Why speling iz dificult
HOW DO YOU SEPARATE good spellers from bad ones?
Simple. Ask them to spell the word ‘separate’. ‘Separate’ is the most commonly misspelled word in Britain today, according to a report in this week’s Sun newspaper.
The report says we get it wrong at least twice as often as any other word. It was typed incorrectly into Google’s search bar 92,100 times in the past month, with most tapping in ‘seperately’ and others going for ‘sepperately’ or ‘seperatelly’ (maybe those who can't agree which TV channel to watch).
The most commonly misspelt words
The rest of the top ten misspellings in the list were (in order of times they were misspelt): ‘questionnaire’, ‘potato’, ‘diarrhoea’, ‘definitely’, ‘embarrass’, ‘conscience’, ‘unnecessary’, ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘manoeuvre’.
If the research had been done at a different time, say, when we weren’t being asked to stay apart during lockdown, there is a good chance ‘separate’ wouldn’t top the list. But that’s a different matter.
It’s also worth remembering that many of us can be a bit careless when it comes to throwing words into Google’s search engine as it’s so good at working out what we want anyway. For example, pop a ‘piza’ into Google and it’ll deliver this message: ‘did you mean ‘pizza’?
We can probably work out how the other misspellings occurred. ‘Diarrhoea’ is a notoriously difficult word to spell. It’s an unusual jumble of letters that bear little resemblance to any other English words (‘gonorrhoea’ being an equally uncomfortable exception). Nor does ‘diarrhoea’ look like it sounds. If we were spelling it phonetically it would probably look something like this: ‘diarear’ or maybe ‘diorear’. As it is, we got it from the Greek for ‘flow through’!
‘Bureaucracy’ and ‘manouevre’ also have Continental origins that mean they don’t resemble how they sound in English. Spelling them phonetically would probably give us something like ‘burocracy’ and ‘manoover’.
We often confuse ‘conscience’ in a similar way. We see it contains the word ‘science’ but we pronounce that completely differently. A phonetically spelt ‘conscience’ would probably look like this: ‘conshens’. Many of us also confuse it with its close cousin, ‘conscious’.
Such confusion leads some people to argue that we should spell phonetically. The problem with this is we don’t all pronounce words the same way. Ask a northerner like me to spell the word ‘bath’ phonetically and I wouldn’t change a single letter. Ask someone in the south of England to do the same and they’d likely place an ‘r’ between the ‘a’ and ‘t’.
A lot of the other misspellings in the list contain double letters. Some would blush if they saw ‘embaras’ written down, but that’s as phonetically accurate as the correctly spelt word.
The bitter biter had dinner in the diner with her pater (father)
We’d also have to re-jig spelling altogether if we were to get rid of double letters. Otherwise, removing the second occurrence of letters from words like ‘bitter’, ‘patter’ and ‘dinner’ would make them indistinguishable from ‘biter’, ‘pater’ and ‘diner’, which mean different things.
Other than those we’ve mentioned and those with double letters, this leaves us with ‘potato’ and ‘definitely’. A common mistake is for people to add an ‘e’ to the end of ‘potato’. This probably derives from its plural, ‘potatoes’. We’re used to sticking an ‘s’ on the end of singular words to make plurals, so we can see how some assume ‘potatoe’ is the correct spelling.
A dictionary is definitely a good idea
It’s unlikely (I think) that those who replace the second ‘i’ with an ‘a’ in ‘definitely’ pronounce it ‘def-in-ate-ly’. It’s more likely that they are thrown by similar words with an ‘-ately’ ending, like ‘desperately’, ‘delicately’ and, ironically, maybe even ‘accurately’.
English is a mishmash of words derived from German, Latin, Greek and other sources that make it inconsistent. Because of the way it's been created, it may also contain more words than comparable world languages; though even the Oxford Dictionary can’t be sure about this, partly because it’s hard to define what a word is. Consider ‘ad lib’, for example. Should we count that as one or two words?
Google's search engine will forgive most misspellings and return what we were looking for anyway. But, if you’re writing professionally, as a representative of the company you work for, you may find your readers less forgiving. So, it’s a good idea to grab a dictionary (or an online version) or teach yourself some mnemonics for words you struggle with.
I’ll cover mnemonics in another blog.