Based on recent research into the most commonly misspelt words in the English language, Kieran McGovern considers why some words are just difficult to spell correctly.
Which words do you think are most commonly misspelt in English? Write down five words you expect to be on the list at the end of this post.
What makes some English words difficult to spell? One source of difficulty is inconsistent pronunciation; many sound out ‘definately’ when they mean definitely (2). And comparatively few outside the Royal Shakespeare Company clearly enunciate separate (1) – more typically the ‘A’ becomes an ‘E’. This problem is most glaring when (many) young people transcribe ‘could have’ as ‘could of’ or a lot (14) as ‘alot’.
In some cases it is an unexpected combination of letters containing few phonetic clues – bureaucracy (11) and manoeuvre (3) are examples here. In both these cases the spelling pattern is literally foreign; French, to be precise. Until comparatively recently a basic knowledge of French was assumed of every ‘educated’ English reader but most now would recognise the word entrepreneur (16) from business rather than the language from which it originates. The same applies to those other providers of hidden spelling rules: Latin and Greek.
An understandable uncertainty as to when ‘C’ rather than ‘S’ applies lies behind consensus (6) supersede (12) conscience (19) and unnecessary (7). There’s a similar confusion over what creates the ‘CK’ sound in liquefy (18), added to the confusion of an ‘E’ in place of the usual ‘I’.
By far the most difficult hurdle for any speller, however, is the dreaded ‘double letter’ dilemma. Two ‘N’s or one? Does two ‘C’s look right? Unnecessary causes double-trouble here to add to its ‘C’ or ‘S’ issues.
Spell-check/Spellcheck (?) will help, of course, which is why many young people delegate the job entirely to that marvellous (two ‘L’s in British English) programme (one ‘M’ and drop the ‘E’ in the US or amongst techies).
Sadly, technology has not yet produced a spell-checking pen for that handwritten application form.
1. Separate 2. Definitely 3. Manoeuvre 4. Embarrass 5. Occurrence 6. Consensus 7. Unnecessary 8. Acceptable 9. Broccoli 10. Referred 11. Bureaucracy 12. Supersede 13. Questionnaire 14. Connoisseur 15. A lot 16. Entrepreneur 17. Particularly 18. Liquefy 19. Conscience 20. Parallel
Source: poll from OnePoll quoted in Daily Telegraph 06 August 2010
Which words do you or your students have most trouble spelling?