A Word, Please: The hows and wherefores of spelling

A spelling lesson for grown-ups? When I first started teaching copyediting, I was surprised to find that the class textbook, “The Copyeditor’s Handbook” by Amy Einsohn, had a chapter dedicated to spelling.

In the age of spell-checkers and online dictionaries, the idea seemed somehow quaint. Everything we could possibly want to know about how to spell is already at our fingertips. What more is there to say?

Plenty, as it turns out. For starters, as you probably know, you can’t trust spell-checker. How could your computer possibly know whether wine served at an event was complementary or complimentary? How could it know whether you want to recreate or re-create? Whether you want troubleshooting or troubles hooting? How can it know whether you’re saying the Johnsons are from a big family or whether they form a big family?

It can’t.

What’s more, spell-checker isn’t always there for us. If people ran the program every time they were about to write something, I wouldn’t get 10,600 hits when I Google “I like it alot.” Just now, as I tried to type the incorrect “alot,” Microsoft Word changed it to the correct “a lot.” Yet somehow those 10,600 flubs occurred.

Like most folks who couldn’t pick Justin Bieber out of a lineup, I sometimes work with stuff called paper — a three-dimensional substance on which you can print words but you cannot run a computer program. So if I’m scribbling a note or proofreading a newspaper page, I need to know how many Rs are in embarrassed and how many Ls are in lilies.

I also have fuzzy recollections of a time when being a good speller was a valuable thing in and of itself. It was about more than just avoiding public humiliation. It meant you were smart or something (I don’t quite remember).

If any of these reasons for learning to spell resonate with you, here are a few of Einsohn’s recommendations.

Find a list of commonly misspelled words and stare at it, repeatedly. These lists are readily available online. My favorite examples from Einsohn’s lists are accommodate, accordion, adolescence, athlete, calendar, exhilarate, fallacy, fulfill, hemorrhage, inoculate, judgment, maintenance, mischievous, preceding, privilege, separate, sergeant, supersede, temperament and vacuum.

Einsohn also recommends learning a little about the etymology of hard-to-spell words.

“Etymology accounts for many of the oddities of English spelling,” she writes.

For example, supersede, which comes from the Latin, combines “super,” meaning “above,” with a form of “sedere” meaning “to sit.” Precede, though also from the Latin, gets its second syllable from another source: “cedere,” meaning “to go.”

This is why those whiz kids you see on spelling bees so often ask for the origin of a word they’re asked to spell. Etymology won’t always save you. For example, Einsohn says, the Latin “cedere” spawned exceed, proceed, and succeed, but also concede, intercede and recede. So all the Latin in the world won’t guarantee you won’t end a word with “ceed” when it should end with “cede.”

Einsohn warns, “Pay special attention to suffixes that contain unstressed vowels.” These include words that end in “able,” “ible,” “ance,” ence,” “ar,” “er” and “or.” Either memorize or remember to look up words like noticeable, negligible, maintenance, difference, gardener and counselor.

Also, she says, pay attention to doubled consonants. These are often clues to tricky spellings, as we see in battalion, Caribbean and occasion.

I would add just one bit of my own advice: If you want to become a better speller, just make it a priority. A little extra effort spent memorizing and a little extra time spent looking words up can go a long way.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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