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20 most commonly misspelt words in English

17 Comments

Dictionary focussed on 'separate'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?

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17 thoughts on “20 most commonly misspelt words in English

  1. I’m surprised accommodation is not on the list. My favourite version that I’ve seen is acccomadation!

  2. I did some research with adult English languge learners who were weak spellers and these were the words they most often misspelled:

    another
    because
    Arabic
    beautiful
    before
    companies/company
    declined/declining
    from
    government(s)
    similar
    smoke

    Note that the majority of them were Arabic speakers, hence the third item. It was a small sample but those words certainly do look like some of the ones I most often see misspelled. They’re obviously very different from the ones that native speakers struggle with.

    By examining student errors I discovered:

    The majority of their errors involved vowels rather than consonants, especially weak vowels, short vowels and vowel digraphs.

    Silent letters were a big problem – sometimes they knew there was one but put it in the wrong place.

    They were usually able to spell prefixes and suffixes but failed to make the correct adjustments to the spelling of the base word when adding them.

    Lots more about this on my blog.

    Johanna
    The Spelling Blog

  3. Well,from my own perspective we can add:
    Tomorrow
    Category 1 Accommodation or Adoption (o or a)
    Category 2 Soldier (d or g)
    Category 3 September (er or re)
    Category 4 butcher (tch or ch)
    Category 5 Digraphs (Dia 0r Di)

    English phonetic is somehow tricky

  4. Those words all seem good candidates – the only one that surprises me is Arabic. One of the mistakes I see regularly among native English speakers is could of – perhaps a sign that knowledge of grammar is often weak.

    You might be interested in these pages on spelling: http://tiny.cc/jscu6

    • Strangely, many Brits do not know that what we hear as ‘could of’ is actually ‘could’ve’. Another mistake, which I have seen very often among Brits is ‘discusting’ instead of ‘disgusting’. I do not want to mention here the inappropriate use of ‘there’, they’re, their, your, you’re, etc.’

      Rick

      • It’s because grammar is not taught in English state schools after primary school. I often notice that younger kids often have much better spelling but because they rarely read they forget much of what they have learned. Every day I teach sixteen-year-olds who would fail spelling tests set for those in Year 4.

      • don’t forget here and hear; where and wear…

  5. Pingback: The top twenty mis-spelt words in English | The Daily Dust | Good News from the UK

  6. I think the most commonly misspelt words in English and at least , on my point of view , are soldier , scissors , knot , knife , knee , knight , tomorrow and bachelor .

  7. I created you a game to practise (or practice) the most commonly mis-spelt words on zondle.com. Search for Very Tricky Words!
    Enjoy

  8. I agree with the “could of / should of” (which I’ve even seen written as should ov!), also the “they’re, their, there” family, not to mention the its and it’s…
    one word which I have had to check more than once is “diarrhoea”!

  9. Handy mnemonic for ‘diarrhoea’ – dash in a real rush, hurry, or else accident!
    (British spelling)

    Johanna

  10. Pingback: Twitted by eslreading

  11. What about Phoenix? None of the peolpe I know can spell it right the first time.

  12. Pingback: Top 10 @OUPELTGlobal blog posts of 2012 « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching Global Blog @OUPELTGlobal

  13. As an English teacher, I’d like to add continuous and rhythm, which students often misspell.

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