Going Through a Bad Spell

by Chris Hancock

There are few topics more likely to raise the blood pressure than spelling. And it’s not something restricted to the wordnerd community (yes – we’re a community now, not a loosely connected bunch of oddballs). Instead it seems to pervade all sectors of society and elicit the entire spectrum of reactions,  from “What does it matter?” (not me) to “Oh my God! I cannot continue to read this document until that spelling mistake is expunged from it; either it goes or I pluck out my own eyes!” (you’ve guessed it… me).

It doesn’t help that there is confusion over the word “misspelled” itself, with some people advocating (quite legitimately, I may add) the use of the alternative “misspelt”. And – whichever you choose – there’s still a chance you’ll spell it incorrectly as “mispelled” or ”mispelt”.


This obsession with correct spelling is all the more strange when faced with the recently-uncovered evidence that readers can understand the meaning of words in a sentence even when the interior letters of each word are scrambled. This hypothesis has been given the somewhat tongue-in-cheek name “Typoglycemia”, a portmanteau word made up of “Typo” (typographical error) and “Hypoglycemia” (low blood sugar). Let’s test this theory. Here’s a sample sentence, but scrambled:

It dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.

Hey, I don’t know about you, but I think the hypothesis holds water. If you’re struggling, here’s the unscrambled version:

It doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be in the right place.

But, putting that to one side, for a lot of us spelling really does matter. And we’ve been dealt a difficult hand by having to write in English – a language with, I suspect, more weird and counterintuitively spelled words than any other spoken today. We try to impose rules to help us – everyone knows “I before E except after C” – but it doesn’t take long for those rules to let us down (and if you read back, you’ll see I used a word breaking that very “rule” in the sentence before this one).

To highlight the absurdities of English spelling, there was a suggestion – often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, the playwright – that the word FISH should be spelled GHOTI:

GH, as in “tough”
O, as in “women”
TI, as in “nation”.

But we’re stuck with English as it is currently spelled. Or are we? Readers in the USA might be feeling slightly smug here, given that they’ve managed to nudge a few words to be spelled a little more like you’d expect them to be on hearing them. So, for example, “theater” instead of “theatre” and “color” instead of “colour”. But even in America you can run into problems. It’s “color”, “flavor” and “harbor”… but not “glamor”, “Glamour” retains the U but is often incorrectly amended to “glamor”. This over-application of a perceived rule in a desire to be correct is given the fancy name “hypercorrection”.

If spelling words correctly isn’t reward in itself, how would you feel if incorrect spelling hit you where it hurts – in your wallet? It can and does happen, on auction sites like eBay. People make errors in describing items for sale – mostly typographical but occasionally through ignorance of the correct spelling. For example, if you try to sell a “Playstasion”, buyers searching for “Playstation” may not find it. And attracting fewer buyers is likely to result in a lower winning bid price.

Whilst it’s great if you can spell correctly straight off as you write or type, all you really need is an awareness of the words you might have got wrong. In the olden days, I would happily use “supercede”, confident that it came from “cede” – to yield. It seemed to make sense – an older version yielding to a newer one. When spell-checkers started putting a red line under “supercede”, I nearly committed that most heinous of crimes – right-clicking and selecting “Add to dictionary”. Fortunately, I saw sense – and checked my old-technology paper Chambers dictionary – in the nick of time. In fact it’s derived from the Latin “sedere” – to sit on; the new version sits on top of the old one.

So “supersede” is forever etched into my cerebral cortex, but – bafflingly – other words just will not stick no matter how many times I use them. These include “occasion”, “prerogative”, “seize” and “minuscule”. I can recognise whether I’ve got them right or not, but only after I’ve typed them in full. “Ocassionally” (sic) must be the word I’ve had to go back and correct the most.

Keen as I am on correct spelling, I wouldn’t advocate the lengths gone to by competitors in the US National Spelling Bee. In the run-up to the contest, 2012 winner Snigdha Nandipati (aged 14) studied 6 to 10 hours a day on weekdays and 10 to 12 hours on weekends. This dedication allowed her to correctly spell “guetapens”, a French-derived word that means “ambush, snare or trap” – thus avoiding a spelling guetapens of her own. The runner-up, Stuti Mishra (also aged 14) stumbled over “schwarmerei”, which means “excessive, unbridled enthusiasm”. Ironically, this quality in respect of Spelling Bees seems to be exactly what you need to win the contest.

