Many people experience problems with English language spelling.
This is partly because English is drawn from a number of other languages. It contains words that were originally Latin, Greek, and Germanic, among others, and the spelling ‘rules’ are different in each of those source languages. English spelling can therefore often seem inconsistent. No sooner have you learned a rule than you discover an exception to it.
This makes English spelling somewhat frustrating to master. It is, however, worth persisting, because poor spelling can be both embarrassing and costly.
For example, would you buy from a company whose marketing materials were full of spelling mistakes? Similarly, would you appoint someone to a job if their CV was full of mistakes? Correct spelling improves the overall presentation of your work and will help with your confidence in writing. This page contains some ideas to help you improve your spelling.
A Note on Dyslexia
Dyslexia is a specific type of learning disability that affects about 10% of people in varying degrees. Dyslexia affects people's ability to read fluently and spell accurately.
If you feel you or someone you know might be dyslexic, then there are online assessments that can be completed and special strategies to adopt to help with your writing.
For more about dyslexia see:
Identifying Incorrect Spelling
The first, and most important, issue in improving your spelling is to identify when you have spelled a word wrongly, or you do not know how to spell it.
Known unknowns and unknown unknowns
There are likely to be some words that you know you can’t spell. You may, for example, always struggle with necessary, or assassinate. You are probably on the lookout for those: they are ‘known unknowns’, and you can spot them and deal with them.
There are, however, likely to be other words that you don’t know you can’t spell. They are the ‘unknown unknowns’, and they are much harder to spot.
You may need help to find your ‘unknown unknowns’, and it is worth being aware of this.
There are two main ways to identify incorrect spellings. The first is to have someone read over your work and try to spot any errors. The second is to use a spell-check on a computer.
WARNING! Neither is completely infallible.
The person you ask may also have particular spelling ‘blind spots’ and may not notice one or more errors. Equally, the spell-check will not identify when you have used the wrong word, but it is correctly spelled (for example, wood instead of would)—although using a grammar check in conjunction with the spell-check will help to identify this kind of error.
Using both a friend and a spell-check is probably best, if possible.
Finding the Right Spelling
Having identified that you have spelled a word wrongly, there are a number of ways that you can find the right spelling. You can, of course, ask somebody else how to spell it, but this is not always reliable.
You can also ask your home assistant or phone (Google Assistant, Siri, or Alexa for example). For example - "OK Google. How do you spell necessary?".
There are two other main ways of finding the correct spelling of a word: using a dictionary or using the spell check facility on your computer.
1. Using a Dictionary
The traditional route to checking your spelling is through the use of an English dictionary.
Looking up words in dictionaries will also teach you the source of words and give you an interesting history of usage, as well as providing alternative words you might use. For some people this can be fun!
Words in a dictionary are listed alphabetically. Once you have found the first letter of the word you are looking up, you can then start to look for words starting with the first and second letter and so on. If you are really unsure, you may have to try several alternatives until you find the right spelling.
If you were looking for the correct spelling of the word dictionary, first look for words starting with the letter d. Once you had found this section, you would then look for words starting with di. The next step is to skim through these words looking for words starting with dic. Follow this procedure with each letter in the word until you find the word you are seeking. It can be helpful to note down the words in an on-going list when you have looked them up.
2. Using the Spell-Check on Your Computer
If you word-process your work, then you may use the built-in spell-check function.
This can either be set to check as you type and instantly mark spelling mistakes or repeated words with a red wavy underline, or you can check through afterwards and amend as necessary.
WARNING! Always set your spell-check language
Always ensure that your spell-check dictionary is set to the correct language and regional variation of the language if necessary.
For example, if you are based in the UK, you should ensure that your language is set to English (UK) and not English (US), otherwise words like ‘colour’ or ‘honour’ will be marked as incorrect. You can usually change the language via the ‘Language’ item on the ‘Tools’ menu.
It is also worth using ‘Select All’ (Ctrl + A) before setting the spelling language, as some documents may have different parts of the document set to different languages, particularly if several people have worked on them.
Our page, Writing UK and US English, has more on the differences between UK and US English spelling.
When a word is marked as incorrect by the spell-check, you can right-click (on a PC) on the word to see a list of alternatives. Clicking on the correct spelling will update your work accordingly.
All word processors, and many other computer applications, also contain full spell-checking facilities. How to access these facilities will vary depending on which package you are using. Check 'Help' if you are unsure how to access a spell check.
Similarly, grammar errors are highlighted with a green wavy underline. Right-clicking on the word or phrase will describe the grammar rule that you may be breaking and suggest an alternative wording. Caution should be used with grammar checking, however, because it is not always accurate. There is no substitute for careful proofreading, but grammar checking has its place.
Using Google as a Spell-Check
Sometimes you can quickly find the correct spelling of a word by typing it into Google. The search engine will often automatically correct the word for you.
Tips to Improve Your Spelling
There are ways in which you can improve your spelling. These ideas should help to get you started.
1. Keep a list to hand of the correct spelling of words that you commonly misspell
Either pin your list up by your desk, or keep it as a document on your computer, where you can easily refer to it. You can then check it when you need to do so, and add to it when you identify new words that you have misspelled.
Common spelling errors include:
- their (possessive form of they)
- there (in that place)
- they're (contraction of they are)
- accept (a verb, meaning to receive or to admit to a group)
- except (usually a preposition, meaning but or only)
- who’s (contraction of who is or who has)
- whose (possessive form of who)
- its (possessive form of it)
- it’s (contraction of it is or it has)
- your (possessive form of you)
- you’re (contraction of you are)
- affect (usually a verb, meaning to influence)
- effect (usually a noun, meaning result)
- than (used in comparison)
- then (refers to a time in the past)
- were (form of the verb to be)
- we’re (contraction of we are)
- where (related to location or place)
There are more common spelling errors in our page on Common Mistakes in Writing.
2. Use mnemonics for words that you find particularly difficult
There are a number of common mnemonics (memory supports) in use for difficult words. For example, to help them remember the spelling of necessary, many people say ‘never eat crab, eat salmon sandwiches and remain young’.
You can either use other people’s mnemonics, or make up your own for particular words that you find challenging.
3. Use the technology: it’s there to help you
If there are particular words that you always spell wrongly, particularly when you type, set up the AutoCorrect function on your computer to correct them for you (if you can’t find it, search the Help function). This allows you to input the text that you type, and the corrected text, so that you can automatically set it to change (say) neccesary to necessary, as you type.
4. Get into the habit of using a dictionary regularly
Whenever you see a word that you do not know, or where you are not sure of the spelling, get into the habit of checking it in a dictionary. That will help you to fix both the meaning and the spelling in your head.
You are also likely to spot one or two other interesting words while you are there and expand your vocabulary at the same time!
See our Study Skills section for more.
If you get into the habit of using a dictionary regularly, you will find that your spelling will improve naturally.
There is no substitute for effort
There is, unfortunately, no short cut to good spelling. It is learned by memory and repetition.
However, everyone has certain words which they have a tendency to spell incorrectly. If you become aware of your own tendencies and are prepared to question yourself and your knowledge, you are likely to be able to improve your spelling relatively quickly.