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The Oxbridge Editing Blog 29th March 2021

30 commonly misspelled English words

29th March 2021

The mixture of languages where English has its roots has been great news for literature – some say that English has the widest vocabulary of any language in the world.

However, a side-effect of this is a spelling system that can often appear slightly chaotic. Despite all the rules we have – “i before e except after c”, for example – there always seems to be an exception.

Some heroic figures in the past have tried to make English spelling more regular, but none of them has succeeded. And the problem hasn’t gone away with technology. Spellcheck sometimes gets confused, autocorrect and speech recognition might give different words entirely, and many exams are still handwritten.

But why does misspelling words matter?

First of all, if you are a student, then incorrect spellings may well lose you marks. In the wider world, it’s all about the impression this creates. It’s interesting to note that, in our internet age, communication by text is actually more important than ever before – we’re now far more likely to send an email than to make a phone call.

Careless spelling on an email creates a bad impression – especially if this is the first time you have contacted someone – but it can be forgiven. In a formal document, however, spelling and grammar mistakes are just not tolerated. Failing to proofread and correct mistakes shows a lack of attention to detail. The reader – who might be a potential buyer or client – might wonder what other things have been missed out in your proposal or business plan.

So to ensure you steer clear of creating bad impressions and losing valuable marks on your academic work, here are 30 of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language.

1. A lot

This is actually two words, but they are so often written as one that they qualify for this list. We see “alot” written all the time. Even though when spoken, these two words sound like they are one, they are in fact separate, and should always be written that way.

Correct: a lot. Common misspelling: alot.

2. Arguing

Verbs ending in -e, like argue, come, pursue, contemplate, often drop the -e before you add an ending (so: arguing, coming, contemplated). This is an easier rule to remember when the ending starts with a vowel too – argueedorcomeingobviously look very wrong. The same goes when changing the verb into a noun, like argument or pursual).

Correct: arguing. Common misspelling: argueing.

3. Changeable

If you’re looking at this word and thinking – but you just told me that the -e drops when adding an ending! Then you’re right. But we also said at the top of this post that there exceptions for every rule in the English language. This is one of them. With words like changeable the e stays, because it reminds us that it’s a soft g sound. Other examples are manageable and fledgeling.

Correct: changeable. Common misspelling: changable.

4. Colleague

People commonly forget the u in words like league and colleague. It’s important to include them as they tell us that the g is a hard sound. “I am in league with a trusted colleague to overthrow my boss’s tyrannical regime,” is a sentence you’ll rarely hear out loud(!) but might help you remember the spellings, nevertheless.

Correct: colleague. Common misspelling: colleage

5. Complement

Rather than being misspelled, this word is commonly confused with compliment. Complement means to match well; compliment usually means to praise. Here are some examples to explain the difference: A business runs well with a “full complement of workers”. A hotel might leave gifts in guests’ rooms with a paper slip saying “with compliments”. Someone might compliment you on your new haircut. A sommelier knows how to choose a wine that complements the food.

Correct: both complement and compliment are correct spellings, but should not be confused with each other.

6. Conscious

The sc combination in English is problematic, and commonly, people forget there is a c in words like conscious and conscience because the c isn’t pronounced when these words are spoken. Fortunately, some ‘sc’ words are not so scandalous and sound just like they’re written. Unfortunately, this is not a scientific rule, and you’ll need to learn and memorise how each word is spelled.

Correct: conscious. Common misspelling: consious

7. Consensus

This is often written as concensus, likely because of confusion with the word census. Consensus is one of those words that is less complicated than it really is – we’re so used to silent letters, and c being pronounced different ways, that it’s no wonder many of us get muddled! A way to remember the correct spelling is that consensus is when people are all in agreement; in other words, they will consent (agree to) to the next course of action.

Correct: consensus. Common misspelling: concensus

8. Definitely

One of the difficulties we have with any language is how to spell the unstressed syllables. Definitely is one of the hardest, because in normal speech it only has one stressed syllable out of four. The most common misspelling is definately, which is understandable – it’s completely impossible to hear whether someone is really saying an i or an a.

Another common mistake with this word is when people rely on their autocorrect and end up appearing rather begrudging when they write “I will defiantly be there”. Defiantly is a legitimate word, however, its meaning completely changes the tone of your sentence. The definition of defiantly is “full of or showing a disposition to challenge, resist, or fight”. So whilst it is a word in itself, it’s not one you want to mistakenly use in place of ‘definitely’!

Correct: definitely. Common misspelling: definately or defiantly

9. Dual

Dual, which means of two parts, is commonly confused with duel, which is a type of medieval battle. Don’t mix these two words up, or you could find yourself in some trouble with your writing. Here’s an example:

Dual carriageway (correct spelling): a road that has a barrier or central reservation between traffic travelling in opposite directions, so there are two separate surfaces.