The danger of writing an article like this is that I’m liable to fall foul of “Muphry’s Law”. For those not familiar with this variant of “Murphy’s Law”, Muphry’s Law states that:

If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.

So an article about correct spelling is bound to have an incorrectly-spelled word somewhere, right? Apart from the deliberate ones, I mean. Well, I’ve gone over this article a hundred times. Go ahead, you can search as much as you like. I’m not falling into that trap – it’s just not going to hapen.


Now try our bumper Spelling Wordsearch here. The answers can be found here.

Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.


237 Responses to “Going Through a Bad Spell”

  1. Well done on spelling the names of the spellers!

  2. So people in Shaw’s time pronounced ‘women’ properly! Great post, thanks Chris.

  3. What a brilliant article! Masterful. Especially the economic point about spelling.

  4. Oh I do love the article wordsearch double whammy of happiness!

  5. Surely though the ability to interpret words despite random ordering of letters barring first and last is predicated on knowinf the correct spelling to begin with?

    • Interesting point, Hugh. You’d need to know the word – but if you saw “rvceienig” wouldn’t you recognise it as “receiving” even if you thought it was spelled “recieving”? Hmm…

  6. OMG I love that Muphry’s Law is a thing!

  7. Can you explain the misspelled/misspelt debate?

  8. Ha! Muphry’s Law at work in the comments…

  9. You never fail to make stuff I was forced to learn at school and hated now seem interesting, amusing and relevant.

  10. Hapens to the best of us 😉

  11. Glad to know even the greatest of wordnerds has flaws! I always struggle with weird – probably because of that ‘rule’.

  12. Still LOLing at typoglycaemia! Lovely stuff Chris.

  13. You give being a wordnerd a great name!

  14. Loved it from title to typo!

  15. Glad to know even the greatest among us have their issues :-)

    • Ha ha! Oh yes… I’m terrified of making mistakes, Stan. With the advent of spell-checkers, I don’t spend so long looking up spellings. But I waste hours looking up words to check they really mean what I think they mean :-/

  16. Thoroughly enjoyed this. I do find myself wincing at spelling errors. Particularly when they’re my own, spotted too late!

  17. I love your schwarmerei for words. Bless this site!

  18. Thank you for another stellar article and wordsearch!

  19. Oh but why don’t the Americans lose the ‘u’ in ‘glamour’? That’s fascinating!

    • I suppose we need an American to confirm it’s true, but I have it on good authority they do retain the “u”, Syl. Apparently it’s to do with “glamour” being a Scottish word, rather than coming from French or Latin.

  20. I always struggle with parallel. Lovely, thanks Chris.

    • Ahh… I suspect the dreaded “two of one consonant and one of the other but which is which?” problem. Hence my ocassional/occasional angst. You are amongst fellow-sufferers, Alf 😉

  21. So, today I learned I’ve been spelling ‘supercede’ wrong all my life…

  22. Is it incorrect if it’s deliberate? I suspect you of a double bluff, and that there’s another hidden error somewhere… :-)

  23. Hip hip hooray, Hancock’s back to tittilate my mind!

  24. It’s often said we used to be far more variable in our spelling – when did we become sticklers for correctness? I am one myself, but curious as to the origins of pedantry.

    • That’s a very good question, for which I’m afraid I don’t have an answer, Laurence. I’ll do some digging – perhaps the fruits of my research will turn up as an article on here one day 😉

  25. Thank god for you, and your words, and your wordsearch, my sanity is saved!

  26. Cute pic!! And the book of spells is cute too 😉

  27. I often think that spellcheck makes us worse spellers, because we stop using our brains. Great piece, ta!

    • Quite right, Jo. Spellcheckers won’t correct there/their/they’re errors. Nor some typos – I regularly see documents at work with “manger” when they mean “manager”! Thank you! :-)

  28. How does spelling evolve? When will we stop thinking of ‘ur’ as grotesquely wrong?

  29. Oh gorgeous and glorious!

  30. Always such a pleasure reading your words!

  31. Relieved to read a piece about spelling which is neither a diatribe about how annoying pedants are nor a bewailing of the spelling errors this days, but instead a pleasant and pleasing contemplation. A fan!

