How Well Can You Spell?

A challenge from the Washington Post (in connection with the recent National Spelling Bee): “We’ve written silly sentences for each letter so you can try your hand at correcting the misspelled words. We’re warning you: It’s tough.” It is indeed tough, considering that this professional editor and lifelong grubber in dictionaries missed one (it’s a very common word that I always get wrong — doesn’t everybody have one of those?), but it’s fair; there are no wildly unusual words of the sort that regularly turn up in spelling bees (they cite “weissnichtwo” and “cabotinage” as examples). There is at least one misspelled word in every sentence, and sometimes only one. Caveat: they mark U.K. spellings as wrong. You have been warned.

Comments

  1. I got just one wrong also; it’s a word I don’t often write but frequently get wrong when I do.

    (My short-term contract ended yesterday. Got any work for me, anyone?)

  2. Let me guess: “calender”.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Which “UK spellings” did you have in mind? The only possible one I noticed was “humourously”, but that’s not the UK spelling: we spell it the same way you do.

    No, wait, there was another, that I got “wrong” in the first sentence, namely “arbor”. I put “wrong” in quotation marks because “harbo[u]r” seemed a much more likely word to have in that sentence, though I was aware that “arbo[u]r” existed, as a much less common word.

  4. For me it was “Portugese”.

  5. My dictionary marks arbour as British. Whacky, is it British or just alternative?

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “Arbour” is certainly British (though it’s a word we hardly ever ever use), but I marked “arbor” as wrong not because I wanted “arbour” (especially after Steve’s warning) but because I thought “harbor” more appropriate for the sentence.

    “Whacky” is acceptable in British English, but “wacky” is more common and is what I would write.

  7. I’m a hopelessly bad speller– which is a bit weird, given that I’m also an avid crossword puzzle solver. Oh well.

  8. My miss was embarrassing. (I looked it up just now to make sure I got it right.)

  9. GeorgeW says:

    I have become a progressively poorer speller in recent years. Age effect? Spell-checker reliance? Maybe both.

    In any event, I am much better at spotting other people’s errors than my own, particularly immediately after writing. The more distance I allow in reviewing what I have written, the more likely I am to spot spelling and grammar errors (generally arising from incomplete revisions).

  10. marie-lucie says:

    I tried to access the link and only got as far as the list of letters. Clicking on a letter produced nothing at all. Is it because of my perhaps obsolete software? I also looked through the WaPo site so as to eliminate the intermediate link, but could not find where to locate the quiz.

  11. 34

    Corrected misspellings

    8

    Missed misspellings

    2

    Incorrect guesses

    Boo, me.

  12. I tried to access the link and only got as far as the list of letters. Clicking on a letter produced nothing at all.

    Didn’t you get this on the linked page?

    Click on each misspelled word beginning with the letter a

    And wasn’t there a sentence underneath that?

  13. marie-lucie says:

    I see the “click” sentence, but no other sentence, so no words.

  14. Weird. Have you tried a different browser?

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Underneath, in lighter grey, it says: “I think I found all the misspellings”, which can’t be an example sentence. In any case nothing happened when I tried to click on it.

  16. David L says:

    My trip-up was “occurrences” — the double r in the middle just doesn’t look right to me, for some reason.

  17. David L says:

    But then “occurences” doesn’t look right either. Stupid word!

  18. I’m amazed people like Sili can do so well with a foreign language.

    Not that anyone’s disagreeing, but ‘Weissnichtwo’ is really pushing it. It’s not an English word, it’s a German phrase that was used in one English novel as the name of a fictitious place. To know how to spell it you must know German, not English.

  19. I have exactly the same problem as marie-lucie.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    I agree with you, AJP. Is the idea that “if a word appears anywhere in a work written in English, it is considered an English word”?

  21. marie-lucie says:

    LH: I normally use Firefox. I tried using Safari instead, but it is so long since I have used it (years) that I have no idea what password I used to access it (I tried several, to no avail).

    Can you or someone suggest how to access the qujz through the WaPo site?

  22. Whacky and wacky are alternatives in both AmE and BrE. The former is the older, from the idea of being whacked on the head. Whack is obviously onomatopoeic (a word I really can’t spell without looking it up every time), but is probably connected with older thwack and still older (now only dialectal) thack as well, both of them also onomatopoeic.

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “Occurrences” (with “harassment”) was also one of the two I got wrong. I think I spell it correctly when I need to write it, but this was rather an artificial situation. I hardly ever need to write “harassment”, and when I do I look it up.

