Revisiting why spelling matters

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

At a recent editing workshop, the instructor pulled out an old “chestnut,” a passage that contains jumbled words (with the first and last letters intact) which supposedly demonstrates that despite misspellings, the human mind can comprehend what is meant to be conveyed. Writing and editing instructors love to pull out the passage, mostly to argue that our minds do not catch errors – particularly in our own writing because we “see” what we intended to write, even if we’ve left out a word or misspelled it. While this phenomenon of being so familiar with our writing that we supply any missing elements, the passage (along with the “research” behind it) is bogus or what some call an urban myth according to Matt Davis, an actual researcher at Cambridge University.

To read the before and after passages, click on the boxes below.



Davis writes that the debate about the psychology of reading and “whether we read using information from individual letters or from whole words is far from over.” However, there is no debate among editors, which is why this update of an earlier post, “Why bother with spelling,” shows that spelling really does matter.

You may be wondering why you should bother with correct spelling, especially with spell check and with the increasing informality and abbreviated or short cuts in communicating through emailing and texting.

As we have discussed in our consideration of the Top Twenty common errors in this blog, we are judged by our control of conventions of writing, one of which is spelling.

Rules of correctness evolve and change over time, and they also depend on context and personal or professional standards, as seen in controversies, such as the Oxford comma. However, the Top Twenty statistically are the errors most likely to result in negative responses from readers. And if we want to establish your authority or credibility with our readers, we certainly want to avoid anything that might detract from that.

Spelling appears as error #5 on the 2006 Top Twenty list, emphasizing its importance. Interestingly, spelling does not occur on the 1986 list, even though it was “by far the most common type of errors” revealed in writing patterns. Even with spell checkers, spelling errors outnumbered other errors by a factor of 3 to 1, which would have skewed the list if considered with the others. What the earlier Everyday Writer reference works did do was to present a list of 50 most commonly misspelled words comprising a fairly small amount of words persistently spelled incorrectly (10, 173). On this list were both homonyms (they, their, they’re) and frequently confused words (than/then).

By 2007, spelling errors (including homonyms) made the top quarter of list. The most common misspellings are those that spell checkers cannot identify, such as homonyms, compound words incorrectly spelled as separate words, and proper nouns, particularly names. Catching these after you have used spell check relies on careful proofreading. In the case of homonyms, selecting the incorrect one results in a simple case of wrong word, using the word their instead of the word there.

In a recent exhibit of projects by college students, I saw a number of misspellings, including the use of passed instead of past, as well as use of *accomodate, a misspelling of the word accommodate. Either the spell checker was not run, or the student author ignored the “red line” indicating a misspelling. In such cases, it is helpful to know or be able to recognize correct spellings.

How do we learn correct spellings? Orthography is the conventional spelling system of a language, and the systems adopted depend on linguistic, psychological, and cultural considerations. Many epithets have been used to describe English spelling: crazy, ridiculous, terrible, absurd.

And, many people have argued for English-language spelling reform, to regularize English spelling so that it is more consistent, matches pronunciation better, and follows the alphabetic principle. These include Benjamin Franklin, early American inventor and statesman; Noah Webster, publisher of the first truly American dictionary; and George Bernard Shaw, who we saw in the previous post also had opinions about the use of apostrophes.

As points out, such “advocates of reform have claimed, jokingly. that you could spell fish with the (non-existent) word ghoti. (The gh- is like the /f/ sound at the end of enough, the -o- is like the sound in women, and the -ti is the “sh” sound you find in words like ration or motion.)” However, the article goes on to state that “language is rarely random, and although our spelling system looks chaotic, there are regular patterns lurking under the surface.”

In fact, in The American Way of Spelling (1999), Richard Venezky argues that “English orthography is not a failed phonetic transcription system, invented out of madness or perversity.­ Instead, it is a more complex system that preserves bits of history (i.e., etymology), facilitates understanding, and also translates into sound” (4).

Only about four percent of all English words in print defy explanation and are truly irregular.  It appears to be more random and persistent because some of the most common words, don’t follow the rules of phonics. These are often the oldest words in the English language whose pronunciations have changed over many centuries of use (Moats & Tolman).

Pronunciations changing over time is a usual way for spelling to deviate from pronunciation. Another way is borrowing words from other languages. English is a plastic system language. Plastic is an adjective meaning flexible, creative: it molds, changes, and adapts. English is very receptive to borrowings, absorbing words from other languages. Venetzky describes this phenomenon in this way: “English has always had rather loose immigration regulations for vocabulary” (7). The absorbed words usually retain characteristics, including spelling and pronunciation, of their native language: bijou, chalet, and chauffeur (French); trekked (Dutch via Afrikaans); ohm and Fahrenheit (German); vodka (Russian).

All of these characteristics can make English a challenging language when it comes to spending. However, there are patterns of spelling and strategies to master the spelling of words commonly misspelled. You can consult a dictionary or a writing reference for basic spelling rules; for example, “i before e except after c” or making some plurals (“for words ending in y, change the y to i and add –es”).

Language technology also helps people with spelling. It can add unusual words, including foreign phrases, jargon, and proper nouns, to your word-processor’s spell check. It can identify the words you have most trouble with. Some online dictionaries, like the Macmillan Dictionary, have software that keeps a record of the words you enter for a search; for example, if you put “harrass” in the search box, the dictionary not only shows you the correct spelling (harass) but also logs the incorrect one. This not only creates a list of commonly misspelled words, but it individualizes the list to the words that users have actually searched for but spelled wrongly (

As with the teaching of grammar, spelling (and vocabulary) instruction over the past thirty years has come down two theories: explicit instruction versus a Whole Language approach. Both offer some useful practices, but recent empirical research supports an explicit and a systematic approach that uses word lists specific to the learner’s age level and area of study or work. In such a way, students of all ages, whether enrolled in school or working in a profession, can master words and patterns presented in the right time and place. These are practical tips that you can use when you bother to take care of your spelling.

(Resources: Davis, “Bogus word jumble”; Everyday Writer;; Venezky, The American Way of Spelling; Moats & Tolman.)

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