Spell check programs are great, a lifesaver for the masses of students and workers who never quite picked up on spelling rules. But the programs only go so far to prevent misspelled words. Many times, spelling errors in use remain in essays, letters and business proposals, reducing the writer’s stature in the critical reader’s eye. Some of these misspelled words are often confused with similar words. But some time and effort can help you avoid such spelling errors, resulting in better writing in the long run.
This strategy does require the investment into a small notebook and a writing utensil. A computer will work, but it is better if the notebook is something very small that you can carry around with you. This is the place for you to record the words that are your personal spelling demons, those you have often misspelled. You should leave room for a definition and a comment after each one, and try to keep those that are often confused in pairs.
For instance, one common entry would be then/than. Both words would be written in the notebook along with an abbreviated definition. You might include a sample sentence, as well, such as “I ate then went out” and “I am older than my sister.” Then there is space for the comment. The comment should be an image, a play on words, key words of a story, anything that will help you remember something about how to spell the words. For instance, for then, a comment might be is a time word like “when.” Even if you can’t come up with a comment for than, the fact that you have one for then should help keep you from getting them confused and get the spelling straight.
The same sort of strategy can be used on the often confused accept/except. Samples might read “he cannot accept your resignation” and “the kittens are all female except the black one.” An image is a good connector here-the X can be visualized as a pair of scissors. You use scissors to cut things out. Picture a photograph with a line of people, yourself at the end. Use the scissors to cut your picture off the end of the photo while saying to yourself, “Everyone was there except me.” Later, think of spelling the word in the same sort of context. If it fits, except is probably the word you need. If not, accept is more likely.
Another example is its/it’s, which are often confused for each other. You might write “the dog ate its bone” and “it’s an important interview.” In this case, you could think of the apostrophe is having replace at least one letter. This is a concept not new to most of us; you might remember an elementary school teacher telling you that the apostrophe in contractions takes the place of the o, such as in haven’t. Likewise, it’s is a contraction of it is or it has. If you can’t replace it’s with one of these two phrases, then the one without the apostrophe is probably the correct spelling.
This technique also works for single words that are commonly misspelled and not typically confused with another. For instance, the term parallel is often misspelled. Picturing gymnasts standing on both sides of the parallel bars can help you remember that the word has two L’s in the middle of it. Similarly, misspelled must have two S’s because it has the prefix mis and then the root word spelled. These kinds of words are less important to keep in the notebook since a spell check program should find them, but it might e good to have more confidence about such terms, especially if you will be needing to hand-write them without the benefit of a dictionary.
After referring to your notebook a few times, you’ll probably find yourself using it less and less to check the spelling of these words. The more often you look in the notebook to see your cues, the greater an impression the use makes in your memory and the less likely you are to get them confused. You have increased your spelling skills through practice.
Use the spell check; it is an important tool that can cut down tremendously on spelling mistakes. But nothing can replace careful reading to find errors in spelling. Using these techniques can help you actually learn how to spell those words you may have been struggling with for so long, helping you get a better grade, make a better impression, and be taken more seriously.