The Seven Deadly Spelling Sins

Because I am a writing teacher and a former editor, I am constantly exposed to the most egregious mistakes in writing, grammar, and spelling.  I am also seeing a lot of these mistakes online in social networking sites, blogs, and emails.  Because I try to be a nice person, I do not point these mistakes out to my friends, but it is time for me to write a blog post about them just for fun.  If you struggle with spelling, take notes!

1. There, their, and they’re

These are three different words, and they are not interchangeable.  “There” refers to a place and is the opposite of “here.”  “Their” refers to ownership of something.  “They’re” is a contraction that means “they are,” as in: They are having a spelling party.

2. To and too

“To” is the beginning of any infinitive form of a verb: to run, to be, to smile, to write, to blog.  Taking foreign language classes is the best way to drive this one home. It is also a preposition.  “Too” means “also” or “in addition to.”  It can also mean “in excess,” as in: There are too many shoes in my closet.  (Well, that’s simply not possible, but you get the idea.)

3. You’re and your

“You’re” is a contraction form of “you are.”  “Your” again refers to ownership (see “their”)

4. judgment

This word never ever (in the United States) has an “e” in the middle.

5. definitely

I don’t know why, but some 90 percent of my students have difficulty spelling this word.  There is it, in black and white.  Memorize it.  I have seen it misspelled as:

Defiantly, Definately, Definetley, Definitly

And so on.  I’m sure there are numerous variations to a bad spelling.

6. its and it’s

Again, we have a contraction.  The contraction means that two words have been combined, so “it’s” means “it is.”  Now, the tricky part is the fact that possession usually uses an apostrophe.  However, because this apostrophe is already taken for “it is,” “its” refers to possession in this case.

7. Lightning

This one is my personal pet peeve.  This refers to that giant flash of light in the sky that usually occurs during a rainstorm and is always followed by thunder.  However, I see many people spell it as “lightening,” which can refer to making something lighter, in color or weight.  However, it also means the dropping of the baby before a woman gives birth, and that’s what I always think of.  So, when people write on Facebook, “The lightening was fantastic last night,” I can’t help but wonder if they are relieved to have finally given birth.

I think my annoyance with misspellings comes from the fact that I was a champion speller in middle school.  In fourth grade, I studied my heart out and discovered that I had a knack for seeing large words in my head and then repeating them in front of an audience.  I won the fourth grade spelling bee with the ridiculously easy “limestone,” because we had gone into a sudden death round where the judges started picking words out of the dictionary.  That proud moment in my life led to my most embarrassing, when I proudly spelled a word at the district bee and accidentally added an extra “e” in the middle of the word.  I don’t remember the word, but I do remember that it was one I had been struggling with.  So, of course, the gods of making people humble made it so that I received that word, spelled it confidently thinking that I had nailed it, and then had my hopes dashed when upon trying to return to my seat, the buzzer indicated that I had flubbed.  After that, I still spelled well, but I don’t ever remember winning another competition.  I placed third in the school competition, but I was never the same after that humiliating experience.

image from Scripps National Spelling Bee via Wikimedia Commons

Do you have any spelling pet peeves?  What sorts of mistakes do you see your friends making on social networking sites?  Do you take it upon yourself to correct them?

81 thoughts on “The Seven Deadly Spelling Sins

Add yours

  1. This is very treu.
    To be honest, I have become disgusted with my dependence (thought about it but didn’t check it) on spellcheck. I now have a 1963 OED which I use when it is not two stories away. There is also a slight difference between spelling on either side of the Atlantic, but how else can a person properly spell with an accent?
    I think a spellcheck that will not let you go on till you type the word correctly would work so much better in the long run, if it was to be used at all.

    1. Spell check is a wonderful thing, but as David Gelernter said, “to misspell is human; to have no idea of correct spelling is to be semiliterate.” I have to agree.

