2011-09-24

Grappling With Grammar - Spelling

English spelling contains thousands of excuses for rebuking children, for beating them, for imprisoning them after school hours, for breaking their spirits with impossible tasks.
~ George Bernard Shaw


I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll be saying many more times in the future - spell checkers are great tools, but they will only catch words that are spelled incorrectly. They will not catch a word that is wrong if it is spelled right. For example, they tend to miss homonyms—words which sound same way but are spelled differently, such as site/sight, meat/meet/mete, there/their/they're, and its/it's.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Spell Checking poem. Here’s a condensed version by Margo Roark:

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques for my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it to say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
It's rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
Eye am shore your pleased two no
It's letter perfect awl the weigh
My checker tolled me sew.

For the original (called Candidate For A Pullet Surprise) and more poems like this, go HERE. This site also has an amazing History of Spelling.

Spelling problems are somewhat linked to comprehension and word-recognition difficulties. These problems also involve structural issues, some of which have to do with meaning and some of which are tied to the “look” of a word.

In an electronic age in which we hear far more words than we see, we have fewer opportunities to visualize words and to understand their meaning. When we don’t “see” these words, our retention of them and their context suffers. Seeing the word used in a sentence helps us understand and see its construction. Consider, as an example, the words discreet (meaning modest or prudent) and discrete (meaning distinct or separate). Seeing these words in the context of their use greatly helps the imprinting process:

Theirs was a discreet liaison.
This issue has three discrete parts.

Hearing these words as well can give us some context for their use, but visualization is key to completing our understanding and future proper use.

Many weak spellers are not careful readers. Instead they’re skimmers. They aren’t alert to checking words that appear suspicious. They don’t assume that a certain percentage of words that they use may be spelled incorrectly. And, worst of all, they seldom look up a word to check its meaning and spelling.

Proofreading is a natural part of the editing process, whether you’re writing a term paper, a short story, or a novel. This process requires close attention to one’s writing. Always use a second pair of eyes to check over your work. You’ll be surprised at what they’ll find.

To improve your spelling, try sounding out words by breaking them into phonetic patterns and into their syllables to get a sense of how the letters are organized into words. Use the pronunciation guides in dictionaries. For example, the following words all end with –ough but are pronounced very differently:

Through (throo) . . . cough (kof) . . . bough (bow, sounding like ow)

Correct pronunciation of words can actually help us see the difference in their spellings. For example wreck (pronounced rek with a soft e, meaning to destroy accidentally) and wreak (pronounced reek, meaning to inflict punishment or damage). If you didn’t understand the correct pronunciation, it could lead to a headline such as:

Storm wrecks havoc on fishing village

Knowing the meaning of a word and its proper use in a sentence can also aid in spelling it. You will seldom see word pairs together, but if you could it would lead to better a better understanding of which word is correct for your purposes. Seeing, and understanding, a word, especially in the context of a sentence, is critical to the proper use and spelling of a word. With the following word pairs, just by seeing them together you can probably define the difference between them:

Aisle/isle, bear/bare, grate/great, heard/herd, hour/our, morning/mourning, oar/ore, principal/principle, profit/prophet, rye/wry, sight/site/cite, their/there/they’re, weather/whether

Finally, as I’m sure most of you are aware, there is a difference between Canadian and American spelling. I am a Canadian and proud of it, and normally I choose Canadian spelling. The exception would be when I’m targeting an American publisher. So if you see the letter u in colour, favour, harbour, or neighbour, it is not wrong, merely Canadian.

A lot of publishers don’t care whether you use American or Canadian spelling, as long as you’re consistent throughout. This is the one instance where I advocate the use of your spell check because it can be set for a specific language.

For the most frequently misspelled words that you need to keep an eye on, check out one of these links:
100 Most Often Misspelled Words
Commonly Misspelled Words (has a quiz!)
Commonly Misspelled Words (with hints to help you remember)
Common Misspellings (includes the misspelled words)

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