I’m a poor speller. Can you help?

05 Dec

The short answer is YES, but it may require patience and hard work.

Why is there a problem?

  • English has up to 45 distinct sounds (phonemes) but only 26 letters, so there is a problem to start with. (If you are interested in this, look at The International Phonetic Alphabet. Since many of the best dictionaries now use this in their pronunciation guides, it is worth studying. On this site you get to hear each sound in British and American.)
  • We use the letters wastefully and illogically. The most famous examples are bough, cough, sought, thorough, though, tough, through where ough is sounded in seven different ways! Or there is that old riddle: What could ghoti spell? The answer is fish. (Rough, women, nation: GH+O+TI = FISH.)
  • The reasons for English spelling being the way it is are interesting. Simply put, it is 1) because English is made up from many different languages and has inherited spellings from all of them and 2) there was no set spelling, and no dictionaries, in English until about 300 years ago. See also Absolutely Ridiculous English Spelling.
  • Ms Finnie of Sydney Boys High School Social Science Department sent this by email (March 2005):

    Reasons why the English language is so hard to learn:

    1. The bandage was wound around the wound.
    2. The farm was used to produce produce.
    3. The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
    4. We must polish the Polish furniture.
    5. He could lead if he would get the lead out.
    6. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
    7. Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to
    present the present.
    8. A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
    9. When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes. [Must be American!- NW]
    10. I did not object to the object.
    11. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
    12. There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
    13. They were too close to the door to close it.
    14. The buck does funny things when the does are present.
    15. A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
    16. To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
    17. The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
    18. After a number of injections my jaw got number.
    19. Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
    20. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
    21. How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

    There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. Quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend. If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it? Is it an odd, or an end? If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Park on the driveway, drive on the parkway? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on. English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

    P.S. – Why doesn’t “Buick” rhyme with “quick”? On the other hand, why is there no word to rhyme with orange?

    That goes way beyond spelling into idiom and other matters, of course.

    Here is another view of why English is so weird:


    I take it you already know
    Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
    Others may stumble, but not you
    On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through,
    Well done! And now you wish, perhaps
    To learn of less familiar traps?

    Beware of heard, a dreadful word
    That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
    And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead
    For goodness sake don’t call it ‘deed’!
    Watch out for meat and great and threat,
    They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

    A moth is not a moth in mother
    Nor both in bother, broth in brother
    And here is not a match for there
    Nor dear and fear for bear and pear
    And then there’s dose and rose and lose
    Just look them up, and goose and choose.

    And cork and work and card and ward,
    And font and front and word and sword,
    And do and go and thwart and cart –
    Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
    A dreadful language? Man alive,
    I’d mastered it when I was five.


    So what can you do?

  • Be curious about words and really look at them.
  • Sound the word you want to spell very slowly, seeing how many sounds go into it and how those sounds are represented.
  • Learn how to break long words up into syllables.
  • Check you are pronouncing it correctly. Some people spell mischievous incorrectly because they are pronouncing it incorrectly as X mischievIous.
  • Write the word down three times. Check it, then write it down another three times.
  • When you look up a word in a dictionary, look at the related words: for example, if you look up separate, note separateness, separately, and so on.
  • Make lists of the words you frequently misspell and learn to spell them correctly.
  • Do crossword puzzles and such things frequently.
  • Pay special attention to homophones like principal and principle.
  • Study the spelling rules that do exist in English.
  • Here are some sites to help you.

    First, we do have a problem: most of the good sites on the Internet are American or Canadian, so we need to observe the differences between Australian spelling and other varieties of English. Australian is generally (but not exactly) like British English.

    This site explains the differences. I guess it is true to say you would be better off spelling well, if a bit like an American, rather than spelling really badly. 😉
    English Spelling Tests by Vivian Cook, who worked as a lecturer in EFL in Ealing Technical College, then as Director of the Language Service at North East London Polytechnic and as Reader at Essex University. From October 2004 he is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Newcastle. He is chiefly known for his work on L2 learning and for his book on Chomsky. Current interests are the English writing system, the design of course materials and the multi-competence view of L2 acquisition. Founder and first President of the European Second Language Association. So it is English!
    A Spelling Test, by Mindy McAdams. Short interactive test. comes in hard or easy.

    How to Play:

  • The computer will give twenty sets of four words.
  • Place a check next to the word which is spelled wrong.
  • Spell the word you checked correctly in the box.
  • If you get all twenty problems correct, you can put your name on our leader board.
  • Learning the rules

    Complete List of Spelling Rules for Nouns and Verbs
    by Susan Jones.
    Purdue University spelling handouts: very good indeed, and includes tests. spelling pages.
    Marie’s Free Spelling Course: very generous free site.
    English Club Spelling Rules is specially for ESL students but useful to anyone.
    Brian’s Common Errors in English is a very good reference site to study.
    The Linguistic Fun Page! for spelling and many other things.
    Vocabulary and Spelling Quiz Page – hundreds of them!
    List of Commonly Misspelled Words. “Here is compiled a list of frequently misspelled words in English. Select a reference source from a dropdown list and click on any word in a list. Depending on your selection of reference source, it will open a new window with definition/pronunciation or translation of this word.” The dropdown list includes the Cambridge Dictionary so you can get British/Australian spellings!