  32. Oh I’ve missed you on here! Looking forward to tackling your wordsearch.

  33. I’m intrigued – how is the spell as in ‘period of time’ related to spell as in ‘arrangement of letters’?

    • The “period of time” sense seems to be related to substituting something for a limited period, from the Old English spelian “to take the place of,” The “arrangement of letters” sense seems to have done the rounds of old European languages going back to, for example, the Gothic spillon meaning “to talk or tell”. So they both arrived at “spell” from completely different sources, Lila.

  34. Another beautiful treatise on wordnerdery!

  35. Oh good, now I can spend my Friday night with Chris Hancock!

  36. Your columns always raise a smile, thanks!

  37. Oh good, wordsearch just in time for the weekend, and article just in time to brighten my Friday!

  38. Is there a word for physical reactions to bad spelling? In fact, typoglycaemia sounds like it’d fit that :-)

  39. You have such a delightful touch as a writer.

  40. Occassionnally I get it wrong too!

  41. My bugbear is committee. I often rewrite memos to avoid it!

  42. It’d be interesting to test that internal letter muddling with words where the context is ambiguous. I can’t think of a single decent eg of what I mean!

  43. My husband misspelled ‘amorous’ on a Valentine’s card once, then claimed it was intentional, he wanted to see if I loved him enough not to comment.

    I commented!

  44. Great stuff! Will give this to my class on Monday, before I announce the next spelling test.

  45. Another to add to my noticeboard! Brilliant, thank you.

  46. Thanks for the article and mega wordsearch! Geek heaven!

  47. Do other languages teach spelling as ferociously as we do, and have spelling bees?

    • I can’t believe other languages don’t have their equivalent of the Spelling Bee, but the only examples of foreign language Bees I could find were for English-speaking children learning French (say). So I guess they don’t take it as seriously, Tania, but it could also be because I searched using the word “Bee” which they may not use.

  48. Why are they called spelling bees?

    • A “bee” seems to mean a get-together for a specific purpose, though its derivation isn’t very clear, Jinita. The first use of “Spelling Bee” in print dates back to 1825, apparently.

  49. Perfect pleasant read to round off my week, thanks!

  50. Wish I could cast a spell on my students to make them spell better!

  51. Brill article, and really loved your wordsearch. Just wanted to say thanks.

  52. Well I just want to say thanks too, for such a lovely comment. Thanks, Polly! :-)

  53. Fab Friday fare!

  54. Chris, your superb writing shines every time.

  55. Spells of weather, spells to make weather, spelling w-e-a-t-h-e-r…


    • Perhaps there’s an article to be written about homonyms – words spelled the same and pronounced the same, but with different meanings. Thanks for the inspiration, Flor 😉

  56. This site truly is a gem.

  57. Such an interesting piece, so much nuance and thinking and wit.

  58. Right, hubby and I having a wordsearch off, winner gets breakfast in bed :-)

  59. Is there nothing you can’t write about? Genius.

  60. Now you’re going to make me blush, Annie. Thank you! :-)

  61. So wonderful Chris, so glad you started this site, I tell everyone about it.

  62. Discomfort gets me every time. I’m awful at spelling. But you’re great at writing about it!

  63. You have such a fresh new voice, it’s a delight.

  64. Wonder if companies buy misspellings of their names as adwords? Fascinating stuff.

  65. It’s words with hyphens that get me. No-one, no one, colddrink cold-drink cold drink…eeek!

  66. Love the title! Lots of the kids I teach are ‘going through a bad spell’. Just hope they reach the other side!

  67. Maybe some evil witched curses naughty babies with a bad spelling spell!

  68. Smile on my face! Tks!

  69. I once knew an Eleanor Spelt. Of course, you know what we called her.

  70. Some people don’t understand that I can’t help getting worked up about spelling errors – even though I do try and bite my tongue.

  71. Happy read, thanks! But I hope you’re aware we’re still waiting for the next installment of your wordnerd odyssey – what happened after the library days? :-)

  72. Being an Englishwoman in the States I feel I am permanently making spelling errors in someone’s eyes! It’s exhausting.

  73. Beautiful Chris, and so grateful for the wordsearch!

  74. Love it! Kept repeating ‘yes!’ loudly to myself while reading.

  75. I often wondered how much of language is instinctive, and how much learnt?

    • The wonderful Steven Pinker has written a book that puts forward the theory that language is instinctive. But I’m afraid I haven’t read it :-( I guess that language is instinctive, and we just “learn” the exceptions (oddly spelled words, etc.) I’d better read it and find out, Theresa!

