Created by Oatmeal
Is your spelling as good as you’d like? Or do you feel it lets you down sometimes?
Before reading this article, you might like to click on the image to the right and try The Oatmeal’s Twitter Spelling Test. There’s only 20 multiple-choice questions, they’re relatively simple, and it doesn’t take long.
Done that? If you got 100%, well done! If not… well, not everyone can be the greatest speller in the world. But it doesn’t hurt to make at least a bit of effort to try to avoid making yourself look stupid. Read on, and see how you can improve your spelling with just a few simple rules.
English as she is spoke
This is particularly a problem with words containing an R, at least for those English speakers who speak a version where the letter R isn’t pronounced in every instance (for example, at the end of words like “butter”) or after long vowels (words like “farm”). Many of the accents within England itself are like this; it tends not to be a problem for the Scots and Irish, or for most North Americans.
It’s not uncommon for these people to misspell words by omitting the R (and perhaps the vowel in front of it too), or by inserting one where there shouldn’t be one. Here are a couple of examples of the more common misspellings:
- Mint-condition penny blacks are much sought after [not “sort after”]
- He keeps his socks in the bottom drawer [not “draw”]
- The collection was formerly housed in the British Museum [in other words, it used to be; if you used “formally” instead, it would mean something very similar to “officially”]
If in doubt, the best thing to do is check in a dictionary, whether it’s a book or an online one.
Lay, lady, lay (cluck, squawk)
Lie (tell porkies): I always lie, the politician always lies, he always lied, she always lied
Lie (like Bob Dylan’s lady): I lie on my big brass bed, the lady lies on my big brass bed, he lay on my bed, she has lain on my bed
Lay (put something on something else): I lay an egg, she lays an egg, she laid an egg, she has laid an egg
So Bob Dylan’s song should really have been called “Lie, Lady, Lie”. (“Lay, lady, lay…” conjures up some really rather disturbing images.)
However, note that Americans often say “lay” when they mean “lie”. Go figure.
Two many too cope with
A quick guide on the differences between two, too and to:
- Let’s get the easy one out of the way first: two is 2 – the whole number between one and three.
- Too has two meanings: “as well” and “excessively”:
- If you’re going shopping, can I come too? (Can I come as well?)
- No, you can’t; it’ll be too crowded in the car. (The car will be overcrowded.)
- To is also used in two different ways:
- One is in the general sense of “in the direction of”: for instance, “We’re going to the shops.”
- The other is a little more difficult to explain; it’s used to introduce the basic form of a verb (like go, eat, say) that doesn’t itself have a subject. (The subject of a verb is the person or thing that’s doing the activity – like I go, you eat, the dog barks.) For instance:
- I have to go now.
- This used to be my favourite song.
- He doesn’t intend to pay.
-ce and -se
How do you tell which word to use when there are two forms of the same word: one ending in -ce, the other in -se?
The rule’s very straightforward:
Use -ce for nouns (football practice, legal advice, driving licence)
Use -se for verbs (I practise the piano, she advised me not to buy it, 007 is licensed to kill)
NB: People who write in US English face a different problem, as there’s often only one form of the word for both the noun and the verb. In their case, the problem is remembering which spelling to use – it’s usually -se (driver’s license), but can more rarely be -ce (I practice the piano).
We’ve all seen the signs on greengrocers’ displays. You know: the ones giving the price of “potato’s”, “cabbage’s” or “pea’s”, for instance.
Plurals never end in ’s (apostrophe-s). That also applies to decades (the 1990s) and to abbreviations (RSJs).
I’m not sure how the practice arose in the first place, unless it was to mask uncertainty over how to spell some of the more tricky plurals like potatoes.
If you’re not sure about how to spell a plural, look it up in an dictionary. You can find the OED online here:
(By the way, did you spot both the deliberate mistakes in the heading of this section?)
It’s or its? Who’s or whose?
This appears more complicated than it really is. The confusion is understandable – many people dimly remember that ‘s is what you put on the end of a word to mean “belonging to”, like “Dave’s bar” or “Mr Creosote’s wafer-thin mint”. But that does NOT apply to every case – and particularly not to words like his, hers, its or whose.
It’s means “it is” or “it has”:
- It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky.
- I know you don’t want to do it, but it’s got to be done.
Its means “belonging to or connected with it”:
- The dog chewed its bone hungrily.
- Rank has its privileges.
The same applies to “who’s” and “whose”.
Who’s is a short form for “who is” or “who has”:
- Who’s that dancing in the red dress?
- Guess who’s been on Match of the Day!
Whose means “belonging to or connected with whom”:
- Whose pen is this?
- There is a prize for the competitor whose dog is the most obedient.
The correct forms for yours, hers, ours and theirs are as I’ve just written them – they should never have an apostrophe.
- Is this drink mine or yours?
- They had towels marked His and Hers.
- Their garden may be bigger than ours, but our trees are taller than theirs.
Here are ten commonly-used words and phrases which seem to get spelt wrongly more often than they should be:
- a lot of…
Can’t be bovvered (sp?)
If you want to use an unfamiliar word but don’t know how to spell it, what do you do?
Quite a few people simply have a wild guess at the correct spelling and put (sp?) after their attempt. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell whether they’re genuinely asking for someone to give them the correct spelling, or too lazy to try to find out before posting. And often people are too polite to draw further attention to the original poster’s ignorance.
If you’re stuck for a spelling, then as a first resort you could ask someone who’s good at spelling if they know. Alternatively, if there’s no-one around, you could try looking it up in a dictionary or encyclopaedia, whether it’s online or in print – there’s a fair chance that if you have a guess, you’ll find the word eventually.
The main thing is: try to find out rather than remaining in the dark. Who knows? You might even learn something in the process!