Learn to spell

When I attended primary school in Australia, we had to take a spelling list home almost every night and learn the words for a spontaneous check the next day. I read voraciously from a very early age, so I got excellent marks in spelling, even without revising the words. As a result, I became a little arrogant, and it was quite a shock when I made a mistake. One of the words I got wrong was “woollen” – I’d been reading a lot of American books, so I thought that “woolen”, the American spelling, was correct. I remember that because it surprised me, but as a general teaching method, I’m not sure how effective spelling lists are. 

A quick browse of social media will show you how challenging English spelling is, even for native English speakers who went through school studying their spelling lists. English is not a phonetic language in which you pronounce things as you write them, so even native speakers have to learn to spell. It’s a melting pot of hundreds of languages, with particularly strong influences from Latin, French, German, and Greek. 

Spelling can seem difficult because many of the most common words also have odd spellings. However, there are some patterns and rules. You probably remember some of them from school. There are too many to list here, but the phrase “English spelling rules” comes up with some useful guides on Google.

I can’t stress enough how important good spelling is when writing in English. 

It will make you look professional, you will appear knowledgeable and trustworthy, and as a result, people will be more interested in doing business with you. If your text is riddled with mistakes, people will assume your style of doing business is the same as your writing and avoid you. Poor spelling robs your credibility, especially in marketing copy or on the slides in a sales presentation. I’ve seen expensive, printed brochures littered with so many errors that they could’ve been comical if it wasn’t so careless. Spelling matters.

One of the reasons people get confused about spelling is that it sometimes differs, depending on which variant of English you are using. The main two groups are American and British, and whenever I write or edit for my clients, they have to specify which one they prefer. In modern times, neither is “more correct”, but you should be consistent throughout your company, and if you are marketing to an American audience, the American version is advisable. 

The American lexicographer Noah Webster defined much of the American style in his first dictionary, published in 1828. In his nationalistic pride, he wanted American spelling to be distinct from and – according to him – superior to British spelling. Today, even Commonwealth writers, traditionally using British English, employ a lot of Americanisms because they are so common and America leads in a lot of the global written discourse. As I noted earlier, this difference caused me trouble at school. Even as an adult, I still have difficulty with a few cross-Atlantic variations – for example, I find it hard to spell the word “manoeuvre” the British way. The US variant “maneuver” comes to mind far more easily.

Interestingly, whenever I teach writing in Finland, I’ve noticed that native Finnish speakers rarely make spelling mistakes in English. I find this particularly fascinating because Finnish is a phonetic language, where if you can say it, you can spell it. You might not think that spelling would be a high priority – yet I’ve frequently found Finns to be better English spellers than native English speakers.

Even so, if you’re a Finn, or just generally skilled with English, don’t get overconfident – you might end up looking foolish, as I did! That’s OK when you’re eight years old, but you don’t want linguistic conceit to cause you professional embarrassment. 

If you’re a non-native speaker, most people will tolerate a few mistakes in email. If you’re a native speaker, not so much. But whichever you are, errors are less tolerated on web pages, and very much frowned upon on paper, or in anything that will be professionally published (such as a scientific study). 

So, how do you become a good speller? 

Don’t panic! You don’t need to memorise the dictionary. You could use a spell check, but all those homonyms – words that sound the same but are spelled differently – are going to pass, since they appear to be correct. The Microsoft Word grammar function is good enough that it can spot clear errors such as “There coming to get they’re books over their.” But computer checks are not always reliable, as the differences between words are not always so obvious. Does the rain in Spain fall mainly on the “plane” or the “plain”?

Playing with words can help, but usually words are isolated in games like Scrabble. I believe that the best way to get good at English spelling is to read a lot of English. That’s how I did it. And that’s what the experts recommend. It gives you continual exposure to the language, seeing over and over how words are used in context, aiding your recall and boosting your vocabulary.