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19.1 Mastering Commonly Misspelled Words

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize ways to become a better speller.
  2. Implement methods of monitoring your common spelling problems.

Regardless of how good a speller you are, knowing the type of spelling errors you are likely to make can help you correct the errors.

Common Causes of Spelling Errors Examples Ways to Deal with the Problems
Some words do not follow common spelling rules. i before e except after c, so is it height or hieght? Know the rules, know some of the exceptions, and use a dictionary or spell checker (see Section 19.1.1 "Spell Check") if you have the slightest hesitation.

You interchange homophonesWords that sound alike but have different spellings and different meanings. without realizing it.

I want to go to. Be extra careful with each homophone you use; learn the commonly confused pairs of homophones.
You often do not recognize that a word has a homophone or you do not know which homophone to use. The cat chased its tale for an hour. Read through your work once (preferably aloud) looking (and listening) only for homophone issues. Ask someone to proofread your work.
You misspell some words almost every time you use them. I can’t make a comittment today. Keep a list of your problem words where you can easily glance at them.
You find words from other languages confusing since they do not follow standard English spellings. I’m going to make an orderve for the party. Add foreign words you often use to your list of problem words. Look the others up each time you use them.

Spell Check

The combination of extensive computer use and spell checkersA software program tool that identifies spelling errors. have changed the way we look at spelling. Today’s software programs often provide both manual and automatic spell checking. Manual spell checking lets you go through the entire document or selected text from it and checks for spellings not present in the dictionary of reference. Automatic spell checking underlinines spelling errors for you (usually in red). By right-clicking on the misspelled word, you’ll be given one or more correctly spelled alternatives. When you find the spelling you think is correct, clicking on that word will change the text automatically. Sometimes automatic spell checking underlines words that aren’t misspelled, but it rarely misses words that are. So if you check all the marked words, you can “spell check as you write.”

Just make sure you don’t rely on spell check to have a human eye. Consider the following sentence: “It was sunny win I drove of this mourning, so I lift my umbrela in the car port.” If you use a spell checker on this sentence, you will be alerted to fix the problem with “umbrela.” You won’t, however, be given any indication that “win,” “mourning,” “of,” “lift,” and “car port” are problems. Spell checkers have no way to tag misspelled words if the misspelling forms another word, incorrectly used homophones, or compound words that are presented as two words. So even though spell checkers are great tools, do not give them the sole responsibility of making sure your spelling is accurate.

Spell checkers can also suggest the wrong first choice to replace a misspelled word. Consider the following sentence: “My shert was wet cleer thrugh to my skin, and my shos sloshed with every step.” A spell checker might list “though” as a first-choice for “thrugh” and “through” as the second choice, thus forcing you to know that “though” is not right and to look on down the list and choose “through.”

As a rule, only very common proper nouns are part of the dictionaries on which a spell checker is based. Consequently, you are left to check your spelling of those words. Many software programs allow users to add words to the dictionary. This permission lets you incorporate proper nouns you use often into the dictionary so you will not have to address them during a spell check. You might, for example, add your name or your workplace to the dictionary. Besides adding proper nouns, you can also add your list of other words you’ve commonly misspelled in the past.

Common Spelling Rules

Although they all have exceptions, common spelling rules exist and have become known as common rules because they are true most of the time. It is in your best interest to know both the rules and the common exceptions to the rules.

Common Spelling Rules

  • Rule: i before e

    Examples: belief, chief, friend, field, fiend, niece

    Exceptions: either, foreign, height, leisure

  • Rule: …except after c

    Examples: receive, ceiling

    Exceptions: conscience, financier, science, species

  • Rule: …and in long-a words like neighbor and weigh

    Examples: eight, feint, their, vein

  • Rule: In short-vowel accented syllables that end in a single consonant, double the consonant before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel.

    Examples: beginning, mopped, runner, sitting, submitting

    Exceptions: boxing, buses (“busses” is also acceptable), circuses, taxes

  • Rule: There is no doubling if the syllable ends in two consonants, the last syllable is not accented, or the syllable does not have a short vowel.

    Examples: asking, curling; focused, opening; seated, waited

  • Rule: With words or syllables that end in a silent e, drop the e before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel.

    Examples: achieving, baking, exciting, riding, surprising

  • Rule: If the suffix doesn’t start with a vowel, keep the silent e.

    Examples: achievement, lately

    Exceptions: hoeing, mileage, noticeable, judgment, ninth, truly

  • Rule: With syllables that end in y, change the y to i before adding a suffix (including the plural -es).

    Examples: carries, cities, dries, enviable, ladies, luckiest, beautiful, bountiful

    Exceptions: annoyance, babyish

  • Rule: Keep the final y when it is preceded by a vowel.