Duel carriageway (incorrect spelling): a road especially designed for knights on horseback to travel to their battlefield as efficiently as possible!

Correct: both dual and duel are correct spellings, but should not be confused with each other.

10. Effect

Again, this word is not so much misspelled, as confused – with affect. As a general rule, most of the time affect is the verb (“he was quite affected by the news”), and effect is the noun (“…but a nice cup of tea had a good effect on him”). However, you can use effect as a verb: to effect change (ie, to put a change into effect), for example. Affect is sometimes seen as a noun, but normally only within psychology.

Correct: both effect and affect are correct spellings, but you should be careful when choosing which is the right one to use.

11. Embarrassed

This is one of those words with more than one set of double letters. Other examples are accommodation, misspelling, raccoon, occurring and goddess. There’s no hard and fast rule for how to remember when to use double letters, so it’s often a case of memorising how they are spelled.

Correct: embarrassed. Common misspelling: embarassed.

12. Environment

Silent letters can be a huge pitfall. The silent n in environment is a historical relic, coming from the original French word. Hopefully, in this age of climate awareness, seeing the word written down so often will help the spelling to sink in. Here’s a good way of remembering it: you can help save the environment by not leaving your iron plugged in!

Correct: environment. Common misspelling: enviroment.

13. Experience

Commonly spelled experiance. Unfortunately, there is no general rule for words that end in -ance and those ending in -ence, so it’s a case of learning each one individually. Just remember that the word experience is all about the letter e, and that should steer you right.

Correct: experience. Common misspelling: experiance.

14. Government

This is another ‘silent n’ example, but slightly easier than ‘environment’. Remember that government comes from the verb to govern. You might even hear some people pronouncing the n when saying this word.

Correct: government. Common misspelling: goverment.

15. Guarantee

So many misspellings in the English language are because of how a word is pronounced versus how it is spelled. Guarantee is a classic example. The French origin of the word is to blame for the way this word is written! Words like guard, guardian and guarantor are all spelled with a ‘u’ but are pronounced ‘gar’.

Correct: guarantee. Common misspelling: garantee.

16. Humorous

We do have it tough in the UK: so much of what we read is spelled in US English, and the two languages can often merge into a confusing mess. Neither system is wrong, of course, but you must be consistent. One of the differences is how the -our ending often becomes -or – humour (UK) and humor (US), candour (UK) and candor (US). But humorous breaks this rule. As does rigour. Surely it should be humourous and rigourous? Sadly, no. There are no common words ending in ourous

Correct: humorous. Common misspelling: humourous.

17. Immediately

The notorious double letter combination often trips people up when writing this word. Technically, it fits the regular spelling pattern of using a prefix to make a word into a negative (im­-, as in improper, immobile, impossible), so treating it like three parts – im, mediate, and ly, should help you remember the double m.

Correct: immediately. Common misspelling: imediately.

18. Liaise

There are too many vowels in this one – three in a row! One strategy might be to remind yourself that this is actually a foreign word – liaison comes directly from the French term, which is identical. But how is this relevant to us? Some people simply remember some language spellings more easily than others. Different areas of the brain are engaged. So, if you file this one in the “French” section of your brain, maybe this will help it stick.

Correct: liaise. Common misspelling: liase.

19. Miniature

Most of the time, the word “mini” will do just fine, but in more formal writing we need to use the full word. Some people – particularly those who speak RP – do pronounce the a in miniature, but commonly it is silent when spoken.

Correct: miniature. Common misspelling: miniture.

20. Occasion

This one trips people up because it uses two rules within the same word: the double c and the single s. A good way to remember the -sion ending is that sounds like ‘jun’ (like fusion and vision). If it were a double s it would sound like ‘shun’ (like passion and mission).

Correct: occasion. Common misspelling: occassion.

21. Occurred

Often written as occured, which is incorrect. Some verbs ending in -r simply add -ed to form the past tense (like alter and altered, or labour and laboured). Others like occur, however, require you to double the r. Pronunciation helps here. Generally, double r words are those with the stress on the final syllable – occurred, deferred, referred, and transferred.

Correct: occurred. Common misspelling: occured.

22. Particularly

Here’s another example where how a word is pronounced can confuse people as it how it is spelt. Many people don’t realise this word has five (yes, five) syllables, instead only pronouncing four (par-tic-u-ly), especially when speaking at speed. When writing particularly, it helps to say ‘particular’ out loud then add ‘ly’ on the end.

Correct: particularly. Common misspelling: particuly.

