Spelling It Out

“A man must be a damned fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.”  ~ Nyrum Reynolds **

Even tucked into a thicket of dense, interwoven phrases, the word stood out. Spotting it, I circled back for another look, surprised by what I took to be an obvious misspelling.

It was March, 2009, and the blogger known as Aubrey was considering a bit of milkweed fluff.

Walking to work, I saw a very peculiar thing on the sidewalk.  Its color was soft and meek:  a whimsical fluff, a piece of delicate detritus which had somehow lost its way and now lay defenseless on the granite causeway.

The word that captured my attention was detritus. I’d lived for several decades knowing it as detrius, so my initial inclination was to believe that Aubrey had misspelled it.  Clearly, each of us was using it properly, and our spellings were close, but the different spellings meant different pronunciations — perhaps even different words.

I’d been reading Aubrey long enough to recognize her writing skills and admire her attention to detail, so a little exploration seemed in order. I didn’t expect to be the one who was wrong, but I was open to the possibility.

Consulting the dictionaries, I found them unanimous in their judgment. Detritus, it was. One online dictionary did offer a link to a page for detrius, but visitors to the page were advised pretty quickly that the word they were seeking was detritus.

The internet being what it is, I found more entries for detrius when I used it as a search term. Even so, the results of a Google Fight were clear: detritus won out over detrius by a significant margin: 497,000 entries to 8,510. I wasn’t alone in my misspelling, but clearly I was part of a minority.

As if to reinforce the point, Dr. Goodword showed up in my inbox to advise that it’s detritus which refers to “waste from physical activity of some kind,” perhaps “loose pieces of rock…worn away by rubbing or weathering.” Less concretely, he said, it refers to “leftover debris or waste matter from anything.” As an example, Dr. Goodword suggested that “network talk shows today amount to the detritus of political thought…discarded years ago.” (Dr. Goodword is very smart, and often amusing in his observations.)

After pointing out that the noun associated with detritus is detrition, and that no verb (to detrite) exists, the good Doctor offered a final word of advice: “Just avoid confusing the ending -us on this noun with the more common adjective ending -ous, which is pronounced the same way.”

Humph, I thought. At least I got that right.

Having dismissed detrius as a bit of linguistic detritus, I began to ponder a larger issue. It wasn’t only that I’d misspelled a word. I had done so confidently and consistently, assuming I knew exactly how it should be spelled. What else is lurking in that wordy thicket? I wondered. What other errors am I making on a consistent basis, without even noticing?

It was a conundrum. Since we don’t know what we don’t know, there was nothing to do but cast a more attentive eye on my writing, be a little more cautious, and wait.

The waiting was over sooner than I would have liked. When a kind reader pointed out a typographical error in one of my posts, the slip — an extra n in the word renovation — seemed vaguely familiar. Using the internal search tool WordPress provides, I found three posts and five comments where I’d misspelled both renovation and renovate, adding that extra n in all cases.

As I became more attentive, I began to see a pattern in my errors. Worried about drought, I fussed over dessicated plants that should have been desiccated. That breeze in the trees? I heard it sussurating, when it should have susurrated. When Ebola came to Liberia, I recalled other hemmorhagic fevers, even though I should have described them as hemorrhagic.

During a recent Sunday outing, a friend asked why harvest-ready corn in the fields seemed so short. It might be hybridized, I suggested, or it might have become shorter as it became more desiccated. Then I added, “That’s desiccated. One s and a double c.”  Giving me a look that made clear she thought spelling was the least of my problems, she said, “You don’t have to spell it out for me quite that precisely.”

Laughing, I told her the story of my spelling woes, including my latest hypothesis about their source: that my mother was frightened by double consonants while I still was in the womb.  “Well,” she said, “as hypotheses go, it sure beats an ordinary mental block.”


Despite my humorous suggestion, any tendency to run amok with consonants surely wasn’t the fault of my mother. Dedicated to overseeing daily spelling drills, she taught me more than a few tricks as I prepared for our school’s monthly spelling bees.

Like many American children, I learned to spell Mississippi using the familiar mnemonic (M-i-crooked letter-crooked letter…) The Caribbean became memorable because of the imaginary Carib bean she described. As for tintinnabulation — who better to help me remember that one, than the faithful Rin Tin Tin?

How I overcame other double consonant challenges — embarrass, millennium, resurrection, zucchini — I can’t say. But when I’m sitting at my desk, reaching yet again for the dictionary to double-check embarrass, assassin, or renovation, I experience a remarkable truth: even a single word can become its own spelling bee.

When it happens, I smile to remember my mother, sitting with other parents near the back of our classroom, clasping her right forefinger with her left hand: a life-long, nervous gesture whose force belied her calm demeanor.

The word I’ve been given is irrelevant, for every word is a journey, each consonant, each vowel, a bridge to meaning or an obstacle to understanding.  Should husks of misspelled words lie strewn about the floor, the inevitable detritus of a learning process, no matter. Every attempt is exciting, each new word opens yet another door, and every achievement brings joy, for mother and daughter alike. Faith Shearin understands, and expresses it well.

In the spelling bee my daughter wore a good
brown dress and kept her hands folded.
There were twelve children speaking
into a microphone that was taller than
they were. Each time it was her turn
I could barely look. It wasn’t that I wanted
her to win but I hoped she would be
happy with herself. The words were too hard
for me; I would have missed chemical,
thermos, and dessert. Each time she spelled
one correctly my heart became a bird.
She once fluttered so restlessly beneath
my skin and, on the morning of her arrival,
her little red hands held nothing.
Her life since has been a surprise: she can
sew; she can draw; she can read. She hates
raisins but loves science. All the parents
must feel this, watching from the cheap
folding chairs. Somewhere inside them
love took shape and now
it stands at the microphone, spelling.
Swati Sharma wins  the 2013 San Antonio Express-News’ Regional Spelling Bee

** This quotation, in various forms, has been attributed to Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, and others. For an exploration of its source, visit The Quote Investigator. For more on Faith Shearin, whose poem “Spelling Bee” is quoted above, please click here.
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130 thoughts on “Spelling It Out

    1. It’s good there are a variety of tools to use, DM. I still prefer close reading and a dictionary, but that’s just me. I have learned to be very, very cautious about online dictionaries. Some are good, some are excellent, and some clearly have been put together by people who have even less of a clue than we do.


          1. I’ve just been over at the forums, trying to decide if Armageddon’s on the way as far as the full dashboard editor is concerned. I didn’t find an answer to that, but I did discover that their new, improved editor — the one Lynda found so distressing — has eliminated both spellcheck and a word count function. On the upside, it does offer spinning balls and “beep beep boop” when you log in.

  1. This is a simply wonderful post, and I love that poem! I can’t begin to count the times I’ve had to go check is it one xxx or two before including a word in a post. And now that I’m writing about things Finnish, oy! What a language!

    1. Isn’t it a wonderful poem? It just happened to show up in the Writer’s Almanac after this post already had been started. It amazed me that it so beautifully captured aspects of my own experience with my mother, and with our spelling bees.

      There are a few words I always have to check — always. “Connoisseur” is one. I know the etymology, I know the meaning. I never get it right. But my goodness — you should see some of the spellings online! Even I can do better than that.

      Foreign names or technical passages can be really tough, too. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in first grade, working a letter at a time. I was thinking about that when I read “Reality Demands” again tonight, and tried to figure out the poet’s name. It’s hard to remember a spelling when you can’t figure out the pronunciation.