    Examples: keys, monkeys, plays

  • Rule: …and when the suffix begins with i, since English words do not typically have two i’s in a row.

    Examples: babyish, carrying, marrying

    Exceptions: skiing

  • Rule: When forming the plural of a proper noun, just add -s unless the proper noun ends in ch, s, sh, x, or z.

    Examples: Bartons, Blairs, Hubbards, Murphys, Bushes, Collinses, Lynches, Martinezes, Wilcoxes

  • Rule: When forming plurals of hyphenated nouns, use the plural form of the main word, regardless of where it falls within the word.

    Examples: brothers-in-law, clearing-houses, ex-wives, not-for-profits, runners-up, T-shirts

  • Rule: Add -es to words ending in s, sh, ch, x, or z.

    Examples: classes, dishes, couches, quizzes, taxes

    Exceptions: epochs, monarchs (ch spelling makes k sound)

  • Rule: For words ending in a consonant and an o, add -es.

    Examples: heroes, potatoes, tomatoes, zeroes

    Exceptions: memos, photos, zeros (also acceptable)

  • Rule: For words ending in a vowel and an o, add -s.

    Examples: patios, radios, zoos

  • Rule: For words ending in f or fe, either change the f to v and add -s or -es or just add -s with no changes.

    Examples: knives, leaves OR cuffs, roofs

  • Rule: Some words have whole word changes for the plural forms.

    Examples: children, feet, geese, mice, women

  • Rule: Some words have the same spellings for singular and plural forms.

    Examples: deer, fish, sheep


Homophones are words that sound alike but have different spellings and different meanings. The best way to handle these words is to view them as completely separate words by connecting the spellings and the meanings rather than relying totally on the sounds. You can make mnemonicsA memory assistance technique (e.g., a word or picture clue). (memory clues) to use with words that are a problem for you. Here’s a small sampling of the thousand or more homophones in the English language:

ad/add him/hymn rose/rows
ant/aunt hole/whole sail/sale
band/banned hour/our scene/seen
be/bee in/inn sew/so/sow
beat/beet knead/need sight/site
billed/build knew/new soar/sore
bold/bowled knight/night some/sum
bridal/bridle lead/led son/sun
ceiling/sealing lessen/lesson suite/sweet
cents/scents/sense loan/lone tail/tale
chews/choose maid/made tea/tee
clothes/close might/mite their/there/they’re
creak/creek miner/minor throne/thrown
crews/cruise none/nun toe/tow
days/daze pail/pale time/thyme
dear/deer pain/pane to/too/two
die/dye pair/pare/pear undo/undue
ewe/yew/you passed/past vain/vane/vein
feat/feet patience/patients very/vary
fairy/ferry peace/piece wail/wale/whale
flour/flower pedal/peddle/petal ware/wear/where
for/fore/four plain/plane weather/whether
genes/jeans poor/pore/pour weak/week
groan/grown principal/principle which/witch
guessed/guest rain/reign/rein whine/wine
hair/hare read/red wood/would
heal/heel/he’ll ring/wring yoke/yolk
hear/here road/rode/rowed your/you’re

Commonly Misspelled Words

The following list includes some English words that are commonly used and often misspelled. You, personally, might or might not have problems with many of the words in the list. The important issue is for you to identify your problem words and negate the problems. You can handle your spelling problems by keeping a list of those words handy. Another way to deal with spellings that puzzle you is to use mnemonics such as those shown for the words in bold italics on this list:

abscess deterrent innocence once scissors
accidentally diaphragm innovate ounce seize
accommodate disastrous inoculate paraffin separate
acquaintance discipline insistence parliament separately
acquiesce disguise iridescence parallel sergeant
acquire dissipate irrelevant particularly serviceable
acquit ecstasy irresistible pastime several
allotted effervescence judgment pavilion shriek
all right efficiency knowledgeable permanent siege
amateur embarrass legible permissible sieve
anoint euphemism leisure perseverance silhouette
apologize exercise liaison personnel similar
argument exhilarated library pharaoh sincerely
beautiful existence license phenomenon sophomore
benefited exorcise lieutenant pigeon souvenir
bicycle extraordinary lightning playwright spatial
bookkeeper familiar liquefy precede subtle
bureau fascinate llama precedent succeed
bourgeois fatigue loneliness prejudice suffrage
business February maintenance prevalent supersede
calendar foreign manageable privilege surprise
camaraderie forest maneuver proceed symmetry
camouflage forty massacre propaganda therefore
canoeing fourth mayonnaise questionnaire thorough
changeable friend mediocre queue through
chauffeur frolicking millennium quiet tomorrow
chauvinism gauge miniature quite tragedy
collectible genealogy minimum quizzes transferable
colonel government miniscule rarefy truly
column grateful miscellaneous raspberry tyranny
commitment guarantee mischievous receipt ukulele
committee guard misspell receive unfortunately
competitive guinea mnemonic recommend unmistakable
completely harass moccasin reconciliation unnecessarily
conceivable hemorrhage month reference usually
conciliate heresy mortgage referred vacuum
conscience heroes nauseous remember variety
conscientious hierarchy necessary reminisce vehicle
conscious humorous ninth reparable vengeance
contemptible hygiene noticeable restaurant vicious
convenience hypocrisy nuclear resuscitator villain
courageous icicle obedience rhythm Wednesday
criticism immediate occasion riveted weird
criticize incidentally occurred sacrilegious whether
daiquiri incredible occurrence salve whose
descendant indispensable odyssey sarcasm
desperate inevitable omitted schedule