  76. Blood pressure raised, and a few giggles!

  77. Simply marvellous! (That’s the one I always get wrong ;-))

  78. Glad to see you’re still the best writer out there on matters wordy.

  79. I am on 98 words…aaaargh!

  80. I once had to stop reading a self published book, on a fascinating topic, because of spelling errors. Thank God for editors.

  81. Lovelly peas, thunks Chres.

  82. Leovd tihs, heevowr I tnhik I wluod go mad…

  83. This really made me happy, thanks.

  84. I never gave too much thought to how spelling works, other than that it grates me when it is wrong. Food for thought, thanks.

    • I thing the point is that spelling *doesn’t* work, Hannah 😉 We try to impose rules and they let us down. I blame all those invaders up to and including William the Conqueror.

  85. One community I’m happy to belong to.

  86. You never disa-dissa- erm, let me down, Chris!

  87. Although some ‘rules’ are bogus, the ‘qu’ is almost always there. I wonder why we’ve not lost the ‘u’? Great article.

  88. You always imbue your articles with such enthusiasm, it’s a joy to read them all.

  89. Bit sarky, that GBS 😀

  90. These days, laziness is about the only reason for bad spelling, there are so many tools to assist.

  91. Some great observations, thanks!

  92. Ooh Chris, I remember the days when only as few of us knew about your charms, now it seems everyone wants a piece of you!

  93. I think your writing talent spells the opposite of disaster.

  94. It’s all been said, but love your writing and your style.

  95. I’m always happy to hear it one more time, Clare. Ha! I jest. Thanks – you are much too kind :-)

  96. A community of oddballs, perhaps? Actually, what IS the collective noun for wordnerds?

  97. I finished it! I did it!

  98. Bit unfair to pick on self published authors as a whole based on the faults of one or two. Spelling is of course vitally important.

    • Fair comment, Hugh. I hope I wasn’t tarring everyone with the same brush. But I have seen mistakes in e-books that could only have got through because no one other than the author has read it. That doesn’t mean that all self-published work is suspect – far from it.

  99. Love it! And all your great pieces! I’d continue to gush, but I think that’s my exclamation mark quota 😉

  100. You’re a great writer, and this is a lovely site!

  101. That’s very kind of you to say so, Jim. Thanks! :-)

  102. An apostrophe of wordnerds?

  103. Do you think we just remember that I before e rule because it rhymes? I think it’s the only rule I know!

  104. Lovely fun, thanks Chris, I’m joining that fanclub.

  105. Hope my son outgrows his bad spell!

  106. All those curious exceptions make English beautiful :-)

  107. Ah, yes, excellent point, Leah. I certainly have reason to agree with you – the endless variety of words gives me something to write about :-)

  108. To Penny: Doh! It had to happen eventually. I was too busy trying to be a clever clogs and putting that exception-to-the-rule “seize” in there, when I should have been proofreading properly. Well spotted, Penny! :-)

  109. Right, I’m off to go look for cheap deals on playstasions!

  110. On an episode of QI they said more words break the i before e rule than follow it.

    • Interesting point. The “rule” is only intended for use where the EI or IE make an “ee” sound, Mary. So hundreds of words like THEIR break the “rule”, but that’s not really what the rule is for. I think they’re applying the rule exactly as we say it, just to get a surprising “fact” for a TV show. That’s my opinion, anyway.

  111. A delightful article by a delightful man.

  112. Spent a happy weekend wordsearching and dipping into your masterly array of articles, luvverly!

  113. Look, Chris. I’m very disappointed. As an English speaker from England, you should know that ‘hypoglycemia’ is the US spelling and therefore it should be ‘hypoglycaemia’ and ‘typoglycaemia’ respectively. *checks obsessively for instances of Muphry’s Law* 😉 Seriously, though, lovely piece.

    • I *know*… I agonised over that but in the end felt compelled to go with the spelling in the English version of Wikipedia – which should, of course, be called Wikipaedia 😉 Thanks, Mandy! :-)

  114. I am going through a bad spell, but an evening spent reading your articles has cheered me up enormously. Thank you for your positivity, and this lovely site.

  115. Trackbacks

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