  2. I laughed at this one—for me, the more I use a word in print, the less it looks correct even if it is. The double consonant is a pretty common mistake.

    I loved Faith Shearin’s poem. It is ALL mothers watching and holding their breath until their brilliant child pops out the correct answer. They are US after all.

    We watch the National Spelling Bee every May and I can’t spell any of the words or even pronounce them. Oh well, I’m an art teacher, not an English teacher.

    1. Isn’t that a strange phenomenon, Kayti? The suddenly unrecognizable common word? They don’t even have to be difficult to pronounce or hard to spell. Another of life’s little mysteries. I suspect we’ve all experienced it, though.

      There were two lines in particular where Shearin stopped me.One was,

      “It wasn’t that I wanted
      her to win but I hoped she would be
      happy with herself.”

      That made me think of so much youth competition these days, where it seems the point is to make the parent happy or proud, whatever the cost to the child. The other line is,

      “The words were too hard
      for me; I would have missed chemical,
      thermos, and dessert.”

      All of the longing, hope and self-acceptance of an ordinary parent are in those words. I find them immensely touching.

      Out of curiosity, I went back to see what Swati Sharma spelled to win her contest. After breezing through words like “bezoar”, she rolled to victory on “wafflestomper.” I hadn’t a clue that wafflestompers are hiking boots with patterned soles. Now we know.


          1. I have a suspicion you were typing on one of those gadgets. A friend who got a new smartphone substituted lpl for lol so many times she made a joke of it, and started using lpl on a regular basis. Thus do creative spellings insinuate themselves into our lives…

        1. You and Van Gogh! I’ve always loved his paintings of shoes and boots. I’m anxious to see your sculpture, and I love that you had a pair of wafflestompers. Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me in the least.

            1. I just sent you an email. Send me the photo that way, and I can link it here. WordPress doesn’t allow images in comments, as far as I know. I have seen a couple, but I don’t know how they managed to do it.

      1. I’ve been trying to think of the word which won the Bee several years ago. It got quite a laugh when it was first mispronounced as a pejorative description. The word was “numnah”, which is a small blanket used under the saddle. Though we have been around horses for many years, I had never heard the word. As you say: now we know.

        1. I do believe I know the mispronounced version of the word, as well. I might even have used it a time or two, given that it’s so descriptive.

          On the other hand, I’d never heard “numnah”. I took a quick peek and saw it was brought to England from India, which makes sense. Apparently one place it pops up is on the Pony Club tests in England!

  3. This made me smile in recognition. Funny you should use zucchini as an example. That double c has me buffaloed. Vacuum is another. Double u? Who would have thunk it,” my mother would quip.

    Although I got good grades in spelling, I have no memory of her quizzing me…surprising since she was the guardian of correct grammar, reminding me into her 90’s about the proper use of personal pronouns. When she thought I finally had a grip on it, she died (at 101).

    Beautifully written as always.

    1. Martha, I’m sure I remember you writing about, or at least referring to, your mother’s role as self-appointed grammar guardian. I’m going to go back and take a look, because I remember a sense of recognition when I read your piece.

      I laughed at this: “When she thought I finally had a grip on it, she died…” Back in the day, there was a syndicated radio show out of Chicago called “Chicken Man.” It was a parody of Superman, of course. Whenever the hero had vanquished the bad guy or resolved a nasty situation, he’d say, “My work here is done.” Strange that your story about your mom should pry that memory loose, but there we are.

      I still have trouble with zucchini. When I was skimming the comments, I saw you and Steve both making reference to the word, and my anxiety level shot sky-high. I was just sure I’d misspelled it in my post. (I was going to say I panicked, but that’s a word I try to avoid at all costs. None of the forms look right to me. Better to say, “I experienced panic.” I had a funny poster I was going to use in the post, and then decided it didn’t fit. You can see it here.


    1. Have you taken a spin through the comment sections of certain online sites recently? Some of us don’t spell very much correctly. Twitter doesn’t count, of course, but nearly every site that allows comments has its share of entries that leave me amazed or stricken, depending.

      I still remember the placard in Mrs. Deutsch’s 8th grade English class: “Inaccurate Spelling Leads to Impoverished Thought.” Even reading the words here makes me quiver and want to say, “Yes, ma’am.”


  4. Online and other dictionaries help, but there are so many homophones that mistakes are easy to make even when a word is spelled “correctly.” I look things up regularly and am frequently surprised. And there are words I ALWAYS struggle with, so I just know I have to look them up.

    Enjoyed this. Thanks as always.

    1. I smiled at your reference to homophones, Melanie. One of the funniest, yet saddest, language stories I’ve heard of late concerns the Utah media specialist who was fired from his school for using “homophone” in a blog post.

      The fellow’s boss, Clarke Woodger, said, “Some people might think that a blog on homophones has something to do with homosexuality.” Later, Mr. Woodger admitted he hadn’t looked the word up to determine its meaning. And by the way — the teacher/blogger was fired from the Nomen Global Language Center. Ah, life.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. There are a lot of us looker-uppers out here.


  5. I staged a Google fight for the correct zucchini versus the incorrect zuchinni that I’ve sometimes seen on signs in grocery store produce departments, and the results were:

    zucchini: 12,600,000
    zuchinni: 7,890,000

    Seems like the bad penny is threatening to drive out the good one here.

      1. Now I am laughing. I’m sure you’ve written about metathesis in your language blog, and you mentioned it in a comment here about a year ago, saying, “Sashay arose as a metathesis, which is a fancy name for switching sounds around in a word. The original was the French word chassé, which came to be used in the United States to describe the kind of gliding step common in square dancing.” Still, I hardly can get “metathesis” or “metathesized” out of my mouth. It literally feels like my early struggles with “thi-thel.”

        I read the Wiki on metathesis, and found a discussion of ask and ax, which I think you’ve mentioned. I found our old grade school confusion between cavalry and Calvary, too. That one caused no end of trouble in Sunday School.

        1. Had you discovered linguistics as a child, you might have told your friends about metathethith.

          Westerns were very popular in the 1950s, and there were a lot of Catholic kids in my neighborhood on Long Island, so I was well aware of the Calvary ~ cavalry confusion.

    1. Isn’t Google Fight fun? I discovered it several years ago, but hadn’t thought of it in ages. And grocery stores — any stores, really — are gold mines if you’re searching for bad grammar and misspellings.

      I may have mentioned one of the great victories of my life. I persuaded the manager of a local grocery to change the signs on their express lanes from “15 Items or Less” to “15 Items or Fewer.”

      I really don’t think of myself as the Grammar Police, but it irked me beyond reason. The best part of the story is that a staff member and friend in the floral department told me they had the reason for the change explained to them in team meetings.

      We do what we can.


  6. I have always thought the word detritus referred to dried up insect parts on our floors and furniture; tiny remnants of bugs we can’t see with the naked eye…boy, was I wrong. And to think I’ve lived with this incorrect notion for years. Now I wonder where in the world it came from.

    1. Well, you’re not completely wrong, Monica. Detritus certainly could refer to insect parts on the floor. It’s just not so limited in its meaning.

      It’s a mystery how we learn certain things, isn’t it? So much learning takes place informally, with no “teacher” in sight and no designated curriculum to follow. When I found detritus in Aubrey’s blog and truly saw the word for the first time, it was an almost physical shock. I suppose the fact that I still remember the experience after five years is proof of that.


