None of us are ‘word-perfect’ – not even the professionals!

Just because I’m a proofreader and editor, it doesn’t mean I can immediately spell any word thrown at me without having to double-check the spelling, or know the answer immediately to any question of grammar or style. I work on documents and manuscripts in a wide number of fields, and am always learning new things to add to my vocabulary list. I see this as on-the-job training.

There are some words that give me pause, and where the correct spelling isn’t instinctive. The English language is tricky – there are so many words that are pronounced the same but spelt two or three different ways (take the BBC News site last week, which confused reign, rein and rain when they described blows ‘reigning down’ on somebody). I also see confusion over their/there/they’re on a regular basis.

And then there are the words that are spelt the same, but don’t rhyme: take cough, bough, hiccough, rough and their ilk.

A lot of people seem to confuse US and British English spellings, which again is understandable. My husband, after working as a programmer since leaving university, has got into the habit of spelling ‘colour’ without the ‘u’ (US spelling) as computer languages use US spellings as standard.

Two things triggered the idea for this week’s post. Firstly, I’m often surprised that it took me so long to get my head round which spelling is which with practice/ practise (noun/verb). Note that this is British English only – US English uses ‘practice’ for both versions. What finally cemented it for me was repeatedly reading Julia Donaldson’s Zog to my children: ‘Zog went off to practise, flying fast and free/He soared and swooped and looped the loop…then crashed into a tree.’

Secondly, there’s tranquillity. One ‘l’ or two? British English uses two, but US English uses just the one. However, I find this illogical – to me the word looks far more tranquil and calm with a single ‘l’. Unfortunately, British English dictionaries beg to differ, so I’ll have to stick with the standard.

I asked other editors, proofreaders and publishing professionals on LinkedIn if there were any words they struggled with, and had some interesting responses. More importantly, I also got some great tips from other pros about how they remember some of the trickier common words in the English language. So here goes…

Words with accepted variant spellings

-ize and -ise endings: The ‘-ize’ ending that many think of as exclusive to American English can be used interchangeably with the ‘–ise’ ending in British English (and indeed is the preferred ending in the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors [ODWE]). It doesn’t, however, apply to ‘-yse’ endings like it does in the US (such as ‘paralyse’), so be careful! The key is consistency within the document, or set of documents, that you are working on.

Other examples of spellings that have no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ form include flier/flyer, focusing/focussing, benefiting/benefitting and busing/bussing.

Judgement vs. judgment is a possible exception. In the UK, you would traditionally see judgement used in any context except legally, where convention dictates the use of the latter form (although it is used more and more often without the second ‘e’ in all contexts). In the US, ‘judgment’ is more usual, although ‘judgement’ can also be used in non-legal contexts. So it’s not incorrect to use ‘judgment’ in general everyday use in Britain, but it’s more usual to see it with the extra ‘e’.

Some tricky words (and tips for remembering them)

Some words the pros reported struggling with were:

Embarrass: John Finegold at Keyline Consultancy suggested some great mnemonics to help with spelling various words, including Really Red Shiny Skin (embaRRaSS) to remember this one!

Flies/flys: In just about all cases, the former is correct. (Unless you’re using the historical term in British English to refer to a one-horse hackney carriage, in which case the plural is ‘flys’.)

Forest: One respondent made me laugh when he said ‘”Forrest Gump” has screwed me up on “forest” forever.’

Mediterranean: It helps me to think of ‘terrain’ and the French terre, meaning ‘earth’.

Other words that came up were aficionado, broccoli, bureaucracy, Caribbean, entrepreneur, gauge (‘I always want to spell it “guage”), harass, ophthalmologist, perseverance, privilege, questionnaire, and subtle and subtlety (‘they just don’t look right because they’re spelled terribly for the way they sound’).

It sounds different to how it’s pronounced

As I mentioned above, there are quite a few words in the English language that aren’t pronounced how they’re written. People reported difficulties with these kind of words, including:

Beautiful: One pro said he finally learnt as a child how to spell ‘beautiful’ when he learnt the word ‘beau’ in French.

Conscience/conscious: from the Latin scire (to know).

Diarrhoea (US diarrhea); not ‘dire rear’, however tempting it may be to write it!

Fuchsia: These flowers are named after a man named Fuchs, so if you can remember that, you’ll no longer struggle with the word. One editor said it helped her to think of it as ‘f***sia’ and substitute the ‘k’ for an ‘h’. I studied German at university, and Fuchs is the German for ‘fox’, so this one doesn’t trip me up.

Gonorrhoea (US gonorrhea)

Haemorrhage (US haemorrhage)

Haemorrhoid (US hemorrhoid)

Separate (pronounced ‘seperate’)

Paraphernalia (because it sounds like ‘fuh’ in the middle, not ‘fer’)


And then there are those pesky words where it’s very easy to accidentally switch the letters when typing. Examples included:




These sort of mistakes can often be picked up by setting macros (see penultimate section) in Word.

Homonyms and similar-sounding words

Affect vs. effect: This was mentioned by a couple of people. Usually ‘affect’ is a verb (to affect something) and ‘effect’ is a noun. However, there are times when this is not the case. ‘Affect’ can be a noun in the following cases: to describe a feeling or emotion in psychology or an emotional response in psychiatry. Just to confuse matters, you can use ‘effect’ as a verb to mean ‘cause something to happen’.

Appraise (assess someone/something) vs. apprise (inform someone of something).

