How to spellBy John Irving
Lets begin with the bad news. If youre a bad speller, you probably think you will always be. There are exceptions to every spelling rule, and the rules themselves are easy to forget. George Bernard Shaw demonstrated how ridiculous some spelling rules are. By following the rules, he said, we could spell fish this way: ghoti. The f as it sounds in enough, the i as it sounds in women, and the sh as it sounds in fiction.
With such rules to follow, no one should feel stupid for being a bad speller. But there are ways to improve. Start by acknowledging the mess that English spelling is in--but have sympathy: English spelling changed with foreign influences. Chaucer wrote geese, but guess, imported earlier by the Norman invaders, finally replaced it. Most early printers in England came from Holland; they brought ghostand gherkinwith them.
If youd like to intimidate yourself--and remain a bad speller forever--just try to remember the 13 different ways the sound shcan be written:
Now the good news
Just keep this in mind: If youre familiar with the words you use, youll probably spell them correctly--and you shouldnt be writing words youre unfamiliar with anyway. USE a word--out loud, and more than once--before you try writing it, and make sure (with a new word) that you know what it means before you use it. This means youll have to look it up in a dictionary, where youll not only learn what it means, but youll see how its spelled. Choose a dictionary you enjoy browsing in and guard it as you would a diary. You wouldnt lend a diary, would you?
A tip on looking it up. Beside every word I look up in my dictionary, I make a mark. Beside every word I look up more than once, I write a note to myself--about WHY I looked it up. I have looked up strictly14 times since 1964. I prefer to spell it with a k--as in stricktly. I have looked up ubiquitous a dozen times. I cant remember what it means.
Another good way to use your dictionary: When you have to look up a word, for any reason, learn--and learn to spell--a new word at the same time. It can be any useful word on the same page as the word you looked up. Put the date beside this new word and see how quickly, or in what way, you forget it. Eventually, youll learn it.
Almost as important as knowing what a word means (in order to spell it) is knowing how its pronounced. Its government, not goverment. Its February, not Febuary. And if you know that anti- means against, you should know how to spell antidote and antibiotic and antifreeze. If you know that ante- means before, you shouldnt have trouble spelling antechamber or antecedent.
Some rules, exceptions, and two tricks.
What about -ary or -ery? When a word has a primary accent on the first syllable and a secondary accent on the next-to-last syllable (secre tary) it usually ends in -ary. Only six important words like this end in -ery:
Heres another easy rule. Only four words end in - efy. Most people misspell them --with -ify, which is usually correct. Just memorize these, too, and use -ify for all the rest.
As a former bad speller, I have learned a few valuable tricks. Any good how-to-spell book will teach you more than these two, but these two are my favorites. Of the 800,000 words in the English language, the most frequently misspelled is alright; just remember that alright is all wrong. You wouldnt write alwrong, would you? Thats how you know you should write all right.
The other trick is for the truly worst spellers. I mean those of you who spell so badly that you cant get close enough to the right way to spell a word in order to even FIND it in the dictionary. The word youre looking for is there, of course, but you wont find it the way youre trying to spell it. What to do is look up a synonym--another word that means the same thing. Chances are good that youll find the word youre looking for under the definition of the synonym.
Demon words and bugbears.
And everyone has a spelling rule that is a bugbear--its either too difficult to learn or its impossible to remember. My personal bugbear among the rules is the one governing whether you add -able or -ible. I can teach it to you, but I cant remember it myself.
You add -able to a full word: adapt, adaptable; work, workable. You add -able to words that end in e--just remember to drop the final e: love, lovable. But if the word ends in two es, like agree, you keep them both: agreeable.
You add -ible if the base is not a full word that can stand on its own: credible, tangible, horrible, terrible. You add -ible if the root word ends in -ns: responsible. You add -ible if the root word ends in -miss: permissible. You add -ible if the root word ends in a soft c (but remember to drop the final e!): force, forcible.
Got that? I dont have it, and I was introduced to that rule in prep school; with that rule, I still learn one word at a time.
Poor President Jackson
When you have trouble, think of poor Andrew Jackson and know that youre not alone.
Whats really important.
As good old G.C. Lichtenberg said, A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you cant expect an apostle to look out--whether you spell apostle correctly or not.