  2. I’m trying to decide whether timberbookshelves mis-spelling was purposeful or not. And now you’ve made me nervous over my spelling on this comment 😀
    As for pointing it out, it is difficult in such a public setting but some people may appreciate it as it could help improve their writing skills.
    As for spelling in school, I’ve read my brother’s work and it’s terrible. I wince every time.

  3. Spelling and grammar errors drive me crazy, but so does rudeness. My solution is to bite my tongue alot and take pleasure from posts such as this one.

  4. I have a confession to make. I have committed all seven deadly spelling sins. Will you forgive me?

  5. So funny, just yesterday I was considering writing a similar post, and I’m not even a teacher or an editor. I just don’t get why so many people make these mistakes so often! Although honestly, on social sites, I don’t expect people to write all that well. I think even those who can spell correctly just get lazy in the online world.

    I do have another pet peeve that wasn’t listed: could of, would of, should of. I think there’s a common denominator here…contractions! They must confuse people. 😉

    1. Yes, those contractions cause problems for a lot of people. I think pronunciation is a culprit too. And I agree that online and in texting, sometimes that lowercase i is endearing…

  6. I’ve always been really good at spelling, but I still fell into the “definitely” trap in high school. I don’t remember all of the ways I spelled it, but I’m pretty sure one was “definetly.” I guess I wasn’t thinking about the root of the word at the time.

    Common errors like you’re/your and they’re/there/their are bad, but my professor told me about some less common ones that are rather surprising as well. He said that in the past 10 or so years, more and more students have been spelling “woman” as “women.” I don’t know how that happens; no one would think about spelling “man” as “men.” If they just added “wo-” to that idea, it would work.

    Another mistake he told me about was that a student used the word “uphauling.” It took him a moment to realize that the student actually meant “appalling.” It just shows you how the sound of a word can be misleading or ambiguous.

    1. Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen the “uphauling” ones but I do commonly see students confuse woman and women. It’s annoying and just sad. It shows how little they read and visualize words.

  7. Here’s a good one for you: I got a trophy for the 3rd grade spelling bee. You would imagine, since our last name is a month of the year (January), it would be spelled correctly on the trophy. Not so. It’s spelled, “Janury”.

  8. Hi! First of all I want to say that I love your blog! I was looking for reading blogs awhile ago and found yours. I have a reading blog myself, but it’s in Spanish. Regarding spelling, I would like to say that I’m also kind of obsessed with good spelling and grammar. One thing is a typo, another is not even caring to google the spelling of some words you might not be sure about. As I said, I’m not a native English speaker, yet I do know the difference between all those words you mentioned. I have studied English since I was a little girl, so I pretty much grew up with it even though I wasn’t exposed to it all the time. Many times I notice how even native English speakers make spelling mistakes and they think they’re right, but they’re not. I think this is due to the fact that I studied the language formally, learning all the grammatical structures and stuff. Native speakers just ‘pick up’ the language, they don’t need to formally study it. Anyway, I would like to add another spelling mistake I see quite often. “would of”, “could of”, “should of”. Example: “I would of done it if you had told me.” They mean “would HAVE” or its contracted version “would’ve”. But I think since native speakers are more used to listening the language rather than reading it (except those who do read), they just assume that’s how it’s spelled? My two cents. -Rommy

    1. Thanks, Rommy! You make so many excellent points. I do think that formally studying a language is helpful with all of the spelling and grammar issues, even if that language isn’t the one that needs to be improved. I learned so much about English from studying Spanish! And yes, “could of” and so on should be on my list as well. It shows what lazy speakers we are sometimes.

  9. I love this post. I am teaching English overseas right now and take pride in the fact that I can spell; some people I work with cannot. I’d like to share a story. When I took the qualification I needed to teach overseas, the tutor gave the group a spelling test. Before he started he pointed to the three of us in the group that were over 40 and said ‘Sally, John and Sue will get most of these right as they were taught how to spell. The rest of you will get most of them wrong’. Since I was surrounded by young graduates I was somewhat astonished at his confidence. But he turned out to be right. The three of us did get all them right. A young English Lit graduate next to me only managed a measly 5 out of 20. I was shocked!

