Skip to Content

How good's your spelling?

23 May 2005

Email may in the long run spell the death of formal communication, but in the short term it really tests out your ability to spell. Most of us have experienced the irritation of emails bouncing back because of something misspelled in the address line. The author of the recent Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary (sic), Vivian Cook, says that ‘independent’ is one of the most frequently misspelled words in the English language. He reckons that the British are a nation of appalling spellers. At the age of six, 6 out of 10 children can’t write ten lines without making at least one spelling mistake, often many more, and many adults struggle with spelling all their lives.

Many traditionalists would say that this relates to the spread of child-centred education, when learning spelling by rote was abolished in many schools. For years details like misspellings were not marked down in GCSE and A-level examinations. The amount of reading an individual does also affects their spelling, presumably because they become familiar with the correct spelling of a word through repeatedly seeing it in print.

Vivian Cook’s website contains a test of the 100 most frequently misspelled words and he claims that only two people have ever got them all right. He reckons that the most commonly misspelled words are (in descending order): weird, definitely, ecstasy, accidentally, occurrence, cemetery, liaison and peddler.

But does it matter if you can’t spell? Many will have found out the hard way that it does. Employers are not notoriously keen on taking on people who cannot spell. It is generally thought to be an essential part of a good education, even though it clearly isn’t any more, and poor spelling will arouse a certain amount of contempt amongst the more literate. Publishers are certainly to be counted amongst their number and sending in a manuscript which is riddled with spelling mistakes is not going to improve anyone’s chances, not least because it would incur a big copy editing bill.

So, what’s to be done about it? Spell-checkers can help a bit, and should be used as a preliminary. But if you want to improve your spelling, there’s nothing to beat using a dictionary and making a careful note of words which have proved difficult in the past.