To understand the limited power of the spell checker, enjoy the following poem, which has an intriguing literary history:
I have a spelling checker
It came with my PC;
It plainly marks four my revue
Mistakes I cannot sea.
I’ve run this poem threw it,
I’m sure your pleased too no,
Its letter perfect in it’s weigh,
My checker tolled me sew.
Just as so many of us rely on calculators to do all our math for us—even to the point that we do not trust calculations done by our own hand—far too many of us use spell checkers as proofreaders, and we ultimately use them to justify our own laziness. I once received a complaint from an outraged professor that a student had continually misspelled “miscellaneous” as “mescaline” (a hallucinogenic drug). The student’s spell checker did not pick up the error, but the professor certainly did, and he told me that he even speculated privately that the student who wrote the paper did so while on mescaline.
So proceed with caution when using spell checkers. They are not gods, and they do not substitute for meticulous proofreading and clear thinking. There is an instructive moment in a M*A*S*H episode, when Father Mulcahy complains to Colonel Potter about a typo in a new set of Bibles—one of the commandments reads “thou shalt commit adultery.” Father sheepishly worries aloud that “These lads are taught to follow orders.” For want of a single word the intended meaning is lost. Always proofread a hard copy, with your own two eyes.
Six Rules for Spelling
I have a crusty old copy of a book called Instant Spelling Dictionary, now in its third edition but first published in 1964, that I still use frequently. I adapted the six basic spelling rules that appear below from that dictionary. Even without memorizing the rules, you can improve your spelling simply by reviewing them and scanning the examples and exceptions until the fundamental concepts begin to sink in. When in doubt, always look up the word. And do not forget that desktop dictionaries work just as well as electronic ones.
Rule 1. In words ending with a silent “e,” you usually drop the “e” before a suffix that begins with a vowel.
survive + al = survival divide + ing = dividing fortune + ate = fortunate
manageable singeing mileage advantageous dyeing acreage peaceable canoeing lineage
Rule 2. In words ending with a silent “e,” you usually retain the “e” before a suffix than begins with a consonant.
arrange + ment = arrangement forgive + ness = forgiveness safe + ty = safety
ninth (from nine) argument (from argue) wisdom (from wise) wholly (from whole)
Rule 3. In words of two or more syllables that are accented on the final syllable and end in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel, you double the final consonant before a suffix beginning with a vowel.
refer + ing = referring regret + able = regrettable
However, if the accent is not on the last syllable, the final consonant is not doubled.
benefit + ed = benefited audit + ed = audited
Rule 4. In words of one syllable ending in a single consonant that is preceded by a single vowel, you double the final consonant before a suffix that begins with a vowel. (It sounds more complex than it is; just look at the examples.)
big + est = biggest hot + er = hotter bag + age = baggage
Rule 5. In words ending in “y” preceded by a consonant, you usually change the “y” to “i” before any suffix that does not begin with an “i.”
beauty + ful = beautiful accompany + ment = accompaniment accompany + ing = accompanying (suffix begins with i)
If the final “y” is preceded by a vowel, however, the rule does not apply.
journeys obeying essays buys repaying attorneys
Rule 6. Use “i” before “e” except when the two letters follow “c” and have an “e” sound, or when they have an “a” sound as in “neighbor” and “weigh.”
i before e (e sound) e before i (a sound) shield vein believe weight grieve veil mischievous neighbor
weird foreign forfeit either ancient neither sovereign siege height seize surfeit leisure