    1. Good point. I did feel a little guilty about that knowing how many readers I have that aren’t American! I should have replaced it with then and than. People always confuse those!

  10. One of my biggest pet peeves: “loose” vs “lose”. It appears that most of the people I know think that sports teams “loose” games rather than “lose” them.

    Great post!

  11. I do know the difference between ‘loose’ and ‘lose’ but I always have to stop and think before I use either of them. My own pet peeve used to turn up on the menu board in the residential home where my mother lived. At least twice a week the dessert would be announced as ‘Artic Roll’. I finally had to resort to sneaking in a board marker and adding the first ‘c’ when no one was looking.

    1. When people say “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less” it is like fingernails on a chalkboard. I “could care less” means you still care. That is why I could care less about this topic 🙂

  12. Long comment – sorry!
    I LOVED this post – it was so humorous and informative at the same time. I really laughed at your lightening example. 🙂
    I had a bad experience during a spelling bee. I was the best at spelling in my 4th grade class and so my teacher asked me to participate in the school spelling bee (for kids in grades 4-6, I think). I stood up for my first word: surprise. Oh no problem! I didn’t even think about it or envision it in my head because it was one of my “easy” words. I started spelling: s-u-p-r-i-s-e. Incorrect. I didn’t even realize that I forgot one “r”. I left the stage in shame and I had to endure all the embarrassing comments from my friends telling me on the way back to class that THEY knew how to spell surprise. My spelling was never the same because my confidence was shattered. I carried a pocket dictionary in my backpack through High School and even at College (until computers and spell checking became more common place).
    The words I would always confuse and misspell in my college business classes (and my friends would always correct because I could never get it right) were sale and sell. You would be surprised at how often you see those two words in business school problems and discussions.
    In a work setting, my co-workers and I laugh at the memory of a former employee who always spelled government as goverment (he spelled it this way repeatedly on different tax returns presumably because there is no spelling check in our tax preparation software).
    On my mission, an Elder was so excited to get a letter from his sweetheart back home. She had decorated the envelope with pink and purple hearts and lots of sweet messages. The only problem was that she spelled sweet incorrectly. She spelled it “sweat” and oh you should have heard the way we teased poor Elder Madson. “Oh, you’re so sweat, Elder Madson.” And whenever he did something for us like hold open the chapel door, we would say, “That’s so sweat of you, Elder Madson.”
    One last story: In Africa they use the word “too” ALL the time and they use it in a way that is uncommon to us in the United States. But I loved hearing them speak this way. They would use “too” when complimenting. For example, instead of simply saying “You’re lovely” they would say “You’re too lovely.” Or they would say “I’m loving you too much!” A very common compliment was being called “too fat.” I don’t know why, but being called fat in Africa is a very good thing. I remember walking with my companion to an appointment. A street vendor had skirts and dresses lined up on racks on the side of the dusty trail. Because we had to wear skirts and dresses every day – our wardrobe quickly became stale. The bright colored skirts caught our eye and we stopped for a few minutes to admire them. I held one up and asked my companion, “I don’t know? Do you think it will fit?” The contriving salesman immediately chimed in and said, “Oh yes, you are too fat.” I knew he meant it as a compliment to try and get me to purchase the skirt, so I decided to tease him just a bit. I said, “You think I’m too fat for the skirt?” At that point he thought I had mistaken what he had meant as a compliment and he fumbled a bit before saying, “Oh no- I mean you are just fat.” The people in Africa used the word “just” in an interesting way too. When someone asked how you were doing, instead of saying “I’m okay” you would say, “I’m just okay.” It meant adequate (not over-the-top and not lacking) and it kind of meant “just right” even if the word “right” wasn’t spoken. I smiled and said, “I am just fat!” I thanked the salesman for his compliment and my companion and I walked away laughing.

