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.

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 when you add a suffix that begins with a vowel:

  • survive + alsurvival
  • divide + ingdividing
  • fortune + atefortunate

Here are a few common exceptions:

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 + mentarrangement
  • forgive + nessforgiveness
  • safe + tysafety

Here are a few common exceptions:

  • 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 + ingreferring
  • regret + ableregrettable

However, if the accent is not on the last syllable, the final consonant is not doubled.

  • benefit + edbenefited
  • audit + edaudited

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
Here are a few common exceptions:
  • weird
  • either
  • seize
  • foreign
  • ancient
  • forfeit
  • height

Everyday Words that are Commonly Misspelled

If you find yourself over-relying on spell checkers or misspelling the same word for the seventeenth time this year, it would be to your advantage to improve your spelling. One shortcut to doing this is to consult this list of words that are frequently used and misspelled.

Many smart writers even put a mark next to a word whenever they have to look it up, thereby helping themselves identify those fiendish words that give them the most trouble. To improve your spelling, you must commit the words you frequently misspell to memory, and physically looking them up until you do so is an effective path to spelling perfection.