As any English student can tell you, spelling is a headache and a half. The how and why, for instance, behind all of those extra letters in “although” have mystified generations. Fortunately for you, while we cannot simplify the spelling, we can help you understand exactly why it is so complicated and help you avoid common mistakes. Basically there are two reasons why it’s difficult to come to terms with English spelling and so easy to confuse English words: pedigree and pronunciation.
Pedigree: The Past is Prologue
The English language is a story more than a thousand years in the making. From its origins on an isolated island off the coast of Europe it has spread to nearly every corner of the globe. Along the way it has been shaped by languages as diverse as German, Latin, French and Greek. Not only do each of these languages follow a different set of spelling rules but, over time, would-be reformers have further complicated issues.
For example, it was popular to change the spelling of words to tie them to Latin roots in the 1500s (hence the “b” in subtle and the “p “in receipt), and completely normal to Anglicize foreign words as late at the 19th Century.
Thus, while the spelling of “noodles” in English is no more than German “nudles.” Strudel (a more recent addition to the language) has kept its German spelling. As a result, English spelling is governed by a mixture of rules* which are rivaled in their complexity only by pronunciation itself.
Pronunciation: Just as Hard to Say as to Do
Further complicating the mess made by English spelling is the inconsistent system of pronunciation that governs the language. Though its origins can be attributed to many of the same factors that complicate English spelling, pronunciation is considerably more treacherous.
This is due to the fact that there can be many ways to spell the same sounds and, at the same time, many ways to pronounce the same letters. Thus it is possible to confuse “read” with both “red” and “reed” (depending on present or past tense) and to have two completely different meanings for the word “light.” Some words are so similar that it is easy to confuse (or misuse) them when writing and, worse still, sometimes computer spell check cannot catch these mistakes!
Knowing is Half of the Battle
Fortunately for you there are three main types of commonly confused words and the more you know about each, the better prepared you can be to deal with the (eccentric) effects.
Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings (e.g., sun and son). Although these words may sound the same they are spelled differently and easy to tell apart in writing.
Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings (e.g., bow [for a violin] and bow [for a present]. While all homographs are spelled the same, they are sometimes pronounced different (e.g., bow [as in to curtsey]).
When a homograph is spelled and pronounced the same way but has two different meanings it is referred to as a Homonym. These are words (like rock [stone] and rock [music]) appear identical but have different meanings.
Because of these three culprits many English words are often misused by even the most skillful English speakers. Of course with practice anyone can master the language. Consider, for example, there and their. Once you know that “there” is about location and “their” is a pronoun of possession it should be pretty clear which one of the following sentences is correct:
Incorrect: The angry mother sent the twins to there room.
Correct: The angry mother sent the twins to their room.
While the sentence calls for ownership – the room belongs to the twins – the first example clearly uses the wrong version of this homophone.
As overwhelming as all this might seem, don’t worry because we are here to help! With our Commonly Confused Words Blog Series you can find plenty of examples to help you further improve your spelling and word choice. With a little practice you will improve before you know it.