    1. I LOVE all of your stories. I do feel bad that you lost so much confidence. One bad experience can really do that to us. I think the problem with sale and sell is that in some parts of the U.S. people pronounce them the same, so it is a hearing problem. If people read more, they wouldn’t mess them up! Also along those lines, a lot of my students drop the -ed at the end of words because they do not hear them pronounced by their family and friends. Great stories! You are so “sweat.” Tee hee. That one is the best.

  13. The frustrating thing for me about the first three is that students almost always know these correctly in the abstract — do a lesson on them in class and they nail every one. But they usually haven’t accustomed themselves to checking their own writing for errors before submitting it, so when they’re concentrating on building sentences and making arguments, they don’t attend to grammar.

    1. Good point. They do “know” them, but they just don’t have them down well enough to write flawlessly with them. That’s another good reason for peer review.

    1. There was more in that reply but somehow it got erased. . . I was telling you about a category I have in my blog called “Linguistic Moments” in which some errors are pointed out =) I hope you can check it out.
      Also, what annoys me more than the mistakes is that people repeat them even if I point them out several times. . .

  14. When I’m editing, I’m usually able to forgive spelling errors if they happen once or twice. I try to assume the author was in a hurry, in the writing “zone,” or whatever. But if it happens repeatedly, it drives me nuts. One of my biggest pet peeves is not knowing the difference between breath/breathe, as in: “I took a deep breathe.” Eek.

  15. Always glad to see a post on spelling and/or punctuation. Now hopefully it will be read by some folks other than those of us who fuss about it in the first place 🙂

  16. I work in a university library and a lot of students can’t find books they need on the catalogue because they are spelling words incorrectly. Management is always spelled managment; argument, arguement, involvment, climeate, etc. The problem with words ending in ment is that there is no consistency. e or no e?

    There is also the problem, as someone else pointed out, of international variations. In the UK we would spell it; theatre instead of theater, colour, mediaeval, aeroplane etc. but this means any American publications will not show up in search results. (I should also point out that my spelling of catalogue is correct in UK!)

    1. I feel so bad for those students, but it confirms what I replied to another comment earlier about what Dvid Gelernter wrote, that if you have no idea of spelling then you are semiliterate. These students are held back because of those “little” mistakes. And, I love the UK spelling of theatre. I think everybody should spell it that way!

  17. Struck a chord with me on this one, Emily. My husband is a terrible speller (his words) and he often asks for me to spell check his posts. A few years back I lived in Colombia (the country) + I’m half Colombian and it irks me that folks spell it Columbia…even on travel blogs! You’re in a South American country, surrounded by lively salsa music, Spanish, and gorgeous nature…you’re not at the University, nor the city in the U.S. Perhaps I’m sensitive to this, but the distinction is a big one.

    1. I agree 100 percent. The distinction is a big one, and if you can’t spell it correctly (on a travel blog, really?) then you shouldn’t be writing about it! And my husband is not the best speller either, so I am sympathetic to that plight. We make a good team because he is good at math and I’m not.

  18. it’s and its —-> my personal pet peeve
    Every time I see this mistake, I go crazy!
    “”People, do you not even know what you saying, what you want to say??””
    Wonderful post!


  19. As a student, I love reading a teacher’s thoughts. I did not know about number 4! I recently saw the word ‘judgment’ and thought it was spelled wrong! Also, since you are a teacher, maybe you can tell me. In a case like the one above, is it correct to say ‘judgement’ or “judgement” ?

    1. Double quotation marks! I bet it is fun to get into teacher’s minds. I always wished I could do so as an undergraduate. But as much as my students always want to know how to please me, the best education is one in which the student does his or her best, whether or not they “follow all the rules.” That is a middle class educational notion that I think needs to be replaced with being creative, making decisions, and being a leader.

      1. I completely agree! My best teachers have taught by that same philosophy! Good to know there is another one out there! I could count on one hand how many of you guys I have encountered.

  20. An enjoyable post. About seven years ago I was a member of an online reading group that consisted of many well-educated folks from around the world. In many postings I said, “I am looking foreward…” I was so mortified when in my personal reading I realized the wrong usage—I deleted my profile and set up a new one!