  7. Used to be, the irrefutable authority was Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Now a declining number of people even know what that is, and anyhow a word of more than three letters doesn’t fit well into a text message.

    1. Long ago, I purchased the one-volume Oxford English Dictionary. It came with its own quite necessary magnifying glass, since, as I recall, eight or nine pages from the original were smooshed into one. It was such fun to use. The magnifying glass made me feel like Sherlock Holmes as I searched out the meaning of words.

      Eventually, I stopped using it because it just was too hard to read. But it’s clearly time for a new “real” dictionary — just for fun. We read encyclopediae and dictionaries for fun as kids. It wasn’t nearly so strange as people might think today.


    1. I’ve explored several of the resources you list at your Spanish-English Word Connections , but somehow missed OneLook. It was fun to explore that list, and to see how many sources for English words I recognized.

      Over the past weeks, I’ve concluded there would be a couple of explanations for my adoption of “detrius.”

      I might have missed the second “t” when I first came across the word, especially if I was skimming a passage. Or, I might have heard it pronounced as “detrius,” accepted it, and transferred the sound to the written word whenever I came across it. Aubrey’s use of detritus may have been the first instance I encountered after I started to write and pay more attention to words.

      Speaking of your Word Connections blog, that looks like an interesting tutorial in your current comment section. I’m looking forward to reading it all.

  8. I often look it up, if not for spelling then for meaning. I have so many wonderful words in my head and they often just flow out the keyboard and onto my screen. Then I get nervous about whether or not I have used it correctly (don’t want to be the malaprop queen now do I?)

    Which incidentally sent me on a search for the correct spelling because spell check didn’t like it when I remembered and spelled the word “malaprompt”. BTW, it is now spelled correctly and spell check still has a problem with it. Furthermore, in the very same sentence I have used the word whether, which always sends me round the bend for spelling.

    Pet peeve? Odd plurals such as knife and knives. If knife is knives, then why doesn’t roof become rooves, or hoof become hooves? Then there is the matter of dwarf. Being a Tolkein fan for many a year I had gone under the assumption that dwarf followed the knife rule and thus was dwarves. Not so! It is dwarfs. In my mind dwarves were the plural form for funny short men with big beards, and the word dwarfs meant that the size of one object made another seem small by comparison. Nope! Tolkein misspelled it and he should have known better!

    Will there be a no harm no foul clause for me if I confess that I actually perpetuated this error in my classroom with my first and second graders? I do hope, now they’re grown up, they will not remember all that I taught them as suspect based on my use of a Tolkeinized plural dwarf spelling.

    1. I looked in several dictionaries and each one gave both dwarfs and dwarves as the plural. Rooves was an old plural that has largely given way to roofs, but interestingly the Collins English Dictionary gives only the spelling roofs yet allows it to be pronounced as roofs or rooves.

    2. No harm, no foul, it is, Lynda, all the way around!

      I always thought Mrs. Malaprop was delightful, but I’ve had the same experience: put the word on the page with absolute certainty, then suddenly have not a clue whether or not it’s right. That’s when the whole mental system freezes up.

      It makes me think of a story from childhood about the centipede found in a ditch. He was just lying there, immobile, when a passing critter asked, “What are you doing?” The centipede said, “I started thinking about which foot should go first, and now I can’t walk!”

      Still, whether it’s spelling, punctuation, or grammar, it’s worth the effort. Hemingway had it right. It’s a version of “know the rules, then break them.”

      I’ve never had much trouble with things like odd plurals. People aren’t consistent, so why should words be? The dwarfs/dwarves pairing did tickle me, though. I’ve always used dwarfs because of Snow White and her seven.

      As for Tolkien, he DID know better. He made a conscious choice to go with dwarves, in order to parallel elf/elves. I found this, which is enormously interesting.

      “According to Tolkien, the “real ‘historical'” plural of dwarf is dwarrows or dwerrows. He referred to dwarves as “a piece of private bad grammar”. In Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings it is explained that if we still spoke of dwarves regularly, English might have retained a special plural for the word dwarf as with goose/geese. Despite Tolkien’s fondness for it, the form dwarrow only appears in his writing as Dwarrowdelf, a name for Moria.”

      So – it seems Tolkien knew dwarfs was the preferred form, but he made a choice for dwarves. And now I know more about The Lord of the Rings than I ever have before!


      1. You always go the extra mile, Linda, and never disappoint. My husband enjoyed your reply and references as well. Dwarrows or dwerrows? I can see why it was shortened.

        I recall from past conversation that Tolkien was not your cup of tea, but perhaps some day you will read TLOTR and enjoy its enchantment.

        Much of the language I learned and used as a child is now forgotten. It came from my German grandfather and would be considered archaic. One that readily comes to mind is clumb, as past tense for climb. I find the use of climbed to be cumbersome and fall into a pattern of overuse of the suffix -ed.

        And while I know that language is a living and changing thing, I nonetheless hold close those old words and the memories of those who used them.

        1. I think it’s wonderful that you cherish and cling to those old words. Certain words recall my parents and grandparents in very specific ways.

          Beyond that, the more words we have at our disposal, the richer our experience, don’t you think? I remember telling someone I’m not fond of blue. Then, I turned right around and said, “But I do like turquoise, cerulean, azure, teal…” If the only words we have to describe how we feel are “happy” and “sad,” that’s sad. And so on.

          I don’t mind that language changes, but I hate that ours is being manipulated and reduced. It’s time to send all the Humpty-Dumpties packing. Remember this passage?

          “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
          “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
          “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

  9. And you’ve not even been brave enough to mention the difference between American and British English!

    I’m simply glad that language is constantly evolving/changing as it provides that wonderful excuse for difference.

    By the way, I had always thought it WAS hooves for the plural of hoof.

    1. You know what’s amusing, eremophila? Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve done more reading of people for whom British English is natural. Words that used to stop me in my tracks, like “whilst”, are familiar now, and I even catch myself occasionally coming forth with words like “theatre,” “dialogue,” and such. Now and then I find I’ve used a British form and correct it, just for the sake of consistency.

      And, yes. I’ve lived my life among cattle and horses that have hooves. Speaking of British English, this piece on Wikipedia suggests that either hoofs or hooves is acceptable. Look at the section on non-regular plurals at the very end, and you’ll find dwarf, hoof, elf, roof, staff, and turf clustered in a group.


  10. So glad that you, too, have spelling woes. Spelling, spelling, it’s a tricky business and, as eremophila comments, there is also the difference between American and British English. I end up being thoroughly confused.

    For a bit of fun with words and spelling, you may enjoy my daughter’s latest poem on her Ousel site. It’s called the Ballade of the Bee. And, with reference, to her blog, she asked me to thank you for your kind comment on her short story. Her condition makes it difficult for her to respond to comments fully, but she is delighted that you took the time to read the story not once, but twice. It is one of the few longer pieces that she has written that she still likes!

    1. It is a tricky business, Gallivanta. That’s a perfect description. The exceptions may or may not prove the rule, but they certainly can cause trouble. All in all, I’m a good speller, so it surprised me to find such a cluster of consistent errors. I suppose that’s what made this whole experience worth pondering and writing about. A typo’s just a typo, but a group of words all misspelled in the same way? That’s interesting.