Complimentary (praising or approving; something given free of charge) vs. complementary (combined with something else to emphasize/enhance its qualities; alternative medicine).

Continuous vs. continual: These have some overlap in meaning, but cannot be used interchangeably. The embedded links to the Oxford English Dictionary definitions are worth a read if you’re not sure.

Dependant (in British English, a person relying on another for financial support – but is also interchangeable with ‘dependent’, just to confuse you further!) vs. dependent (determined by; unable to do without; subordinate to another phrase or clause). In American English, ‘-ent’ is the only ending used.

Descendent (descending from an ancestor) vs. descendant (person, plant or animal descending from a particular ancestor; something that has developed from a more rudimentary, earlier version). According to the OED, 15 per cent of all citations in the English corpus – that is, all work published in English – use these terms incorrectly. (This is totally understandable!)

License vs. licence (license only in the US): the ‘s’ denotes the verb and the ‘c’ the noun.

Personal (e.g. mine, yours) vs. personnel (employees).

Practise vs. practice (my old friend!): Sally Asnicar of Full Proofreading Services had this great tip:

One of the best tips I read for remembering practice/practise (if you are struggling with the verb/noun issue) is to imagine the word is advice/advise and say it aloud. For example, ‘I always practise good manners at the table’ would also sound okay if you said, ‘I always advise good manners at the table’ (but not ‘advice’) and ‘A doctor’s practice’ could be ‘A doctor’s advice’ (but not ‘advise’).

According to one proofreader, the Macquarie Dictionary in Australia has another good aide-memoire for this kind of word:

Practice and advice are the noun versions that also have another noun in the words: ice.

Or this method of remembering:

practice is a noun; practise is a verb. So just as n (for noun) comes before v (for verb) in the alphabet, so c in practice comes before s in practise.

Principal (adjective meaning ‘main or most important’ or noun meaning ‘the most senior person in a group or organization’, such as a school principal) vs. principle (basis of a system or thought or belief): John Finegold has the following suggestion: a for ‘academic’; e for ‘ethics’.

Prophesy vs. prophecy: See practise/practice.

Stationery (stuff you use in an office or sell in a stationer’s) vs. stationary (still): Useful tips for remembering this one were:

I learned the difference between stationery and stationary by remembering that you buy stationERy from a stationER. Since there is no such thing as a stationar, I could always work out which word I wanted. (ELT writing professional)

Also, you can think of the weather term stationAry front and remember that second a for Air. (Assistant editor)

I remember that there are stationers and confectioners, hence the stationer’s stationery and confectioner’s confectionery. (Editor)

I use the following memory jerker:

Stationery is ER as in Elizabeth Regina (stamps, envelopes, etc.) (proofreader)

John Finegold suggested simply remembering stationery as being ‘e’ for ‘envelope’.

Double-letter combinations

Accommodate: If you can remember there are two double-letter combos in this word, you’re most of the way there.

Millennium: This is often seen spelt wrong, which adds to the confusion (and the Mazda Millenia didn’t do anyone any favours on this front)! One copy-editor said it helped her to link it to the word ‘perennial’ to remember the double ‘n’, although this won’t help if you can’t spell ‘perennial’ either!

Necessary: One writing, editing and publishing professional said:

When I was a kid, to remember how to spell ‘necessary’ with the ‘c’ and the double ‘s’ the right way round, I used to say it in my head as if it were ‘neckessary’. Since a ‘c’ can sometimes have a ‘k’ sound but an ‘s’ can’t, I knew that the ‘c’ came first. Then, by elimination, the double ‘s’ came after it.

From another editor:

I always get mixed up with occasion – does it have 2 Cs and 1 S or the other way round…

How using macros can help you

Richard Adin, writer of the An American Editor blog, recommended using macros, as did a couple of other people. A macro is something you can set up to pick up words you might consistently misspell, particularly if you find yourself often substituting two letters to create a word that exists but isn’t the right word (see ‘Switcheroos’ above). The ‘Dummies’ website has a useful and simple guide to setting up macros.

Richard’s response is worth quoting in detail:

This is where using certain software tools can greatly help. For example, I have found that there are certain medical terms that authors consistently misspell – so often that I have to make a conscious effort to watch for them. So I have added the words to my basic Never Spell Word dataset in my EditTools software. One of the first things I do with a new document is run the NSW macro. By having added the words to the NSW dataset, if the one of the words is misspelled in the document, it is automatically correct with tracking on.

I have two options: I can include both words in my exclude dictionary, which means that every appearance of either word will be squiggly underlined. But I have learned that it is still easy to miss the word. So, instead, I have both of them in my NSW dataset and marked to be highlighted in red – a color difficult to ignore – and so when I run the NSW macro, it highlights each instance of casual and causal in red, forcing me to stop and make sure the right word is used.

In the case of British versus American spelling, I use the Language macro in EditTools. I have created a dataset of British spelled words that need to be Americanized. I run the macro and it makes the corrections (with tracking on so I can see what was changed and I can undo what should be undone). The macro is language neutral, so changes that it makes depend on the dataset I load. I can go British to American, American to British, or any language to any other language. All I need to do is create the dataset.

Looking for love?

And finally, remember this: if you’re currently dating, good spelling could make all the difference! Lorrie Beauchamp of Marketing, My Ass! relates the following:

I remember a writer once saying that he’d marry any woman who knew how to spell ‘occurrence.’

So there you have it.


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