23. Principal

This is commonly confused with principle. Principal can mean first or most important (or a headteacher in US English). Principle is a value or belief. The Simpsons comes to the rescue with memorising this rule. In one episode, the long-suffering Principal Skinner was replaced by Ned Flanders, who declared he’d “put the pal in principal”. Although perhaps it’s best to ignore what he said afterwards about putting the “stew” back in “student”…

Correct: both principal and principle are correct spellings, but should not be confused with each other.

24. Publicly

This is a tough one! Logically, adverbs from adjectives ending in -ic should add -ally. Like basically, specifically and musically. What makes it trickier is that you will see publically written – it’s become so common that some dictionaries are listing it as a variant! Perhaps, decades from now, it will be an acceptable alternative. But until that happens, we’ll simply have to remember what’s correct.

Correct: publicly. Common misspelling: publically.

25. Receive

The classic example in the “i before e, except after c” rule! It’s still misspelled frequently, so try to remember the rule. Other words that follow the same rule (and are similarly misspelled) include receipt, perceive, conceit and deceive. There are some exceptions (of course) – glacier, species, society, to name a few.

Correct: receive. Common misspelling: recieve.

26. Relevant

Unstressed syllables again! Unfortunately, it is difficult to give hints and tips here. Like -ance and -ent, words are just as likely to end in -ant as in -ent. It’s just down to what the original ending was in the Latin word root.

Correct: relevant. Common misspelling: relevent.

27. Responsibility

There are a lot of i’s in this word, so it’s easy to see how one might get missed. Often people misspell responsibility as responsibilty, missing the third i. Even though they’re entirely unconnected, try and remember that responsibility is much like ability, fragility, and even sensibility (think Jane Austen) and it should help you to remember the spelling.

Correct: responsibility. Common misspelling: responsibilty.

28. Separate

Commonly written as seperate. A good way of remembering how separate is spelled is to think of “a rat” – there’s always a rat in separate! This tip can work for related words too, like separately and separated.

Correct: separate. Common misspelling: seperate.

29. There

This is one of the classic homophones. There is often confused with their and they’re. A homophone is when two (or more) words sound identical, but are spelled differently and mean different things. The problem with homophones is that if you use the wrong one, it’s not guaranteed that your spell-checker will pick it up. There are several tricks to remember the there/their/they’re difference. The phrase, “they’re over there, collecting their things” reminds us that there are three spellings. There is to do with a place, and so contains here. They’re, being a contraction, is short for they are. Their is a pronoun and tells us the “things” belong to “them”.

Correct: there, they’re and their are correct spellings, but should not be confused with one another.

30. Until

This is often spelt mistakenly as untill. We all have a tendency to overcomplicate things, and sometimes we do this in spelling too. We just can’t handle the fact that, after a paragraph full of long words with all sorts of unstressed vowels and consonants, some of our shorter words are as simple as they sound!

Correct: until. Common misspelling: untill.

Tips to avoid misspelling words

Here are some closing tips to help you out with making sure your spellings are always accurate:

  • Reflect. If you try to learn too many things at once, this can be demotivating. Reflect on the words that you are most likely to get wrong, or you have the biggest difficulties with and focus on them. If, like many of us, you only ever write on a computer, consider focusing on those which are least likely to be picked up by a spellcheck – such as US/UK spelling differences, or homophones.
  • Say it in your mind (or aloud). Say words silently or out loud in a way that sounds more like they are written.
  • Write them down. If you’re stuck between two different spellings, write down both on a piece of paper and see which one you recognise. If you only write down one, you will still be unsure, but if you see two versions your brain will likely be jogged into remembering which one looks wrong, and which is right.
  • Proofread! This doesn’t just mean scrolling up and down the document again. Studies have shown that we process information differently when reading a paper document as opposed to something on screen, so consider printing your work rather than proofreading on a screen. It’s also a good idea to leave some time between completing your work and doing a final read through. If you have been engrossed in something for hours, it’s possible to miss even the most glaring errors. Similarly, if it’s a late-nighter then proofread when you wake up the next morning, rather than before you collapse into bed.  
  • Get some help. If you’re at school or university, why not swap your work with a friend or study partner before submission? It’s far easier to spot mistakes in someone else’s work than your own, and this could benefit both of you too. If you read the acknowledgements in the front of a book, you’ll realise that even professional writers often recruit their spouse or family members to proofread their own texts! Finally, there are proofreading services available, where experienced academics will both check your work for spelling mistakes, and also help sharpen your expression and correct any other errors, such as grammar or expression. This is one of the services offered by the team at Oxbridge Editing, who work with academics, writers, and executives all over the world to ensure that your document is as good as it can possibly be.