      I’ve looked at your daughter’s poem. I’m going to need to read it a few more times, partly because I lack the background to grasp all the allusions. Oh, how I wish you’d been with us at the Brazoria Wildlife Preserve the day the bumblebees were out. Your daughter’s poem is high art. My imitation of a bumblebee was not, but we gained an hour’s worth of hysterical laughter from it.

      I do understand the difficulty of responding. At minimum, it takes energy. On another level, it requires a degree of interaction she might prefer to avoid for the time being. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I will be reading and commenting — partly because I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, and partly because I still remember what it was like in the very early days of my blog, when one or two comments could be greatly encouraging


      1. I would love to be at the Brazoria Wildlife Preserve and not just for the bumblebees. And, as for my daughter’s poems, I also miss many of her allusions. :( But what I do understand is that she likes to play with words, as did/do many poets.

        1. Your daughter’s poem is a delight. I finally slowed down this morning and studied it a bit. We were limited to Do-Bees and Don’t-Bees when I was a kid. I much prefer the Humble and Bumble bees!

            1. Ah, I see. Do Bees, Don’t Bees with Miss Nancy. The problem is not so much age, methinks, but that I grew up in Fiji, which had no TV. I had limited TV exposure on visits to New Zealand and then during my boarding school years in NZ from 1969. So I expect we can make that a culture strike!

  11. I’m always leaving the “w” out of “sword.” I have spellchecker turned on, on both my blog and in Word that helps me keep a tight reign on my spelling — that and the fact that it’s so easy to just make a new tab and google for any word on which the spellchecker and I disagree. It comes from a 27-year career of medical transcription when every word must be spelled accurrately (“discrete” versus “discreet”).

    If a word I’m writing has a homonym, I try to put the wrong one. “Their” instead of “There” or “meat” instead of “meet” — which can change the meaning of a sentence in interesting and alarming ways. One pronunciation rule I learned helps with spelling, too — doubling the consonant shortens the vowel — hence the difference between “diner” and “dinner” — which helps me remember when to double the consonant before adding “-ed” or -ing.”

    Your comment about “no verb “detrite'” made me LOL. Guess what about half the doctors I’ve transcribed think the verb form of “adhesion” is? — “Adheeze” rather than “adhere” — and these are guys with over 6 years of college! There seems to be a tendency in America to make a verb from a noun — which is called “back formation.” (So many people have back-formed “orientate” from “orientation,” that it’s now is in the dictionary (‘see “orient”) — and is also one of my pet peeves)

    Of course, one of the big problems with English spelling is that the invention of the printing press caught us in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift (1355-1700), when the English were still sorting out the mixture of Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman French that was their native language, the grammar was becoming simplified (shifting from an agglutinative to more of a syntactic system) and the pronunciation was being averaged out and simplified. (The main reason reason words that rhymed in Shakespeare’s day don’t anymore.) The printing press forced the standardization of spelling before these shifts in pronunciation and grammar were complete — which is why we still spell words like “through,” “neighbor” and “light” the way we do, even though we haven’t pronounced them that way in 600 years! Compare the Lord’s Prayer in the Middle English spoken in Chaucer’s day, some 300 years after the Norman Conquest, with the King James version (1611) of Shakespeare’s day. The coming of the printing press caught us right in the middle of the two.

    1. I did have to smile when you mentioned your tendency to leave the “w” out of sword. I can’t remember the last time I wrote sword. I think it might have been a few years ago, when I mentioned Damocles, the Fates, and so on. But isn’t it interesting that, even when we know we have a tendency to misspell a word, it still can get right past us.

      Your mention of the good doctors and their fondness for “adhese” reminded me of that oldie but goodie, discombobulation. Combobulate’s being used now, for blog titles, among other things, but for me it’s still part of that fun group that includes peccable, gruntled, sung heroes and ruly behavior.

      On the other hand, here’s a gem from the Milwaukee airport. I suppose it was inevitable. If we can have recombinant DNA, can recombobulation be far behind?


    2. I just made use of my new favorite site, The Grammarist, this morning. You may know of it, but it’s such fun to explore. I just learned about eggcorns and mondegreens, but they have every sort of wonderful entry about colloquialisms, capitaiization, homophones, and so on. I think you’ll like it.

  12. Just this morning I had to check on cyclical. For some reason the comp didn’t want to accept it. I was spelling champ of my school in eighth grade, such as it was, so spelling is very dear to my heart. I am oh so grateful for the quick way to check it here on the internet, but my heart still belongs to hardbound dictionaries for spelling, pronunciation, and possible meanings, Merriam Webster always a favorite. It’s the correct pronunciation that has sometimes been a bugaboo for me. My very early pronunciation of ‘inevitable’ is somewhat memorable.

    I sat through a spelling bee for my younger son a whole lot of years ago, but I remember it was the wrong presence (presents) that put him out in the last round.

    I love Faith Shearin’s poetry.

    1. I love that you had some of those memorable pronunciations, too. My parents teased me with mine for decades. There weren’t so many, but they always made us laugh: towel, wolf, thistle, whistle. I don’t remember being asked to say, “wolf whistle,” but I’ll bet it happened, and it would have been pretty funny.

      You were a spelling champion! I suspect you developed your vocabularly early, as well, and I know you loved reading. Your poetry is so fine. Did you write in your early years, too?

      I have a cousin who’s a mechanical engineer, and who taught math for a time. He never would allow calculators in his classroom — slide rules, only. He always said the kids needed to know how to use the real thing. That’s a little like I feel about a hardbound dictionaries and such. But there are some fine sites for exploration beyond simple definitions. We have the best of both worlds.

      I’m not surprised you enjoy Faith Shearin’s work. When the poem came up in the Writers’ Almanac, I thought of you. I’m sure it brought your son’s spelling bee to your mind.


  13. Wonderful post, Linda. While reading it, I found myself wondering why your “Word” software doesn’t point out those misspelled words? Maybe you’re a purist, preferring, rather, as you note, to consult your old faithful dictionary?

    Nowadays, while I write, I’m discovering that I’ve forgotten how to spell some words without a stumble, second guessing myself as often as once a paragraph. To a writer, it’s very disconcerting to feel as though I’m losing the skills I displayed in school as an excellent speller and A+ writer.

    And by the way, my first exposure to the word in question was when I started moving around in the wetland restoration circles, listening to scientists. The first time I heard the word, detritus, I don’t think I’d ever seen it in writing or ever heard it before. It is one of those words reserved for and used by those more intelligent than I on the things of waste and decay!

    Lastly, we have enjoyed the mildest week of unseasonable weather for August I ever recall. How’s it been down your way? Bayou Woman

    1. Well, it’s confession time. I don’t use spell check, and I don’t use Word. I make notes or outline pieces with paper and pen, and do most of my composing with the WP editor. I’m in the process of saving all my blog posts as Word docs, but now that WP has introduced their so-called “distraction free writing,” it’s even better. If only they could do something about telemarketers and cats.

      I have explored Scrivener, and if I move toward longer pieces, or other sorts of projects, I think it would be useful. I’ve heard great things about it, and I think it would suit me. I don’t work in a linear fashion, so something that let me tack up “notes,”, work on segments, and so on, would be really good. In the meantime, it’s a keyboard and a dictionary. No quill pens, though. I’m not that much of a throwback.

      I have a feeling you’re not losing your skills. You’re just distracted. There’s a lot going on, and focus is hard in the best of circumstances. I remember when Mom still was with me. If I was at work, I felt as though I ought to be at home. If I was tending to things at home, I worried about things at work. It wouldn’t surprise me to know you’re dealing with the same sort of push-pull. Trust me — your mind is fine!

