See also: Common Mistakes in Writing

Many people experience problems with English language spelling.

Part of the reason for this may be that there are so many inconsistencies in the English language. English spelling can be frustrating for the righter writter writer to master. It is, however, worth persisting with learning to spell correctly as poor spelling can be both embarrassing and costly.

Would you buy from a company whose marketing materials were peppered with spelling mistakes? Correct spelling improves the overall presentation of your work and will help with your confidence in writing.

Apart from asking somebody else how to spell a word, which is not always reliable, there are two main ways of finding the correct spelling of a word: using a dictionary or using the spell check facility on your computer.

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 instead.  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.

For example:

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.

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:


Using Spell-Check on Your Computer

If you word-process your work then you will no doubt use the built in spell-check function which checks as you type and instantly marks spelling mistakes or repeated words with a red wavy underline. 

You can right click (on a PC) on such words to see a list of alternatives, clicking on the correct spelling will update your work accordingly.

Similarly, grammar errors are highlighted with a green wavy underline.  Right clicking on such a mark will describe the grammar rule that you are breaking and may suggest an alternative wording, caution should be used with grammar checking, there is no substitute for proofreading.

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.

Computer spell checkers are not perfect if, for example, you use an incorrect word, 'wood' when you mean 'would', spell check will not identify the word as being spelt incorrectly.  For this reason, you should always read through your work, or have it proofread by someone else.

Finally, you should 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.

Ask Someone to Check Your Spelling

If you are not good at spelling, there is another remedy (apart from continuous improvement with a dictionary or spell-check).  Ask a friend, a relative, colleague or your partner to read your writing and check the spelling for you.  However, check out their spelling credentials first!

Practice Activities


Always be critical of your own spelling - use the dictionary.  Are you as good a speller as you think?  Which of the following spellings are correct?  Decide which words you think are spelled correctly:

  • Receive
  • Believe
  • Accessable
  • Irritable
  • Ocassional
  • Judgment
  • Judgement
  • Acknowledgment
  • Acknowledgements
  • Seperate
  • Separate
  • Practice
  • Practise 
  • The College Principal
  • The College Principle

Are you sure?

Check with a dictionary or copy and paste the above list into a word processor.


Edit the following sentence, marking spelling mistakes:

Without mayking a judgment on them, it is surprising how meny peeple spell carelesly without any acknowledgement of their mistakes; good spelling is the principle cornerstone of accessible and legable writing, make it a vitle part of study and not sumthing seperate!

Checking words in a good dictionary can also be an important facet of studying.  It is good practice while you are reading, to record the meanings of essential words so that you fix both their meaning and spelling in your memory.

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.  Good spelling is learned by memory and repetition.  Everyone has certain words which they have a tendency to spell incorrectly.  Become aware of your own tendencies and resolve with determination to imprint the accurate spelling on your consciousness.


Keep a record of words you spell wrongly to hand, (using the correct spelling of course!) or if using a computer, create a document for this purpose.

Common spelling errors:

  • 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)

Add your own common spelling errors to this list as you become aware of them.