  21. That was really useful and pointed out some that I still get confused with. The lightening/lightning one is something I’m now going to be very aware of.

  22. Excellent post and fun comments. My personal pet peeve is “quite” and “quiet”. My friend misuses them constantly, as illustrated by the following text exchange:

    Her: Bored at work. It’s too quite.
    Me: So it’s quite quiet? Or eerily silent?
    Her: Really quite, I think everyone left around noon.

    She didn’t get my subtle hint that perhaps she had used the wrong word. I had to phone her to explain. Thankfully she encourages me to correct her.

    I’m also astounded when people ask if I can “borrow” them something. Seriously? I always reply, “Yes, I will LOAN you something and when you return it you can BORROW something else.” Maybe I’m being rude but it really drives me nuts.

    Great blog! 🙂

  23. When I moved to the U.S. from England, I had to learn to spell differently. It wasn’t just that words live “savour” became “savor,” in the move, I found there was a different approach to the English language.

    The English, for example, being moderate and cautious people, are wary of the letter “z.” It’s a powerful letter, only to be used occasionally. Not so the Americans who put the wild “z” on a par with the common “s.”

    The English are also fond of filling up words with letters that aren’t sounded, such as in “Leicester,” pronounced “lester.” Americans are literal about the letters in a word, so they try to pronounce the word, “Lie-cess-ter.”

    These differences, along with the everchanging nature of language, taught me to be wary of too static an approach to spelling. “Light” today will probably be officially “lite” in 20 years time, and it makes sense. What are the “gh” doing in that word?

    So, contrary to many of the other comments, I say hurray for spellcheck, which I use all the time, and let’s not be too rigid about spelling. Yes, we need norms and standards, but the language (and spelling) are constantly changing.

    1. Good point. Language is always changing and evolving. I like your example of Leicester. I used to try to pronounce it the fumbling American way, and then I got quickly corrected in a Shakespeare class. It makes so much sense now that I know how it is supposed to be said.

  24. Personally, I misspell judgment a lot. However, I am slowly remembering not to add an extra “e”, so I congratulate myself on making progress. 🙂
    I can relate very easily to people who are irritated by poor grammar. My younger siblings make grammatical mistakes all the time (I do correct them), and it drives me nuts!

    1. I’m glad to know that I am not alone. In fact, I looked at Facebook today and had to immediately close it because the first three posts had misspellings in them. I figured it was better to step away and say nothing rather than alienate those people. 🙂

      1. That was probably a good idea. I have a friend who can’t spell anything, and I have had to restrain myself from correcting her many times. Looking away can be incredibly helpful. 😀

  25. My pet peeve is people who don’t use the words “lie” and “lay” correctly. Not exactly a spelling issue, but it still bothers me. “Lay” requires a direct object; it’s a transitive verb. “Lie” takes no object; it’s an intransitive verb. You know all this, but many do not. Geeez!! (Fun blog! Thanks!)

  26. I love this! As a teacher in the communication department, I see a lot of these mistakes you named. I also hate when they confuse then and than. I always seem to catch these mistakes in their writings. Do you mind me sharing this with my students? I love how you explained each correction.

    1. Feel free to share! Then and than is also one that I see a lot. I guess the way we sometimes pronounce it makes it confusing for students who don’t read a lot or aren’t visual learners.

      1. That is true, I at times make the mistake, however when I proofread, I catch it. Another mistake students don’t do is proofread their work before submitting. I already attached your “how to properly send an email” to my syllabus, and I included your link to your blog so that they can reference to it.

  27. I loved this article and all the great comments within. In todays society of 140 – 200 characters, to text a message to someone, facebook also, it is hard for the newer generations to be able to learn to use the correct words. Even in emails I receive there is a lot of it.

    Sit in a Starbucks, McDonalds, or other fastfood place for a couple of hours and listen to the way people talk now. It is amazing the words and language that is used now.

    Not an caveman either but a proud grandparent.

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