misspelling

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

misspelling
A poster for the British Conservative Party from the 1979 General Election. (The Conservative Party Archive/Getty Images)

Definition

A misspelling is an act or instance of spelling a word incorrectly according to the conventions of Standard English.

In his book Does Spelling Matter? (2013), Oxford English professor Simon Horobin argues that "spelling is not a reliable index of intelligence. . . . Many intelligent people struggle with English spelling, while others will find it comparatively easy to master. . . . Some people are just better at this form of rote learning than others."

In formal writing, especially in academic writing, misspelled words can be distracting to readers. Theodore A. Rees Cheney has compared misspellings to "flies buzzing around your head: As long as you're caught up deeply in the reading, you'll not notice the flies, but at some point you throw up your hands in frustration and discover that it's the little flies that are driving you crazy" (Getting the Words Right, 2005).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Essays and Articles on Spelling and Misspelling

Examples and Observations

  • The name Google originated from a misspelling of googol, which refers to the digit 1 followed by 100 zeros.
     
  • "Friday was report card day for Hillsborough County elementary school students, but some parents will have to wait a little longer to see their children’s grades. It is all because of a typo--the word satisfactory was misspelled on a school district template that all schools use to print off their report cards."
    (Erin Kourkounis, "Misspelling Causes Hillsborough Report Card Delay." The Tampa Tribune, November 1, 2013)
     
  • "Progris report 1 martch 3
    Dr Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart. . . ."
    (Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966)
     
  • A Costly Spelling Error
    "A spelling mistake in the words 'not recommended' on the Obamacare website led to the site going down, it was revealed today in internal notes from 'war room' meetings of experts scrabbling to breathe life into the shambolic operation. The error limited the choices Obamacare shoppers were offered in October and often presented them with overpriced options."
    (David Martosko, "Revealed: How a Simple Spelling Error Helped Bring Down $630 Million Obamacare Website." Daily Mail, November 6, 2013)
     
  • Spellchecking
    "The correct [plural] inflection, following the Greek origin of the word octopus, is octopodes, yet this is far less favoured by English speakers, to the extent that the automatic spelling corrector provided by Microsoft Word deems octopi to be valid and octopodes to be a misspelling."
    (Tony Veale, "Synamic Creation of Analogically-Motivated Terms." Lexical Creativity, Texts and Contexts, ed. by Judith Munat. John Benjamins, 2007)
     
  • Letter Doubling
    "[Henry] Fowler ([A Dictionary of Modern English Usage] 1926: 575) singles out letter doubling, impressionistically at least, as the most frequent source of misspelling in English:
    If a list were made of the many thousands of words whose spelling cannot be safely inferred from their sound, the doubtful point in perhaps nine-tenths of them would be whether some single consonantal sound was given by a single letter, as m or t or c, or a double letter, as mm or tt, and two or more, as sc or cq or sch. Acquiesce and aqueduct, bivouac and bivouacking. Britain and Brittany, committee and comity, crystal and chrysalis, inoculate and innocuous, install and instil, harass and embarrass, levelled and unparalleled, personify and personnel, schedule and shed, science and silence, tic and tick, are examples enough.
    (ibid.: 554)
    Fowler has indeed put his finger on some troublesome examples, but it is surprising that consonant-letter doublings are grouped together with other digraphs as simple aberrations from a 'one letter, one phoneme ideal. The difference between the tt and the t of latter and later is not of the same order as the difference between the sc and the s of science and silence and it is different again from the two letters found at the boundary between a Latinate prefix and stem in innocuous, attention, etc. It is understandable that Fowler, after looking at the problem in this unrewarding way, comes to the conclusion that 'nothing short of a complete spelling-book will serve the turn of a really weak speller' (loc. cit.)."
    (Edward Carney, A Survey of English Spelling. Routledge, 1994)
     
  • Spelling Inconsistencies and Spelling Reform
    "Readers expect a word to be spelled consistently but they do not expect all similar sounding words to be consistently spelled. English spelling conventions are complex but not as capricious as popularly believed. What adds to the complexity are the multiple linguistic roots of English. English has Germanic and Latin roots as well as substantial influences from other languages. So we have not one but several systems of correspondence rules in English orthography.

    "Many believe that it would be easier to learn to read and write English if its spelling were simplified. While it is possible that misspellings would diminish if spelling were simplified, there is no substantial evidence that English is harder to comprehend to learn to read and write as a result of this complexity. Most spelling reformers have not faced the trade-offs required to achieve spelling simplicity."
    (Kenneth S. Goodman, "Unity in Reading." Becoming Readers in a Complex Society, ed. by Alan C. Purves and Olive Niles. University of Chicago Press, 1984)
     
  • The Lighter Side of Misspelling
    "When I was in the 6th grade, I was a finalist in our school spelling bee. It was me against Raj Patel. I misspelled, in front of the entire school, the word failure."
    (Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute in "Dwight's Speech." The Office, March 2006)

    "I have a Spanish quiz in which one of your cheerleaders misspelled her name, and answered every question with a drawing of a sombrero!"
    (Matthew Morrison as Will Schuester in "Throwdown." Glee, 2009)

    "If a word in the dictionary were misspelled, how would we know?"
    (American comedian Steven Wright)