      Detritus isn’t a common word, that’s for sure. It’s a useful one, though. When I find a new word, I try to find ways to use it. Right now, it looks like I could use it to describe my kitchen. Maybe my patio, for that matter. Never let a good word go to waste!


  14. A most enjoyable post, Linda. I’d never seen detrius and, knowing your meticulous nature, would’ve thought it was a new-to-me-term. Detritus came into my vocabulary early and I’d assumed it was common enough until I was accused of using “fancy words” more than once.

    In my industry, the number of non-native speakers has long been in the majority and their creative spelling, punctuation, and capitalization has prepared me for the vagaries of modern life But I have to say, I think my spelling has gotten worse over the years.

    1. Well, there you have it, nikkipolani. I can be flat wrong. The good news is, once we know we’re wrong, we can make it right.

      By any chance, did you learn “detritus” as a result of obtaining that Chinese flame tree? Those pods scattered hither and yon certainly fit the definition!

      It isn’t just non-native speakers who spell differently. One of the delights I’ve found while reading journals and correspondence from the past — even from my own family members — has been that “creative spelling.” Despite what we might call errors, the meaning still is perfectly obvious — and that’s what counts, don’t you think?


  15. Where did I read that all you need in the English language is about the significant number of letters and approximately the first and last correct. (whew! spellcheck let that slide – I don’t have Phrasecheck).

    When I bothered people “overseas” it occurred to me that the reason the English language is dominant is that it can be mangled to one’s heart’s content and still deliver some meaning.
    Don’t try that in Portuguese.
    (The spelling of Portuguese courtesy of “Collins CANADIAN English Dictionary”)

    1. Oh, do I have something for you, Ken. It’s not Monbiot, but it’s still pretty interesting — an article about the so-called Cambridge Word Scramble Study, which I think is what you’re talking about. Despite a few years’ worth of people wandering around saying, “It doesn’t matter about spelling, because you can figure it out no matter how it’s spelled,” and using this as proof, there are some dissenting voices. This is one of them.

      Portuguese is one I’d have to look up, every time. But I had no idea there was such a thing as a Collins Canadian English Dictionary. So you folks have trouble spelling, too – eh?


  16. G’day Linda
    Loved the post and Faith Shearin’s poem.

    I learned British English where I went to school and even though I’ve been living in North America for several decades now I’m still stumped by American spelling eg colour vs color, theater vs theatre, recognize vs recognise, and whether its zucchini or zuchinni, and does that taste any different from a courgette?

    love rosie

    1. Rosie! It’s delightful to see you. I was thinking about you when I learned that delightful little girl I showed in this post won her spelling bee with “wafflestompers.” I’d not heard the word, and didn’t know they were hiking boots, but when I saw Kayti’s, I thought, “Rosie could make good use of those on her hiking trails.”

      I just learned the word “courgette” this year, and was amazed to find it’s our plain old zucchini. Curious that the British and New Zealanders use the word, but that it’s French. Whatever it’s called, I’m looking forward to making use of the ones I got at the market yesterday.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post — and yes, Faith Shearin is a memorable poet.


  17. My goodness! I’m not the only one that has spelling woes. I must check a hard copy dictionary or online one daily and I still slip up.

    Isn’t it funny how you will spell something right the first time but it looks odd and the more you look at it, the more wrong it looks?

    On another note, I have discovered in the past year that I’ve been mispronouncing a number of words for who knows how long. Very embarrassing, to say the least, though I did have the excuse of not being able to hear the correct pronunciations to start off with. (Or had forgotten)

    I’m sure I’ll find there are more mispronounced words in my lexicon that I haven’t run across yet.

    I guess I should have used the dictionary more often for the correct pronunciations but I was sure I was right , so why would I look it up?

    Oddly enough, I was seldom corrected.

    1. Gué, as one of my friends liked to say, the only difference between us and people who have no problems is that we admit ours.

      And isn’t it the truth that online and hard copy dictionaries belong together? The online sources are quick, and now that I’ve found some more trustworthy sites, usually do perfectly well. But especially when I’m reading, I don’t want to head for the computer to check a word. I’d much rather flip open the dictionary.

      Your troubles with pronunciation aren’t at all surprising. And not looking words up because you thought you were right? That made me laugh out loud. It’s another great example of “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

      That applies in so many ways, of course, and the truth is, that’s what I intended to write about when I started this post, some weeks ago. Remember our talk about my moment of truth at the doctor’s office, when I discovered how many things I didn’t know about changes due to Obamacare? I made some bad decisions because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I got educated, fast. Live and learn, as they say.

      I came across one of those words that turned into gobbledygook the more I looked at it yesterday. I meant to write it down, so I could remember it, but it’s gone. I’m sure there will be another!

      By the way… You’ll love this entry on eggcorns and mondegreens.


  18. This was such a wonderful post! Spelling is NOT my strong point—but the word that has me “flumoxxed” (Not right, I’m sure) is ANYWAY. I grew up using the word as “ANYWAY, I…..blah blah blah…..”.

    Then I began hearing some people use the word, “ANYWAYS”…..(What??) It sounded so wrong to me. I thought maybe it is the way certain people learned this word—BUT, it is wrong! I looked it up in the Dictionary…back in 2006-07….and “ANYWAYS” was there, as well as “ANYWAY”.

    “ANYWAYS” will always sound wrong to me, and doesn’t make any sense to me, having learned the original “ANYWAY”, as a child, and using it for over 70 plus years…..”ANYWAYS” sounds like bad English, to me……Go figure!

    What’s your take on this, my dear Wordsmith??

    1. Oh, do I have a treasure for you, my friend! My new favorite site, the Grammarist, just happens to have a page devoted to this very issue: anyway vs. anyways. They lay out their case for both being correct, with reasons and with examples from well-known publications such as the “Atlantic” magazine and the “NY Times.”

      I suppose it’s the old story. What’s acceptable in conversation, or in writing that seeks to convey an informal tone, just doesn’t cut it in more formal writing or presentations. But even if they say it’s ok, it still sounds wrong to me, too.

      And by the way — welcome to my double consonant club! I didn’t have a clue about “flumoxxed.” So, I went looking, and discovered the correct spelling is “flummoxed.” It’s the mirror image of the error I was making — doubling a first consonant when there should only have been one.

      Let’s face it. Being flummoxed by spelling is a common occurence!


  19. You have your fingers on the pulse of many of us who care about spelling, accuracy and well, just making a favorable impression. I remember it was here on your site I first came across “detritus.” I distinctly remember looking it up before the move so it had to have been a Webster’s dictionary that explained its meaning to me, although I had a hunch about its meaning through context.

    From years ago, I still remember the word that struck several spellers including me out of our 6th grade tournament: brochure. We spelled it every which way and never came close making it very complicated (can you believe bro-siere?) or overly simple (bro-sure). Why and how do I remember that kind of stuff? I remember how the world “dumbbell” struck our older daughter out, and then I hardly know where to turn when it comes to “canceled” or “cancelled” as I constantly see both spellings. My preference is the former since a rule I use is that we double the consonant of a stressed syllable, not an unstressed syllable, when adding an -ed or -ing ending.

