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Just spell it like it is

Don't let students' howlers drive you mad, says Ken Smith. Accept their most common mistakes as variant spellings ... and relax

Teaching a large first-year course at a British university, I am fed up with correcting my students' atrocious spelling. Aren't we all!?

But why must we suffer? Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I've got a better idea. University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell.

The spelling of the word "judgement", for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of "judgment", so why can't "truely" be accepted as a variant spelling of "truly"?

As a starting point, may I suggest the following ten candidates, which are based on the most commonly misspelt words by my students:

- Arguement for argument. Why do we drop the "e" in argument (and in judgment) but not in management? We do not pronounce "argument" "ar-gum-ent", so why should we spell it this way?

- Febuary for February (and Wensday for Wednesday). We spell the word "February" the way we do only because it is taken from the Latin word februa, the Roman festival of purification. Similarly, the "correct" spelling of the word "Wednesday" comes from the Old English Wodnes daeg, or Woden's day. But why should we still pay homage today to a pagan god or a Roman festival of purification?

- Ignor for ignore. The word "ignore" comes from the Latin ignorare meaning "to know" and ignarus meaning "ignorant". Neither of these words has an "e" after the "r", so why do we?

- Occured for occurred. There is no second "r" in the words "occur" or "occurs" and that is why nearly everyone misspells this word. Would it really upset you to allow this change, and if so why?

- Opertunity for opportunity. This looks odd, but in fact we only spell "opportunity" as we do because in Latin this word refers to the timely arrival at a harbour - Latin portus. However in Latin this word is spelt obportus not opportus, so, if we were being consistent, we should spell "opportunity" as "obportunity".

- Que for queue, or better yet cue or even kew. Where did we get the second "ue" in the word "queue"? Its etymology is obscure. But, etymology or not, why do we need it?

- Speach for speech. We spell "speak" with an "ea". We do not have to but we do. Since we do, let us then spell "speech" with an "a" too, to coincide with the spelling of the words "peach", "preach" and "teach". Both words come from the same origin - the Old English spechan - which, therefore, does not support either the "ea" or "ee" spelling.

- Thier for their (or better still, why not just drop the word their altogether in favour of there?). It does not make any difference to the meaning of a sentence if you spell "their" as "thier" or "there", and the proof of this is that you are always able to correct this. "Thier" would also be consistent with the "i" before "e" rule, so why do you insist on "their"?

- Truely for truly. We don't spell the adverb "surely" as "surly" because this would make another word, so why is the adverb of "true" spelt "truly"?

- Twelth as twelfth. The "f" word. How on earth did that "f" get in there? The answer is Old English again: twelf is related to the Frisian tweli, but why should we care? You would not dream of spelling the words "stealth" or "wealth" with an "f" in them (as "stealfth" and "wealfth") so why insist on putting the "f" in "twelfth"?

I could go on and add another ten words that are commonly misspelt - the word "misspelt" itself of course, and all those others that break the "i" before "e" rule (weird, seize, leisure, neighbour, foreign etc) - but I think I have made my point.

Either we go on beating ourselves and our students up over this problem or we simply give everyone a break and accept these variant spellings as such.

Remember, I am not asking you to learn to spell these words differently. All I am suggesting is that we might well put 20 or so of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language on the same footing as those other words that have a widely accepted variant spelling.

Send your exam howlers for 2008 to

Readers' comments (59)

  • So, by the same argument, why not allow students to submit work in txtspk?!

    Some of the rules of English spelling may seem arbitrary. But using correct spellings shows attention to detail. It is a hallmark of professionalism. And we are judged on it: in CVs, cover letters, research papers, grant proposals, tenders for work. Not encouraging students to develop in this area, if they need to, hamstrings their employability.

    I notice that the author of the article is a criminologist. How would someone feel if a criminologist took a lax attitude to attention to detail in their work, resulting in a miscarriage of justice?

    As I tell my students (often shocked to have to work on their English when taking a science degree), language is a tool of the mind and sloppy use betrays sloppy thinking.

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  • Here are a few answers to be going on with.
    1. February. You should pronounce the r that's immediately after the b. Not to do so is sloppy pronunciation.
    2. Occurred. Two rs so the second syllable doesn't look like cured. For comparison, there aren't two ts in bat, but we write batted, so you're not tempted to pronounce it bated (which is another word).
    3. Opportunity. In any Latin dictionary, you'll find "obp-: see opp-".
    4. Queue. From the Latin cauda, giving the French queue, meaning a tail.
    5. Their. The i before e rule applies only when the vowel sound is ee. The vowel in their isn't that sound.
    6. Twelfth. Because it comes from twelve. The th is unvoiced, so the voiced v becomes an unvoiced f in sympathy (or assimilation, as the phoneticists would say). Not to pronounce the f is sloppy.

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  • According to Dr Smith here, "it does not make any difference to the meaning of a sentence if you spell 'their' as 'thier' or 'there'."

    Oh really? How about "Let's shoot there son" versus "Let's shoot their son"?

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  • i fink thiss iz an xsellant ideer. But sum mite say Dokter Smiff iz a daffed arrrss.

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  • Interesting. With his relaxed attitude to spelling, perhaps Dr Smith is one of the architects of Bucks New University's new website called "Be Coz U Can" (, which aims to attract 11-16 year-olds into Higher Education?

    With a website that advocates "be coz u can" as acceptable English among 11-16 year-olds, it's pretty clear which end of the pond Bucks New Uni is fishing in!

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  • "ignor" makes no sense. It would be pronounced something like " 'ignur". "Ignoro" has a long o, which the "e" denotes. Even the stress would be wrong (on the first instead of the second syllable). English spelling is actually not that irrational, it's just complicated from the different languages it borrows from.

    I have no patience with accepting bad spelling. We have spell checks now. Just spell check! A student who can't even spell check is a sloppy student indeed.

    As for correcting the spelling, don't, just lop off points. They will soon get the message.

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  • Criminologists should teach coppers about crime.
    English teachers should teach coppers to spell.

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  • It's widely accepted that, as Jon C says, "using correct spellings shows attention to detail". The truth of this would seem to be borne out by the content of Mr. Smith's article and the standard of attention to detail it displays:

    'The spelling of the word "judgement", for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of "judgment"'

    - "Judgement" is the standard British English spelling, it isn't "widely accepted as a variant". "Judgment" is standard in American English and (I believe) some legalistic contexts.

    'The word "ignore" comes from the Latin ignorare meaning "to know"''

    - The Latin "ignorare" in fact means "NOT to know", rather obviously.

    I could go on, to borrow a phrase, but I think I have made my point. Correct spelling may be only one aspect of attention to detail, but dismissing it is symptomatic of a potentially more significant lack of care.

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  • The barbarians are well and truly inside the gate, I see.

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  • Rob,

    As a graduate of Bucks New Uni (or BCUC as it was known as when I graduated) I find your 'fishing' comment to be a bit elitist.

    I can only assume that Bucks New Uni is showing 11 to 16 year old that higher education is within their grasp and if using their own language or slang gets their message through then good for them!

    However I do agree that when it comes to writing an assignment that correctly spelling words shows that the student has taken their time to check every detail of their work.

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