How do you spell difficult words

One of the most popular searches in Google is one that is related to “how to spell difficult words”. This means two things: On the one hand many people seem to have real spelling problems with certain expressions. On the other hand there may be lots of people trying to help them with some method to improve their spelling. You will find tons of sites listing the most commonly misspelled words in English. These are the “most difficult words to spell”. And there are entire lists devoted to show them.

What’s the point of these lists?  Is anyone going to learn them by heart and thus improve his or her spelling? Did you ever “learn to spell” a word?

What’s the problem? The education system or the language itself?

Let’s take a look at these common misspellings and the proposed solutions: We have for example this reputable site that lists the 100 most misspelled Words in English. It includes words like acceptable, accidentally, believe, calendar, category, daiquiri, embarrass, foreign, grateful, guarantee, humorous, intelligence, judgment, leisure, maintenance, neighbor, occurrence, pronunciation, referred, schedule, threshold, until or weather. These are quite common words, and if they really build the group of most misspelled words, there is something seriously wrong either with the education system or with the language itself. With an entire generation being able to manage their computers, phones and tablets, being able to read the instructions to log into Facebook, Twitter and Google, I don’t think the education system can be that bad that milliones of people have to look up how to correctly spell “category”. That keeps the second choice: The language is the problem. Better said, the spelling rules in English language are quite problematic.

The chaotic complex English language

In most languages, written language follows the spoken language. You write what you hear. If you hear “casa” (house) in Spanish, you know it must be written “casa”. If you hear “bambino” in Italian, you just know it must be written “bambino”. If you hear “Haus” in German, you will write it “Hause” even if you never heard that word before (just theoretical). In English none of this can be applied as a general principle. The spelling does not follow the pronunciation in a high percentage of words. And there are added difficulties due to regional differences. Just think of all spelling variations across American and British English. Right and wrong are different wen using british English, US English or Canadian English, just to name the bigger ones. And there are a lot of other countries using some form of English as their official language.

Any examples?

Think of words ending in “-re” or  “-er” like center, fiber, luster. In the US center, fiber, luster are ok. In England you would get this marked as errors and would need to use “centre”, “lustre”, fibre”. In some Canadian provinces too.  But as always, there are exceptions: Words ending in “-cre” like “mediocre” keep the English “-re” spelling in the US.
But the main problem remains the gap between spoken and written language. A handicap we share with French, Asian people and many others. It starts with people speaking in dozens or even hundreds of different dialects often so different in the sounds that even native speakers don’t always understand each other without difficulties. It ends with dozens of rules about how to spell certain sounds, that only theoritically are spoken the same way by people living only a few hundres miles aways from each other. From this perspective, learning how to write proper English in whatever regional variation we need is just a heroic task that everyone should be proud of. Just take this example about the spelling “rules” for vowel teams with more than one sound, taken from Leons Planet

  • ‘ea’ (short e sound);  bread, breath, dead, death, head, lead, read, wealth
  • ‘ea’ (long e sound);   bead, beat, breathe, eat, feat, heat, lead, leak, meat, neat, read, treat, weak, wheat
  • ‘ea’ (long a sound);  break, great, steak
  • ‘ew’ ( /u:/ );  dew, blew, chew, crew, flew, grew, knew, lewd, mew, stew
  • ‘ew’ ( /ju:/ );  few, new, pew
  • ‘oo’ (short sound //);  book, foot, good, hood, hook, look, nook, rook, soot, took, wood,
  • ‘oo’ ( /u:/ ); balloon, boot, cartoon, goose, loose, moose, loop, loot, moon, noon, poop, root, stoop, toon, toot
  • ‘oo’ (schwa sound //);  blood, flood
  • ‘oo’ (long o sound);  boor, floor, door, moor
  • ‘ou’ (‘au’ “short” sound);  bough, grouse, house, louse, mouse, plough
  • ‘ou’ (‘ou’  “long” sound);  though
  • ‘ou’ (schwa sound //);  enough, rough, tough
  • ‘ow’ (‘au’ “short” sound); brown, cow, how, now, wow
  • ‘ow’ (‘ou’ “long” sound);  blow, flow, grow, know, low, sow, tow

This being a set of rules means that you should not only learn this by heart, but also know how most words are pronounced (correctly) and be able to elevate this knowledge to an abstract level from which you can apply the rules to every word you write, even if you don’t really know it. Any language student mastering this in one weeks lesson can go straight to a bar and get drunk to celebrate. If you like a good laugh, try also the pronunciation rules at Zompist.  If you manage to work yourself through this you can be really proud of yourself.  If you go serious about learning the basics, study rules sets like this from the Riggs Institute by heart. But getting back to the title: How to spell difficult words?

My suggestion: The 10 golden rules to improve your spelling of difficult words.

  1. Read, read, read.
  2. See films with subtitles and read the subs.
  3.  Read more.
  4. Write.
  5. Read and write.
  6. See more films with English subtitles.
  7. Write a lot.
  8. Use a spell checker.
  9. Analyze the spell checkers messages.
  10. Use another spell checker.

That’s it. Do this every day for 30 days and you will be set as A-Student in your English class. Your Word spell checker will turn blue. And your boss will think highly of you.

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