    A poem that brought my Dutch grandmother to laughter with tears in her eyes about the English language pronunciation and spelling is the following: “The Chaos”
    by G. Nolst Trenite’ a.k.a. “Charivarius” 1870 – 1946

    Dearest creature in creation
    Studying English pronunciation,
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse…

    I’m sorry. Just like spelling problems, I still haven’t learned the formula for laying a link into a comment box which would have been very useful above.

    1. The full poem is wonderful, Georgette! I did laugh, and I can imagine your grandmother enjoying it even more. I added the link for you, and sent along an email showing how to insert a link. You’ll find it easy enough, but if you’ve got questions, let me know.

      I’ve used detritus here at least a couple of times, and maybe more, since learning about it. I try to do that when I’ve learned a new (or re-learned an old) word. Sometimes it doesn’t “take” the first time, and I have to make another run at it. But that’s the way education works, I suppose.

      Thoreau was probably speaking of something more grand than spelling, but his words are just as true for our more pedestrian learning projects, too.

      “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

      As for canceled and cancelled, that seems to be an American/British English thing, but both are acceptable. One of my favorite sites, Grammarist, happens to have a page devoted to the issue. I’m constantly doing searches devoted to usage (farther or further? which or that?) and the Grammarist is a great help. (And don’t miss the comment section!)


  20. Wonderful in every way! You probably know that the MarmElade Gypsy is misspelled… but after I realized it, it was too far gone and confusing to change! I like to pretend I’m spelling it the foreign way as I often do Labour or colour — but I don’t think those on the other side of the pond are fooled. Not observant, perhaps — but not fooled!

    We didn’t have pre or nursery school so when I was wee my mom would stand beside the large chalkboard in our kitchen and draw the letters and we’d go over the sounds and how they went together– basically, phonics but to me it was a game. When I was in the Palomino reading group, I thought nothing of it. It was only later that I learned those were the best readers. Usually spelling came with that — I sure wish I’d remembered with marmelade…!

    1. I see both marmelade and marmalade so often I never thought of it, Jeanie. But you have reminded me of a very old, very silly joke from the 1940s and early 1950s. I learned it from my mother, and it helped me remember how to spell that first part of the Gypsy’s name.

      Q: What did the baby chick say when he found an orange in his nest?
      A: Oh! Look at the orange Marma laid!

      Isn’t that silly? That was the era of riddles like “Why did the boy throw the clock out of the window? He wanted to see time fly.” But those were our days, and some of the silliness helped us learn.

      I’ve never heard of the Palomino readers. I tried looking them up, but found only RVs, an assortment of bars (including one in Milwaukee) and a library in Scottsdale. Well, and horses. But if you have good memories of them, they must have been good. What I do know is that we learned through a phonetical approach, too, and it was great fun. If I’d slowed down enough to sound out detritus, I might have discovered my own error!


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, nia. I think the amazing people were the teachers and parents who helped us enjoy learning. The best part is — we still can learn!


  21. I typed the word sheriff this morning, and as always, gave it two Rs and one F. I always do that. I know it’s wrong as soon as I see it, but for some reason, I have to see it.

    As a relative newcomer to Canada, I’m still trying to adjust to their penchant for double letters: cancelled, travelling, busses as the plural of bus. Jewelry here is spelled jewellery, but pronounced the same way. There’s a local store sign that has it with three Ls, but almost no one has noticed.

    1. I’d never thought about the British custom of doubling consonants until I explored canceled/cancelled after Georgette’s comment up above. I suppose I’d seen the doubling, and either assumed it was a misspelling, or read right past it.

      It was quite a surprise when I learned there’s such a thing as a Canadian English dictionary. I suppose Canadian English draws heavily on British English, but of course there are the French, and those pesky Americans across the border.

      As for your jewelllry shop, my first thought was that it has to be a sort of monogram, a reflection of the owner’s initials. My middle name is Lee, which gives me three “Ls” to work with, as on my business card. On the other hand, an inattentive sign maker’s just as reasonable. Leave it to you, to notice!


  22. Linda, This has been one of the most entertaining posts I’ve read in some time. I’ve learned so much from you as well as from all the comments here. What fun!

    I would like to share with you the World Wide Words site. It is great for finding obscure word and phrase meanings. Perhaps you will enjoy it as much as I have over the years.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Lynda. I never would have imagined writing a post about spelling, but I think it worked pretty well. For one thing, all of us have memories about our school days, and spelling was a big part of them.

      Thanks for the new site, too. I’ve just glanced at it, but it clearly will be fun to explore. Into the bookmarks it goes!


  23. I’ve read this blog (and the wonderful comments and responses) a couple of times, and I’m still puzzled. Why? I also thought the word was “detrius”, and I still can’t force myself to read it or say it as “detritus”. (I even had to go back to see if I spelled that correctly!) I wonder if the word reminds us of some different, but perhaps related word.

    Currently I’m reading a novel that was published in the 1890s, and I’ve noticed several spelling variations, like “dulness”. The changes in words over time or across countries interests me. The spelling errors that really irritate me are the ubiquitous it’s for its, are for our, your for you’re, etc.

    Recently I came across the word “susurrating”, and I immediately thought of you! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this blog and its comments, and I’ve learned more than I would have thought to ask.

    1. Your comment reminds me of a favorite line I keep returning to, albeit paraphrased: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” Like you, I have no idea how “detrius” showed up in my vocabulary, but there it was. Very strange. But it’s good to know I’m not alone.

      For what it’s worth, “Detrius” appears to be a first name in some communities, but I’m sure I picked it up well before rappers came onto the scene.

      I found an interesting passage in Charles Murray’s latest book last week. When it comes to its/it’s, he says, “I make this error all the time when I’m writing a first draft — putting in an apostrophe when you’re using the possessive case is so natural that it’s hard to resist. But it looks bad once it’s on paper or the screen. You want to correct this natural mistake before you hit the send button or submit something for distribution.”

      When I read that, it reminded me of a varnishing truth. There always are drips and drops of vanish at the end of a project. The real problem lies with varnishers who don’t clean up after themselves before submitting an invoice. I never charge a customer for time spent detailing at the end of a job. It’s a good motivator for cleaning up as I go.

      Of course, sometimes I miss a drip, and then there are ten people ready to point it out. Fresh eyes are always good, for varnishing and for editing!

      I so like your last comment, about learning more than you would have thought to ask. It seems to me the first step in almost all learning is learning what questions to ask.


  24. So even you have these problems, Linda! I have to say that I was a really good speller as a child, but after gaining fluency in Spanish, language interference stepped in. And it was precisely in the area of double consonants, which Spanish doesn’t have, (rr and ll being distinct sounds, and not double letters.)

    1. Oh, goodness, Andrew. I certainly do have these problems. You can’t believe how often I turn to a reference book or online site. It’s less often for spelling than for proper usage or grammar and punctuation, but I’ve lots to learn.

      I was surprised by your remark about Spanish not having double consonants. I found an easily understood paragraph about phonemes, and along with it came this wonderful sentence which was applied to English: “Words may have double consonants because that is the way they are spelled, not because of a rule.”

      If that doesn’t just sum it up!


  25. I forgot to add that sometimes it’s the other way round. No doubts with “susurrating” for me, because “susurrar” is to whisper in Spanish, so the English must have a double r!

    1. Just delightful. it is such fun to compare words in languages. “Susurration” is one of my favorites in English, so now I can use its cousin in Spanish. Of course, I need to learn a few more words to put around it in Spanish!

  26. I’ve always thought I was a pretty good speller. The product of a Catholic school education, I found journalism a logical progression, and it made sense on so many levels to NOT waste time looking up words.

