, and you can become a more correct speller by simply using full spelling. You will never find a situation where a contraction is required! If you use full spelling, you will avoid these problems:
The real problem is that the computer won't find these. If you have spelled the homophone correctly, it will pass right through the spelling checker.
Usually I will just write in the correct word.
My sister and her husband have separated and are constipating on a divorce.
If you are pushing for a more educated voice in your writing, you may throw in fancy words, perhaps without really knowing what they mean. It's fine to push the envelope. I want you to. Just take the next step and pull out a dictionary to find out whether that fancy word really means what you want. Aside from the usual vocabulary-building advice, another way to attack this problem is to find a person to read your papers. Someone who knows more than you do (or at least has a good vocabulary) can be a great help when you're searching for that one great word and slightly miss.
Computers actually fight us on this one. They generate suggestions which are spelled correctly, but they do not know what makes sense. Students who are too lazy to use a dictionary (or too numb to realize that words are actually different from one another) generate a lot of gibberish like this:
George is defiantly the most gentle man I know.
Every stack of papers I grade has one or two that use "defiantly" this way. The computer suggested it. Why can't the writer use it? "Defiantly" means "bold, impudent, disobedient, rebellious, unruly." Doesn't go together with "gentle," does it? The writer probably wanted "definitely" ("unquestionably, certainly"), but typed something like "dafinately," so the computer did its best. Then the student accepted this nonsense word.
The constipating example probably comes from a student who just wanted a better word than "thinking about." That student needs a thesaurus. Apple users have one built into the computer, and everyone can use thesaurus.com. If you type "thinking about" into thesaurus.com, one of the suggestions is "considering," which is probably what the student wanted. Warning: after you find a word in a thesaurus, look it up to find out what it really means! The student who wrote about a "brilliant indigo sports car" didn't do that—and looked foolish because indigo is dark blue, the color of new blue jeans.
Many students are unaware of the difference a doubled consonant makes in spelling. Scared and scarred are very different words. So are dining and dinning. Your computer can read your papers aloud and catch these problems (because the doubled consonant changes the pronunciation too).
I will usually mark W.W. (for "Wrong Word") above the place where the problem occurred. Sometimes I just write in the word that actually makes sense there. If I'm guessing at the word you were aiming for, I'll put a question mark behind it.
Every word has both a denotation and a connotation. The denotation is the unemotional, dictionary meaning. Diva literally means "a famous female opera singer." Its connotation, however, is "haughty, spoiled, battle-ax." A singer does not want to be called a diva because that means she is a useless pain.
Word Choice problems usually means the word is sort of right, but not really. Your best strategy is to know the language really well and to look at the whole meaning when you use a dictionary (those little pocket dictionaries and electronic gadgets won't help you at all with the subtle shadings of meaning).
None, obviously. Nuance, shading, and emotional overtones are the business of a thinking human.
I will usually mark W.C. (for "Word Choice") above the place where the problem occurred.
¹Shaw, George Bernard. "G.B.Shaw Preface to Wilson." Alfabets, Spelling and Pronunciation, http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/vangogh/555/Spell/shaw-pref-2.html. Accessed 4 June 2011.
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Revised 6/24/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: email@example.com.