Unforgivable Spelling Errors—And How to Avoid Them

by | Mar 2, 2009 | Writing Matters Blog | 2 comments

I am not a great speller. And there are some look-alike words that trip me up (affect and effect, for example). So, I’m somewhat forgiving about other people’s spelling errors. But here’s my bottom line: You must spell the bread-and-butter words of your profession correctly.

I’m surprised by how frequently I encounter “professional” misspellings. For example:

  • the plumber who gave me a hand-written bill for fixing my toylet
  • the furniture store billboard that announced: “We are condomininium specialists”

I had serious doubts about hiring a financial planner who wrote that his investment strategy included “maximizing return on investments while preserving my principle” (rule or standard) instead of principal (the capital of an estate or financial holding).

I distrusted a retailer whose customer service e-mail assured me that I could return my purchase at anytime. “Our product quarantee is “Gauranteed Period.” (I would have been happy with one simply spelled-right guarantee.

Real estate may be the industry that leads in misspelling frequently-used words. I’ve seen “seperate dining and living room” so frequently in real estate listings that the correct spelling—separate—looks wrong. And the difference a space makes. I didn’t want to look at a house advertised as “inelegant neighborhood” instead of in elegant neighborhood. And what can I say about this twofer for an apartment in a quite nieghborhood? (Did they mean quiet neighborhood?)

Hundreds of research papers have been written about the causes of poor spelling (cognitive deficiencies, poor reading skills, bad teachers, laziness). But we are looking for remedies. If you are a poor speller—and you know who you are:

Always Use Spellchecker
This seems so obvious it is embarrassing to list. But by the number of documents with spelling errors I see, lots of people don’t take the time to use this face-saving tool.

Don’t Trust Spellchecker
Remember that spellcheckers don’t flag sound-alike and look-alike word errors (their, there). Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) Common Words That Sound Alike offers clear explanations and examples.

And make sure you choose the correct word if spellchecker gives you several word choices. I assume that a miss-click resulted in this classic from a colleague: “We can use a client as a genuine pig to test our new product.” (Surely, he meant to choose guinea!)

Compile Your Own Cheat Sheet of Correctly Spelled Words
A good way to compile this cheat sheet is to run your writing drafts through spellchecker. Add to your sheet the correct spelling of any word that’s flagged as incorrect. Then take a look at these lists of commonly misspelled words and add to your list any that you use—and misspell—frequently:

And if you don’t think that poor spelling can’t sink a career, remember Vice President Dan Quayle who never quite recovered from his misspelling of potato. (Quayle’s spelling: potatoe.) But Quayle had the last word:  “If Al Gore invented the Internet, I invented spellcheck.”

— Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)

Tags: Customer service e-mail, Editing, Grammar and usage, Spelling


  1. I do indeed remember Dan Quayle’s infamous misspelling. It was “potatoe.”

  2. Thanks for catching this! Dan Quayle’s misspelling was indeed potatoe, not tomatoe.

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