    That said, there are plenty of words that, for some odd reason, my mind refuses to process correctly. Words like Sleep, Nineteen, and Diarrhea. I have no clue why. Maybe because they’re not words my hands are accustomed to writing? You know there’s a link between hand and brain (http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/writing-and-remembering-why-we-remember-what-we-write.html). Perhaps if I did with my troublesome words what I used to do as a kid in school — write each one down 10 times, then use it in a sentence — perhaps then I’d master them!

    Funny how lazy we’ve become, relying on something like a computer program to tell us when we’ve misspelled something. Don’t get me started on using Word’s spell-check for writing a novel, ha!

    1. Debbie, you’re always the practical one. We need to learn those spelling words so we don’t have to waste time looking them up. Perfect.

      I’ve seen a good number of posts and articles over the past two or three years about the importance of writing by hand to stimulate creativity, sharpen memory, and so on. I’m sure it does work for many people. Personally, I do much better with a keyboard. Hand-writing is too slow for me — I can’t keep up with my thoughts. And, there’s creeping arthritis that tires my hands after a time.

      But, for learning or re-learning a word, writing by hand makes sense. It’s not bad as a form of discipline, either. I have a few memories of standing at the blackboard after school, writing sentences like “I will not pass notes in class” a hundred times.

      I’ve been thinking about spell-check the past week, wondering why I don’t use it. Part of it’s that I don’t trust it, part is that I simply find it annoying, and part is that I want to be responsible for the words I turn loose on the world. That sounds strange, but it feels right. If I’m going to make a mistake, it’s going to be my mistake, doggone it!


  27. I value good spelling and grammar but, as I age, find my attention is easily distracted and I am often mortified after hitting post or send to see that I have missed a typo. Surely if we relied on pen and ink some of these mistakes wouldn’t happen. It is so easy to fly across a keyboard and mistype.
    I am bolstered to read that others who share the same value have the similar issues.

    1. Good point. As we age, it more important than ever to slow down and concentrate. By the way, much of the data out about memory decline support the notion that older people must focus on concentration. If they did, their memories would be better. These studies are not referring to Alzheimer’s or dementia.

      “Focus on concentration” may seem redundant, but I meant exactly that.

      You aptly point out “distraction.” So true. We must also guard against distraction and make a single focus a priority. One single focus after another.

      So when we hear a ping on our iPad or iPhone, our brains immediately seek information. Who is it? We, however, were in the middle of another task–perhaps one where memory is important–just the willingness to give up our focus on that task and contemplate the ping may derail us.

      I hope this makes sense.

      1. It makes perfect sense.

        You’ve probably noticed that a new WordPress option is the so-called “distraction free writing,” that eliminates much of the clutter on the page.

        I’ve found it very helpful to create a more distraction-free environment for myself in a larger sense: When I began writing, an essay that very much influenced me was Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction. In the end, his own prescriptions didn’t work perfectly for him, but I was new to writing and fairly new to computers, and he confirmed some suspicions I had about the two sides of technology.

        Today, I’m perfectly happy with my bare-bones approach. I understand it’s not for everyone, but living without Facebook, television & assorted other gadgetry suits me just fine.

      2. Yes, it does make sense. And “Focus on concentration” is not at all redundant. For many of us it does take a special effort….it is so easy for the mind to wander. I do not need a ping for my train of thought to enter a dark tunnel and exit into a totally different track.

        1. On the other hand, that kind of free associating is a part of creativity. If anyone followed my train of thought around for any length of time, they’d probably be aghast at how many tracks it travels. (Or how many times it’s jumped those tracks.)

    2. Steve, I suspect you’re right that the necessarily slower and more focused pen and ink would eliminate some of our mistakes. On the other hand, as one who sat in a grade school classroom with an inkwell, a dip pen and ink blotters, I remember days when other sorts of mistakes were lurking out there. Some couldn’t be laundered out, either!

      I do wish we could edit comments. I’m not so bad with typos, but I’m forever messing up html tags. I know how to do it, but I get so busy thinking about whatever information I’m trying to send, I don’t see what’s right in front of me. That’s lack of focus, too.

      And of course, sometimes we just make a mistake. All of us. I know that, but there’s still nothing quite like that moment when I hit “send” and see the mistake simultaneously. What a pain!


      1. I remember ink wells too, Linda.

        I don’t understand why our comments are not editable by us….although you can edit those of your commenters should you choose to be daring. But if we are signed in to WP, ours should be open to us as well. Can’t be that hard to allow….FB does. And yeah! I tried to correct a typo, I think it may have been yours, and totally destroyed the comment.

        1. I’m sure there’s a good reason for not allowing the editing of comments, as far as WP is concerned. I just don’t know what it is. What I’m more worried about is the loss of a good editor, as they roll out features designed for the mobile device crowd. Sigh.

          It was my comment, and you didn’t destroy it. It was an html issue, and the link just went non-clickable. That’s small potatos pootatoes potatoes.

    1. Isn’t that a great quotation, Sheryl? For years I was sure it was Mark Twain’s. After I was introduced to the Quote Investigator, I started double-checking popular quotations, and found the real source for this one.

      It’s great that we have so many tools available to us to check spelling, grammar and so on. The trick is to get in the habit of using them, even when we don’t think we need to!


  28. Oh my goodness, I’ve been through it all, exactly as you have. Then I experienced a double whammy when I moved from the United States to Australia and had to readjust myself to accommodate British spelling. How did I survive? By investing in yet another thick dictionary and lining all of them up across my shelf: American English, British English, French and German dictionaries too, as I need these for the historical fiction that I write. Thumb worn and dog eared from constant use I couldn’t get by without them. Lexicons be praised!

    1. Until you mentioned all those dictionaries, lined up like little soldiers ready to do battle with uncertainty, I’d forgotten our classroom dictionaries.. I have no idea what version(s) they were, but they sat on tall wooden stands. During work sessions, we were allowed to get up from our desks to look up words. Of course, we had many words that needed checking.

      The different British spellings don’t throw me nearly as much as completely different words, and idioms. I still remember the first time a blogging friend said it was time for her to go “up the apples.” I’m still not sure I understand entirely how “going to bed” turned into that. I can only imagine what an adjustment it was to move to Australia. As a Canadian friend says, we speak the same language — except we don’t.

      I didn’t realize you write historical fiction. I’ll have to look around your blog more closely for links — do you have something published? The more I write about history, the more I realize how difficult it is to capture a different time and place. If I ever get serious about writing about Louisiana, I’m going to need a good Cajun dictionary.


  29. A potpourri of a post. (Did I spell it right? Well the auto spellcheck didn’t underline it with a red dotted line, so it must be right) Just as I can’t distinguish a ‘major’ Woody Allen movie from a ‘minor’, I have no idea what a ‘detritus’ or a ‘detrius’ is. There, the dotted red line appears. Ok, so now I’ve learned one more word.

    My vocabulary may be limited, but I’m glad I could fully appreciate that last poem. The lines depict an experience and sentiments so true, so genuine, so real. Much more precious than learning a new word. ;)

    1. I smiled when I saw the fellow “recategorizing” the Allen movie at your blog. Arti. I suppose the biggest difference between a film and a word is that categorizing a film always involves judgment, while spelling a word generally has a right and a wrong – at least within the context of our language. American English, Canadian English, and British English all have variations in spelling (labor, labour, and so on) but we still can understand one another. That’s good!

