Wisdom from the Grammar Goddess: Breaking the Spell

Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP . She has many years of experience in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

The English language has the worst system of spelling of any major language. Since English spelling is so hard, it is used as a test, a rather unfair test, of a person’s carefulness and literacy. Check every word that looks phunny.

– Robert C. Pinckert, Pinckert’s Practical Grammar (Writer’s Digest Books, 1986), pages 220-23.

My father once told a joke about a clerk who did not know the correct plural of mongoose. The clerk reportedly sent the following letter: ”Dear Sir, Please send me a mongoose. Oh, by the way, send me another one, too.” The plural of mongoose is mongooses, but the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.) appends “also mongeese.” I disagree, but that is another story.

With the invention of spell checkers, you would think that good spelling is with in (I mean, within) everyone’s grasp. But many times I have typed form when I meant from—and, of course, the spell checker said nothing. A high school teacher once told me that students who interchange then and than usually can not (oops—one word: cannot) find the error even when told there is an error in their sentences.

Some people confuse words like proceed with precede. Not only does the spell checker give them no help, but worse, it tacitly says, “Yeah, I checked the word, and it is spelled correctly.” No, it isn’t. A built-in thesaurus can help a little if you know there is a similarly spelled word, but you probably need to know both spellings. Plus, a spell checker cannot tell you that an apostrophe is omitted: Books (plural) and book’s (possessive) both seem fine to a spell checker.

Suppose I accidentally type windrow for window. Guess what? The spell checker says nothing, because both windrow and window are valid words. The word windrow means “a row heaped up either by, or as if by, the wind.” Proof reading (correction: proofreading) and spelling skills are still necessary.

On the other hand, some valid words are flagged as mistakes—e.g., cryptogam (a type of plant), therefor (meaning “for, or in return for that”), galop (a dance), and harras (a herd of stud horses). Worse than this, though, is that the Microsoft Word spell checker will be so convinced that therefor is a misspelling that it will automatically change the word to therefore without alerting the typist. I wonder if a law suit (another error—lawsuit) could result from Microsoft’s tampering with this word.

Three commonly and embarrassingly misspelled words are existence (not existance), misspell (not mispell), and grammar (not grammer). My spell checker automatically corrects mispell and existance, but not grammer.

Sometimes a word is so irretrievably misspelled that a spell checker cannot suggest an alternative. Generally, you can find it in the dictionary, but sometimes poor spellers cannot even do that. The moral is try to become a good speller—and keep a good dictionary nearby.

The Grammar Goddess has a small 24-page booklet (published in 1965) from her school days that lists 38 spelling rules and helpful mnemonics. For example, the word deductible takes an i as in IRS. Most of these rules are followed by a list of exceptions. I have forgotten the rules, yet I spell well by intuition. I think most good spellers just have a knack for the process. My husband spells like a fifth grade student, yet his understanding of mathematics is beyond me. We are all beautiful in our own way. Incidentally, Merriam Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged) allows the adjective beautifuler. Yikes! Do not let authorities replace thinking and common sense.


Time to test your spelling skills. Anyone reading this column for fun will probably do well. Good luck!

1. an idea: principle / principal.

11. small: minuscule / miniscule.

21. a small inverted “v”: carat / carrot / caret / karat.

2. inflict: wreak, wreck / wrack 12. writing materials: stationary / stationery. 22. prudent: discreet / discrete.
3. flattery: compliment / complement. 13. a tax deduction: dependent / dependant / (either). 23. separation: boundary / boundry.
4. consultant: councilor / counselor. 14. fought against: combated / combatted. 24. fair: equable / equitable.
5. American spelling of the color: grey / gray. 15. to gush: spue /spew. 25. show off: flaunt / flout.
6. come first: proceed / precede. 16. correct: alright / all right. 26. put to death by rope: The man was hung / hanged / (either).
7. American spelling: canceled / cancelled. 17. not able to do without: indispensible / indispensable 27. to lay down as a rule or as a guide: proscribe / prescribe.
8. American spelling: judgment / judgement. 18. entirely: all together / altogether. 28. American spelling: whiskey / whisky
9. American spelling of the metal: aluminum / aluminium. 19. twisted or perversely clever: rye / wry. 29. to make room for: accommodate / acommodate / accomodate
10. replace: supercede / supersede. 20. American spelling for something being compared: analog / analogue. 30. military officer: sargent / sergeant


1. principle, 2. wreak, 3. compliment, 4. counselor, 5. gray, 6. precede, 7. canceled, 8. judgment, 9. aluminum,

10. supersede (the only word in the English language that ends in –sede), 11. minuscule, 12. stationery,

13. either (although dependant will get some strange looks), 14. combated, 15. spew,

16. all right (alright is substandard), 17. indispensable, 18. altogether, 19. wry, 20. analog, 21. caret, 22. discreet,

23. boundary, 24. equitable, 25. flaunt, 26. hanged (pictures, not people, are hung), 27. prescribe, 28. whiskey,

29. accommodate, 30. sergeant (unless you mean Sargent Shriver, of course).

Curiously, my spell checker could help me only with questions 5, 8, 9, 14, 15, 23, 29 and 30. If someone ever brags about being a good speller, ask him/her to spell minuscule. Mnemonic: It has the root minus (less). Almost everyone misspells it as miniscule.


A friend recently shared the following poem with me. Enjoy!

Eye Halve a Spelling Chequer

Eye halve a spelling chequer

It came with my pea sea

It plainly marques four my revue

Missteaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word

And weight four it two say

Weather eye am wrong oar write

It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid

It nose bee fore two long

And eye can put the error rite

Its rarely ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it

Iam shore your pleased two no

Its letter perfect in it’s weigh

My chequer tolled me sew.

– Anonymous

If you would like to read more about this topic, I recommend Beyond Language: Adventures in Word and Thought (Dmitri A. Borgmann, 1967); Dictionary of Differences (Laurence Urdang, 1988), Garner’s Modern American Usage (Bryan A. Garner, 2003), The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage (NYPL, 1994), and Fundamentals of Spelling (William Leahy 1965).

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.

Posted in: Grammar, Wisdom from the Grammar Goddess