Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Typo? Or Not a Typo? That is the Question

j0399580.jpgWe’re all human. We all make mistakes from time to time, typing “tot he” instead of “to the,” missing the Shift key when typing “I,” stuff like that. It happens. And those kind of errors are what make things like automatic spell-checks useful, instead of detrimental. These kinds of errors, though, are not the same thing as ones caused by carelessness, or a sloppy disregard of spelling conventions, which is a whole ‘nother post.

But what about those troublesome words? Even the most careful people have “catch” words . . . the ones their brain regularly catches on, uncertain of the spelling. Is it seperate or separate? Committment or commitment? How embarras(s)ing!

Because, this is one of the most dangerous things about sloppy spelling–after a while, when you’ve seen “loose” written countless times when it should have been “lose,” the incorrect spelling starts looking like it might be . . . correct. And after a while, the correct spelling might start putting up red flags in your brain. I worked in the greeting card department of a local department store when I was in high school, and around Mother’s Day, suddenly, the word M-O-T-H-E-R just simply did not look correct to me any more. Moth-er? Could that possibly be right? What’s a word about fluttering, wool-eating insects have to do with my Mom? Just looking at that word for hours on end started to throw me off, even though I knew perfectly well (usually) how to spell Mom’s formal title.

You know the old expression about familiarity breeding contempt? Well, where spelling is concerned, it breeds a casual disregard.

So, in the face of rampant misspellings through the blogosphere, e-mail-land, and everywhere else, what can an advertent speller do to keep sharp and accurate?

  1. Use memory tricks. “Separate” has always been a trick word for me, until I finally pointed out to myself that it was like paring something into separate pieces . . . and pare has an A, not an E as its active verb. Or, for discrete/discreet–the modest one has both “e”s tucked safely inside the word, whereas the one describing sepArate things has them divided by the T. Or, the “too” that means “also,” has an extra O. You get the idea.
  2. Check the dictionary or, yes, use the spell-check. Dictionaries are more reliable, and the spell-check might not be able to tell you whether you should use “would” or “wood,” but if you spell something like “explanatory” incorrectly, the chances are pretty good that it’s going to catch it.
  3. Know who you’re reading. Again, everyone makes occasional mistakes, but when you’re out in the world reading the latest recipe or rant by your favorite blogger, you’ll usually know whether that person tends to be accurate or not . . . and you’ll know when to ignore a red-flag word. (“This person is great with the marketing scenarios, but clearly doesn’t know the inside of a dictionary.”) It’s no reflection on them–a person can be brilliant but a chronically bad speller. Just . . . try to know whose spelling is apt to be wrong so you can keep your mental guard up.
  4. And, of course, simply don’t make mistakes…. (ba dum bum).

What tricks to you use to catch your (entirely accidental, of course) spelling mistakes?

What words do you get stuck on?

17 Comments on “Typo? Or Not a Typo? That is the Question”


  1. I read a fair amount of British authors, so my spelling issues (beyond just not being a great speller) tend to be British vs. American – I always want to use “judgEment” instead of “judgment” for example, and I can never remember if it’s “grey” or “gray”. I have managed to steer clear of “colour”…for now!

  2. Patty

    Misspelling bothers me a lot. It just seems so careless, but, yes, everyone does make mistakes. Ironically, I found a spelling error in your muses post. In “kernal of an idea” the first word should be spelled “kernel.” Great memory tricks you mentioned. Love you!


  3. I’m with Amanda. It’s important for readers to recognize that the typos they come across may just be the Canadian way of doing things ;)

    Judgement, colour, grey, behaviour, labour (work) and labor (women)… I could go on and on.

    I have retrained myself to “write in American,” but there are many times I sit there scratching my head wondering why spellcheck keeps telling me it’s wrong when I know darned well it’s right!

    Occasion, though, is one word that we all spell the same. Damned if I don’t get it wrong every time.


  4. My downfall is receive (recieve). I get it wrong every. single. time. I have to stop and think “I before E, except after C” but I also know that there are exceptions like “neighbor” and “weigh” and I can never remember whether recieve (See? That was totally not staged) is a reverse exception or not.

    If I catch myself, “receive” looks marginally less wrong than “recieve,” but if I think about it too much they both look dreadful.


  5. Unfortunately, I have a few of these “catch” words, as you describe them. I actually use dictionary.reference.com quite a bit, and I find that it really helps.


  6. Spell-check is a wonderful thing, but even with grammatical assisting (to prevent wood/would confusion), it’s pretty limited. My husband at one point nearly turned in a procedure at work full of instructions on how to operate the new tater boiler (instead of the water boiler).

    Their was my particular catch word for years and years. Thorough was another – most of mine seem to be common or even extremely common words, rather than more obscure ones.


  7. I always have to pause for a second when I’m writing “complement” vs. “compliment.”


  8. Then there’s “ensure”, “insure”, and “assure.” Can you come up with a sentence that uses all three words correctly?

  9. --Deb

    @Sue–How about this? The middle of receipt sounds like SEE, so the E has to come first…. Or you could just CEde defeat (get it?) and give up altogether… (grin)

    @Sol–Actually, I’ve covered those already!
    http://punctualityrules.com/2007/10/29/mm-confusing-words/

    Oh, and, “To ensure that everything is covered, just sign these paper to insure them, then I assure you that everything will be all right.”


  10. Concise writing: I assure you that I’ve ensured you’re insured.

  11. Alanna

    BeLIEve a lie and PIEce of pie are my two favorite mnemonic devices.

  12. --Deb

    @James–Show off!

    @Alanna–good mnemonic devices are always helpful (grin).


  13. Well I had an English education Deb so I tend to spell in English rather than American. When I do spell words like ‘colour’ the American way if almost physically hurts (I’m sure counseling would help). Some of the traditional bugbears are ones I still trip over, like ‘practise’ and ‘practice’. But I could happily live with it all if only I could type ‘I’ in upper case first time. I have spent an extra 5 minutes on this comment just going back anf fixing up the ‘I’s.


  14. Separate is a hard one for me…thanks for the tip! So many words are difficult because they’re not totally phonetic. I mean, there’s no difference in the sound between the American way and the English way, and no real logic to it, so it’s just memory, and my memory is all clogged up with useless trivia about Buffy and 90210 and Gone With the Wind and Little House on the Prairie (I can’t seem to spell that correctly), so there’s no room for remembering whether to drop the silent ‘e’ from a word.


  15. I have the worst time with the I before E rules… argh, it slays me every time! And once I typo-ed my own email address. The worst part was that it was my paypal address for a big affiliate payment… I was sitting there wondering when the heck the payment was going through! Let’s just say, a little red in the face when I had to ask what the delay was. I was wondering what this guy’s problem was with paying me and it was MY OWN FAULT! Always gotta be careful, that’s for sure!


  16. Hi, I love using firefox because it includes an automatic spell check. Besides that I spell check my posts in MSWord before posting.

    You also mentioned one of my pet peeves….I want to lose weight so that my pants will be looser…..just had to throw that in, I see that word misspelled more and more often. ;)


  17. Thank God! Somnoee with brains speaks!