      Isn’t the poem wonderful? i can well imagine you had a few experiences like that with your son, and perhaps not all that long ago. There are plenty of tests, plenty of challenges. It’s great that he’s succeeding so well. I suspect he had some help along the way, no?


  30. “Occasion” and “embarrass” are two (of many) that get me every time. Even as I’m typing this comment those words have the squiggly red line under them, which has served to prevent embarrassment on many occasions. (A few right clicks later, however, and all is well).

    I think it’s true that once upon a time in English spelling was more flexible. I recall looking at documents from the 18th century, for example and finding a surprising lack of consistency in spelling. Punctuation too. Wasn’t it Mr. Webster who took up the task of trying to make us all spell things the same way (inventing some new spellings of his own in the process)? If I recall correctly, the silent letters in English were once pronounced. So “knife” was pronounced “ka neef eh” rather than “nif.” I wonder where the double consonants came from?

    Final thought–I studied Haitian Creole for a while and found it refreshing. When it was reduced to a written language the spellings were made phonetic. So, for example, “oui” in Creole (or Kreyol) is “wi.” That makes good sense to me. :)

    1. Interesting about the Creole phonetic spellings. I know almost nothing about Creole languages. I’d always thought of Creole solely as French-Creole, but I see there’s English Creole as well, and a whole variety within those larger categories.

      If only things had been so easy in my part of Liberia. The tribal language, Kpelle, dates to the 1930s in its written form. It uses the Latin alphabet now, which makes it easier, but it’s a tonal language. I always could recognize the seriousness of my mistakes by the number of people uproariously laughing.

      As I remember it, ‘Liberian English’ sounded a good bit like Jamaican patois — and perhaps even the Haitian Creole you’re familiar with.

      As for those double consonants, Bill — who knows? Maybe they came from the really bad spellers who were around back in the day. It’s an interesting question. I believe I’ll go have a slice or two of cantaloupe and ponder it.


    1. I’m always tuned in, Rosemary! Not only that, I’m working on my “ten objects” list. It’s harder than I thought it would be — the obvious choices aren’t always the best, and the best choices sometimes aren’t obvious at all.


  31. Linda,
    I would be lost without a spell checker and dictionary.com. I’m a terrible speller. And then there’s that business about spelling a word correctly, but using it incorrectly. Once I wrote a recipe and repeatedly wrote flower instead of flour. Mental block. Then there’s peak and peek and pique. Good grief!

    I hate millennium.

    1. As long as we can keep dessert and desert straight, we’ll be fine, Bella.

      As for that flour/flower business, I’m not sure that’s just misspelling. Every now and then, I’ll be typing along and suddenly discover that something totally unrelated has shown up on the page. I’ll see it even as I’m typing — it’s as though the line between conscious and sub- or un-conscious has become just a little thin. Way thin. The good news about those slips is that I catch them right away.

      Millennium. That’s a good one. I was going to say, at least we don’t have to worry about that one for a while, but there are all those so-called millennials running around.


  32. This post and comments have sent me into a mild spelling panic, as I – who up until now considered myself a very good speller! – contemplate the horror of sifting through six years’ worth of blog posts lest I have left a trail of inadvertent misspellings…aaaargh!

    1. Believe me, Anne. After writing this, I’ve become far more aware of spelling. I’ve looked up words I’ve spelled correctly for decades, suddenly unsure of myself. I expect that to subside after a while.

      On the other hand, since I’ve made the commitment to go back through every old post, checking for bad links, tidying up the format and so on, I might as well read each one of them for spelling errors and typos, too. It could be an instructive experience!


  33. My heart was in my mouth while I was reading this! I had no recollection as to how loyal I was to spell check back then! And even during the ensuing years I always pronounced the word in my head as “detrius”. If I’m doubtful about a word, I’ll look it up – yet in my earlier posts I find that they’re racked with typos and misspellings.

    A sweet poem; love especially the final lines. I was never in a spelling bee, but there were those spelling tests in school. I remember particularly one instance in grammar school. I was pointed out as the only one who spelled all the words correctly. Until I noticed: two mistakes! (“North Amercia” and “South Amercia”). I pointed this out to my teacher – was praise for honesty better than the praise for 100% correctness? Now, I would think yes – back then, not so sure!

    1. Isn’t it strange, how suddenly unsure we can become of what we’ve put on the page? It happens to me all the time. But truly, Aubrey — I may never forget that moment when I found “detritus” on your page. It was an almost a physical shock: not quite a “Eureka” moment, but more like being hit in the head with a two by four. There’s a whole other post that could be written about blind spots, generally — all of those things we think we know, but about which we truly haven’t a clue.

      Your grammar school error’s an interesting one. Were you in California then? I can’t remember, but that’s the first thing that came to mind: that you’d made the leap from the state to the continents.

      Thanks, as always, for your wonderfully stimulating blog.


  34. There are words — no matter how often I use them — I remain unsure of the correct spelling each time. One would think – by now – the correct spelling of some of “my” commonly used words would stick!! Conundrum indeed! :-)

    1. From the comments, Becca, I’d say that all of us suffer from that uncertainty to one degree or another. I can’t tell you how many times I looked up the spelling of “misspelling” while I was dealing with this. Honestly — you’d think I could get that one!

      No matter. If we get 95% of the words spelled right and forgive the other 5%, we’ll be in good shape.


  35. Wonderful, just wonderful! (And, I think I want that book, heh! The one with the image you provide.)

    I know the English language can be a fascinating bit of chaos, sometimes… But the state of spelling in the contemporary world is downright frightening. And now they’re going to cease cursive handwriting throughout the U.S. schools. Dumbfounding.

    1. When I read that cursive was being cut from the curriculum, I nearly died, FeyGirl. Then, I found out that literature is taking a hit from common core, in order to provide more “informational reading.” Oh — and I hear Ben Franklin’s gone, too. I can’t confirm that, but I haven’t gone looking. I was afraid it might be true, and then I’d have to just curl up and die of disappointment and chagrin.

      But here’s the best ever. In a recent conference call, a White House official noted the Saudi Arabia – Syria border.

      Maybe we shouldn’t dispense with geography just yet. I can’t sort them all out myself, but if I were a senior aide in the WH, I might at least check a map.


  36. Linda, a really fine article about misspelled words. This post takes me back to elementary and high school. When I was “knee high to a grasshopper” we had spelling tests and I always made 100 on those tests. Now I can not spell diddly and make far too many errors. Actually I try to be careful but I do not always use Google spell check and that should be a necessary evil for anyone putting out anything readable for public consumption.


    1. A friend and I were trying to figure out why spelling skills degrade over time, Yvonne. She thinks it’s because we become inattentive. I think that’s part of it, but I also think we become used to using the same old words over and over again. When we stretch out a little and try to use one of those big 8th grade words, we don’t always get it right.

      I rarely have to look up a word in a dictionary while I’m reading. But just to call to mind a word, and spell it, and use it properly? That’s harder. Sometimes, it’s much harder.

      And then there’s technology, of course. Twitter and texting almost demand “misspellings,” just to cram the message into those short spaces. They have their place, but they don’t necessarily encourage good spelling and grammar!


      1. Linda, I wish that were the case with me. I can not blame my ineptness on Twitter but I use lots of texts because that is what my adult kiddos use mostly. It aggravates me so, I make my own version of words. It becomes so silly at times.

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