    Do you have a good enough dictionary?

    Online, it is hard to go past Ask Oxford and

    My favourite for students of English as a second language is Collins Cobuild. Why? Because it is so clear in its definitions (it does not use weird dictionary-speak) and it has a large vocabulary. Its disadvantage is that it does not list older meanings of words, or words that are not commonly used in the past century. Excellent for what it does though.

    You can’t go past the Oxford dictionaries for reliability and for good representation of words you might find in older literature. The Shorter Oxford is one that senior students of Advanced English should become familiar with. For everyday use, the Macquarie is good for Australians. There are many good dictionaries, and from time to time excellent dictionaries can be bought cheaply in many bargain bookshops: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston, Houghton Mifflin 3rd ed 1996 (2140 large pages, 350,000 entries, 4,000 illustrations and 500 very useful usage notes) is just one recent example.

    An excellent free download for your computer is Wordweb, a handy dictionary and thesaurus.


    Posted by on December 5, 2006 in English language, student help, study skills, writing



    6 responses to “I’m a poor speller. Can you help?

    1. Greg Wadel

      January 7, 2007 at 11:34 am

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      OWNER: I am allowing this comment although it is a sales pitch. One’s confidence might be blunted a bit by this extract:

      …I almost forgot the three most misused and misspelled words that come across my desk: their (passive pronoun [sic]), there (at that place), and they’re (contraction for they are).

      That should read “possessive pronoun”. So proceed with caution. On the other hand, the site may improve. There is little there at the moment, but at least it is relevant. At this stage it is not good enough to link to; sorry. But here is at least some promotion for you. The links from the site do refer to some online material that has to be paid for, but does look quite good.

      NOTE: I don’t mind promoting relevant sites, but I am not a patsy either.

    2. Nathan Parkes

      June 30, 2007 at 5:25 pm

      G’day Neil,

      It is a very curious thing how some words are spelt and that there is no offical uniform method that links the spelling of prefixes and suffixes to its literal meanings. And as such, there are words that ought to have a relevant adjective or adverb, of which are in fact left without. Being in my HSC year, and studying advanced English, I have encountered such debacles. The most obvious of which occured when I was studying the ‘In The Wild’ core, having to write essays, among other things, about Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’. I’m not entirely sure of the uniformity across school as to how this core is taught, but my teacher emphasized the dystopian of the future, so naturally in my essay writing I conveyed this point of view. The only problem was that the amount of words that carried this meaning was extremely limited. This problem arose when I started to feel as if I was really repeating myself. I started using the word ‘dystopic’ as a relief to dystopia and dystopian, but was soon to realize that Microsoft Word was marking the word incorrect. I consulted a range of English teacher from my school about this word and each of them said it was correct. However, I looked it up in a series of dictionaries in the school library, and to my suprise, the word was not found. I’m reluctant to look it up on the internet because it seems that brand new words start appearing on dictionary sites which only ten years ago would have never been thought of. Take the word (if that is what you would call it) ‘n00b’ for example. I was just wondering what your thoughts were on this, and whether or not you can lend a hand.


    3. ninglun

      June 30, 2007 at 6:24 pm

      Hi, Nathan. Nice to see you here.

      Noob interested me, so I looked it up, as you can see.

      Ask Oxford doesn’t have a problem with dystopia. Neither does, which further points out the word has been around since 1868 and comes from Greek — hence the odd spelling. “Dystopian” seems to be the older form, but “dystopic” seems to have first arisen in medical texts (to judge from Google) but has subsequently appeared, as here, in respectable essays — on film studies in this case. (That essay may even be useful.) It will probably be in the next edition of major print dictionaries.

      The Cambridge Guide to English Usage — the best and newest — doesn’t say anything about it, but does make the point that dystopia (“bad place”) came into being as the opposite of utopia because someone — maybe John Stuart Mill in 1868 — mistook the u prefix for a Greek one meaning good, whereas it is actually a Greek one meaning “no” or “none”, so utopia actually meant, at least to Sir Thomas More back in the 16th century, “no place”, not “good place”.

      Thought you might like the trivia.

      Good luck with your HSC, grand-nephew. 🙂

    4. Adam

      July 29, 2007 at 4:09 pm

      About the “HINTS ON PRONUNCIATION OF ENGLISH FOR FOREIGNERS” says that it was: Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004, by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981, and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.

      If you go off and read the Spelling Progress Bulletin from March 1961, available at , on page 20 the poem is there as “Brush Up On Your English, with Hints on Pronunciation for visiting Foreigners, from the Manchester Guardian”.

      Call me pedantic, but I like tracking down the origin of these kinds of things…

    5. ninglun

      July 29, 2007 at 5:50 pm

      Thanks, Adam. Years ago I read the Bolinger book. Perhaps I first saw it there. “Brush Up On Your English” has certainly travelled!

    6. ninglun

      January 2, 2008 at 9:04 am

      For some reason spammers love this post, perhaps because so many of them are spelling challenged… Whatever, I am closing comment here. Please use the contact page or the guest book if you wish to say something, and if you are a real person and not a spam bot. 😉

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