"It's a damn poor mind, indeed, which can't think of at least two ways to spell a word."

--Andrew Jackson

Source: William Safire, "On Language," New York Times Magazine, 5 August 2007, p. 14


This particular link allows you to think of that old nemesis, spelling. It is much more than the ability to place "I" before "E" except after "C." I will place words on this web page that are easily confused. Some of these words will be spelled alike but sound different. We called those words, homophones.

Consider this page as the spelling problem of the month. First, let's attack these two words that are confused on students' papers:

Were is a verb of the "to be" family. Where describes an adverb and tells location. If you pronounce the words too quickly in writing, you hear "were" instead of "where." If your language is not English, you might hear "where" without the "h." Be careful in your proofreading of these kinds of problems.

Church Lady (played originally by Dana Carvey) Says: "How Convenient!"

Students are teaching me everyday new spellings for the word, convenient, or convenience. The following variations have occurred on papers:

All of these previous guesses the student does not understand how to pronounce the word. Con-VEN-Eent. You write: convene. Then, leave off the last e and "ient" or "ience." Look out for this trap in writing.

Let's Keep This Quiet

Students have puzzled me with the spelling of "quiet." The following variations have occurred:

The first word means "quit," as in one quits a job. The second word, "quite" would be used in the phrase, quite happy or quite sad. Neither one of these words satisfies the spelling of "quiet," as in quiet reflection. Be careful what word you intend when you write. Pronounce the word: KWI-it.

Check Your Effects

Certain students have asked me about the difference between "effect" and "affect." Always think of "affect" as the verb, while "effect" means result and is usually used as a noun. Dianna Booher in her book, Good Grief, Good Grammar, goes further and defines the words the following way:

Let's say we wrote the following: The director effected the writing of the budget. That sentence is technically correct, because the meaning is "bringing about." That is an exception to the normal writing of effect and affect. Let's try some exercises from a brand new book called Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner, an editor for The New York Times Book Review,:

  1. The termites had a startling (you use the proper word)on the piano.
  2. The problem (you use proper word and tense) Lucia's recital.

O'Conner points out that "affect" when used as a noun and pronounced with an accent on the first syllable has a psychological meaning of "feeling." For example, Termites display a lack of affect.

The next set of words we will attack include the following:

When you look at "who's," you recognize immediately it means "who is." The other word, whose, is considered a relative pronoun that usually modifies something. Certain examples may help:

The individual, whose name was on the list, appeared before the judge.

Note that "whose" is used to modify individual and explain what individual was considered important. Let's now try an example with "who's":

The student , who's a member of the class, reported his employer kept him late.

In the last case "who's" is interpreted as "who is." The sentence now reads in a different style.

In the last few weeks I have noticed a growing number of spelling problems on memos and other reports. These errors are sometimes the result of hurried proofreading or spelling misunderstandings. Here is an example:

Unfortunately, the word, ruffly, does not exist. Perhaps the student was thinking of "ruffled." The second spelling is, of course, correct.

All Types of Homophones Cause Spelling Difficulty

To review, homophones mean words that sound alike but are spelled differently. We have numerous examples in the English language of these difficulties. Let's take some common problems from student papers:

Let's say you are starting to write a sentence: "In the can't decide which spelling of gathering my data, I discovered. . ." Should I spell the word, coarse or course? How do I know the difference? Coarse means a list than fine example, such as a coarse cloth. The material leaves a great deal to be desired. Course, though, means in the normal fixing of events. Course will work. I should say: "In the course of gathering my data, I discovered . . ." Coarse can also mean lacking refinement or using vulgar or indecent language, for example. "Course" means movement in a particular direction. We would not say "source offerings." We would say "course offerings." Source refers to the origin of something. We speak of the source of a river. Source means the beginning or the fountainhead.

I will never forget the paraphrasing of Mark Twain's expression in talking about the precision of words: There is quite a difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Suffixes Cause Difficulties

When a student finds a spelling problem with suffixes or vowels and consonants at the end of the end, the student should look for the consonant. Let's take an example:

After doing this exercise, check you answers on another web link. Good luck! Did you learn something about your spelling concerns?

E-Mail Creates a Troublesome Hyphen

Over a past summer one of my former students who works for a large medical facility asked about the spelling of electronic mail. Does E-mail have a hyphen or not? Many publications, especially in the computer industry, tend to omit the hyphen when spelling the word.

The question deserves some thought. After checking several dictionaries and style manuals, e-mail is probably the correct to spell the word. To back this statement, I have looked at The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, USA Today, and The Gazette (Colorado Springs). In the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (1998), I noticed the hyphen in "e-mail."

Now let's deal with the dictionaries. On p. 467 of The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, American Edition (1996), the E-mail spelling occurs. The Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (1997) shows e-mail spelling on p. 634. The Barron's Pocket Guide to Correct Spelling, 3d ed. (1997) shows e-mail as "electronic mail or e-mail is a way for people to send and receive messages using computers."

In contrast, the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary A-M lists "email" (1993) on p. 802. The real killer was Webster's Third International Dictionary (1993) defining email, p. 738, as "enamel . . . a moderate bluish green to greenish blue that is lighter than gendarme . . . " Perhaps, this running together of "email" could be confused with a paint color.

Finally, in Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age, edited by Constance Hale (1996), the word, "email," is run together. Scholars may question Wired magazine as a source for the ultimate spelling. Again, because of the preponderance of newspaper and dictionary usage, I would use the hyphen in e-mail. You should also check the 11th edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary to find that e-mail is still hyphenated.
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Last updated Wednesday, April 5, 2006