Selected Mnemonics

  • calendar: Remember that a calendar is made up of many days.
  • conscience: If you con people about your science work, your conscience should bother you.
  • forty: Forty people are hiding in the fort.
  • icicle: “Icy Icy Ellie” (“IC IC LE”) is a cold cold woman.
  • gauge: You use a gas gauge.
  • judgment: The general manager might pass judgment, but the lowly employee won’t even be there.
  • ninth: Nineth…Take the e out so you can use it for the tenth.
  • quiet: You need to be qui(end)(talking).
  • scissors: She used some sharp s(cut)iss(off)rs.
  • tomorrow: There’s only one morning, but every day there are two rred skies (sunrise and sunset).
  • weird: Halloween last year was wild and eerie.

Of course, these mnemonics are not universal. Some of the suggestions on this list might seem corny or even incomprehensible to you. The point is to find some that work for you.

Words from Other Languages

English is an ever-evolving language. Part of this ongoing evolution is the incorporation of words from other languages. These words often do not follow typical English spelling rules, and thus require extra attention. This chart shows a very small portion of such words that are used in English.

Borrowed Word Source Borrowed Word Source
ad hoc Latin en route French
adios Spanish et cetera (etc.) Latin
armadillo Spanish faux pas French
art deco French fiancé French
attaché French frankfurter German
ballet French garbanzo Spanish
bon appétit French gourmet French
bratwurst German homo sapiens Latin
burrito Spanish hors d’oeuvre French
café French incommunicado Latin
chauffeur French jalapeño Spanish
Chihuahua Spanish kaput German
concierge French kindergarten German
cul-de-sac French margarita Spanish
curriculum vitae Latin megahertz German
Dachshund German née French
déjà vu French per capita Latin
diesel German résumé French

Many common words in British and American English are spelled differently. For example, American English words ending in -er are often spelled with -re in British English. American English tends to use -yze or -ize while British English prefers -yse or -ise. Words that include the letter o in American English are often spelled with an ou in British English. American English uses -ck or -tion as word endings, whereas British English often uses -que or -xion.

American English British English American English British English
anemia anaemia fetus foetus
analyze analyse humor humour
anesthetic anaesthetic judgment judgement
apologize apologise inflection inflexion
canceled cancelled labor labour
center centre licorice liquorice
check cheque mold mould
civilization civilisation mustache moustache
color colour pajamas pyjamas
connection connexion realize realise
cozy cosy smolder smoulder
criticize criticise theater theatre
defense defence traveled travelled

Some words from other languages have plural formations that appear unusual within the English language. A good approach is to simply memorize these plural formations. If you don’t want to memorize them, remember that they are unusual and that you will need to look them up.

Singular Spelling Plural Spelling Singular Spelling Plural Spelling
alumnus alumni datum data
analysis analyses medium media
antenna antennae memorandum memoranda
appendix appendices phenomenon phenomena
basis bases radius radii
chateau chateaux stimulus stimuli
criterion criteria syllabus syllabi (Americanized: syllabuses)
crisis crises thesis theses

Key Takeaways

  • The English language includes some general spelling rules, but most of these rules have at least some exceptions.
  • You need to take personal responsibility for dealing with the words that are spelling problems for you. Spell checkers can help handle spelling problems, but you cannot completely rely on them.
  • Words from other languages have been incorporated into English and require special spelling attention.


  1. Using words from the lists in this section and other words you know you have trouble spelling, make a personal spelling checklist. Include only words that you find yourself having trouble spelling.
  2. Write a two-page essay on a topic of your choosing. Then use spell check on the document. Finally, proofread the essay to find errors that the spell checker missed.
  3. Choose ten words that you routinely use and struggle to spell correctly. Create clues to help you remember how to spell the words. Post your clues to a common site so that you can share them with your classmates.