Even the best writers and editors can be less-than-perfect spellers, myself included (although I am by no means the best of anything). In elementary school, my classmates and I would be asked to study a set of words and then be tested on those words at the end of each week. The words increased with difficulty throughout the year, and being an avid reader even then, I seemed to ace those tests with flying colors.
But over time, our brains become less pliable. We rely on tools like Microsoft Word’s spellchecker instead of testing ourselves, and when we don’t have access to the tool, it’s easy to be unsure of words with tricky spellings. While Microsoft’s spellchecker is an essential tool for any writer or editor, it shouldn’t be relied on entirely. According to The Copyeditor’s Handbook, “spellcheckers do not distinguish between homophones (principal and principle), do not account for spellings determined by usage (resume and résumé), and may allow variant spellings (catalog and catalogue) in the same document. And, of course, spellcheckers do not highlight a misspelled word if the misspelling is itself a word (from and form).”
As an adult, being a good speller means more than getting an “A” on a spelling test. Or being a human dictionary. Good spellers acknowledge their faults. They know their weaknesses—those words that often trip them up. They understand the difference between American and English usage (like dialog and dialogue or color and colour), and then in turn understand that to interchange the two is acceptable in some cases, like with dialog and dialogue—where the British spelling is often preferable.
However, if you feel your spelling could use some improvement, there are several things you can do—many of which are also listed in The Copyeditor’s Handbook but some of which I have learned over the years.
Stare at List of Words.
There are many word lists that you can find online or in textbooks. Or you could create your own—writing down words that you often find yourself having to look up in the dictionary and taping the piece of paper to the wall above your desk or whichever place you find yourself writing the most. Study the words once a day, and when you have them down, replace the list with another one.
Learn Spelling Rules and Exceptions.
Find a book with spelling tips and rules. The Copyeditor’s Handbook recommends Harry Shaw’s Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them, but since I haven’t read it, don’t take my word for it.
Learn Something About the Etymology of Difficult Words.
English has got to be one of the trickiest languages out there, with spelling differences that often make little sense without a basic understanding of etymology. For example, iridescence is spelled with one “r” but irregular has two. Why? Because iridescence comes from the name of the Greek goddess Iris, who was associated with rainbows and whose name is spelled with one “r.” Irregular, on the other hand, is the prefix ir (meaning “not”) attached to the word regular.
Pay Attention to Suffixes that Contain Unstressed Words.
Words that end in -able or -ible and -ance or -ence can be easy to mix up, unless you have a perfect memory. Play it safe, and look them up in a dictionary. Say the words out loud. They have different sounds, even if they look very similar.
Pay Attention to Doubled Consonants.
For me, words with doubled consonants tend to be the most difficult. When sounding out words like graffiti or occasion, it seems very possible that their might be an extra “t” in graffiti or an extra “s” in occasion. This is something that spellchecker would catch, but if you’re writing a hand-written letter to someone or have an in-class essay then spellchecker wont save you.
Learn a Few Mnemonic Devices.
I don’t often use mnemonic devices, but I know it works for some. If there are similar words that seem confusing, like stationary and stationery, it might be helpful to remember stationary means stay still and stationery is for letters. By the way, mnemonic is definitely being added to my list.
These are just a few tips for improving your spelling, but I’m curious, readers, what’s worked for you?