Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Perils of English Spelling

Do you know that one of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language is--"misspelled"? That sneaky double s has tripped more than a few people.

Just as most misspellings of proper names (discussed last week) are due to variations from the "regular" spellings, other frequently misspelled words achieve that status by violating convention. Remember the grade-school spelling rule "i before e except after c or when sounded like a as in neighbor and weigh"? But... how do you spell "height"?

You form plurals by adding s; but then how do you explain "mouse" and "mice"? Or "woman" and "women"? Or "goose" and "geese"--and for that matter, why is the plural of "mongoose" still “mongooses”?

And what about words that are spelled one way and pronounced another--and letter combinations for which there seem to be no conventional pronunciations? Why does "knife" have a k in it? Why doesn't "dough" rhyme with "rough," nor "key" with "obey," nor "plow" with "tow"?

Be grateful if you learned English in toddlerhood. The more-or-less-official tongue of international business is perhaps the hardest language in the world for adults to master. Blame a centuries-long habit of freely adopting words from other languages, no doubt aided and abetted by the British Empire period.

Nonetheless, and like it or not, people still see sloppy spelling as a sign of ignorance or carelessness or both. Blind faith in your spell checker is not an advisable solution: few computers can tell the difference between "twenty-four resources" and "twenty for Resources." At times, we all have to revert to the ancient "look it up" method.

However, no dictionary can help if you're so uncertain of a spelling that you can’t find it in the alphabetical list or keyword search, or if you're like the college student who lamented, "My professors say I have to learn to look up words when I'm in doubt--but I'm never in doubt!" The only thing resembling preventive medicine is to review likely-to-be-misspelled words until the correct spelling is burned into your memory. Do you have "misspelled" straight? Good; now here are ten more words to memorize before drafting your next business proposal:
1. Accidentally
2. Calendar
3. Consensus
4. Guarantee
5. Indispensable
6. License
7. Occurrence
8. Personnel
9. Relevant
10. Stationery (as in "writing paper," not to be confused with stationary, which means "motionless")

When you have all those right, visit the "Most Often Misspelled Words" page at yourdictionary.com for a top-100 list and some useful memory aids....

...the word for which is spelled M-N-E-M-O-N-I-C-S and pronounced “knee-MAWN-iks.”

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