  24. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Marie-Lucie: if I try with Javascript disabled I get the same as you. Try enabling Javascript and see what happens. I would quite happily have Javascript disabled all the time if it weren’t for the fact that there are some sites that I visit often (including NewsBlur, which I use for accessing LanguageHat) won’t work without Javascript.

  25. Athel, do you really look up spelling rather than using a computer’s spelling checker? Assuming one is content with everything being either US- or British -English, I’ve decided that even though they’re occasionally wrong whatever the spelling checker decides is correct is likely to become the most often used spelling and therefore right.

  26. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’m someone from the first half on the last century, so yes, I do look things up.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    I’m amazed people like Sili can do so well with a foreign language.

    The English spelling system is so fucked up that it helps not to know the pronunciations before learning the spellings. All cyber-around me I see native speakers make mistakes that wouldn’t even occur to me.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    41 Corrected misspellings

    1 Missed misspellings

    0 Incorrect guesses

    The one I missed was harrassment, which is slightly embarrassing considering how often I’ve read that word lately. The deeper psychological reason may be that both of my kinds of German retain consonant length, but only behind stressed vowels.

    In several cases it helps to know other languages. Arguement immediately looks wrong if you know German or French or Latin, and wrong it is; seperate looks wrong if you know French or Latin, or if you’re good at German spelling.

  29. I’m (barely) from the second half of the last century. I rely on my own intuitions, which are excellent, to prevent most spelling mistakes, and on the red wavy line only to catch typos. When I want to talk about what’s in actual or preferred use, though, I look in online dictionaries.

  30. I’m barely from the first half of the last century and began reading half a decade before midcentury. I ignore spellcheck. It’s a good thing I habitually reread though, because I’ve observed that my once one-hundred-and-forty-four percent correct spelling is beginning to fade away as unused neurons wither and even, dammit, snap.

  31. I got a few wrong out of sheer laziness – but I have doubts about “lollipop”. Maybe it’s in the Washington Post stylebook, but book corpus data and a number of dictionaries have “lollypop” as an acceptable variant.

  32. I gave lollypop some thought too, but I concluded it was just another of those wearisomely familiar cases where the test-taker has to be smarter than the test inventor, and guess what false theory they had in mind when they wrote it.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Athel: enabling Javascript: I have no idea how to do that.

  34. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Marie-Lucie: Unfortunately there is no general answer, as it depends on what browser you are using (Firefox, Chrome, Safara, InternetExplorer, etc.) but the method will be similar in the different cases. In Firefox, for example, go to Preferences in the Firefox menu, then Content as the third from the left, and tick Enable Javascript. In Chrome it’s more complicated (I have only just found out how to do it): Go to Preferences in the Chrome menu, select Advanced Settings, then Privacy, then Content settings, and that will bring you to the Javascript option. In Safari, Preferences, then Security.

  35. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    For a long time (until I realized that the correct spelling is the logical one), the word that I would most often misspell was “misspell”. I was probably put on the wrong track by “dispel”.

  36. Yeah, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be dispell except that it isn’t (though it once was, per the OED’s quotations) The underlying Latin verb is pellere ‘drive, beat’ with two l’s, though just one is present in the modern spellings of compel, expel, propel, repel, impel. Other derivatives are pelt ‘strike’, pulse, and even push (via French). Pull, however, is native.

    As for spell, it has a double origin: it’s a native word in the older senses of discourse (now only in gospel) and hostile magic (as Tolkien says, “Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men”), but the modern senses come from Old French espelir, where it is an old Germanic borrowing, ultimately the same word. (Spell of work is a different word altogether.)

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    95%.

    I am ashamed.

  38. dainichi says:

    @AJP Dumdrudge

    “I’m amazed people like Sili can do so well with a foreign language.”

    I’m amazed that English speakers can spell in English. To a native English speaker, all (OK, many) non-stressed vowels must seem to be represented completely randomly. The only way to know how to spell an English word is to know a related word in some other language.

    I’m only partly joking.

  39. This relieves the tension I feel when I occasionally, politely, point out to someone in a store or business that one of their signs has a misspelled word, and they just stare at me blankly.

    I hate that blank stare.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    The only way to know how to spell an English word is to know a related word in some other language.

    I don’t think any French speakers can possibly confuse principal (“principal”) and principle (“principe”), or complement (“complément”) and compliment (“compliment”). I am always amazed at the frequency of these confusions in the English-language press, especially the first pair.

  41. On the other hand, francophones tend to spell apartment as “appartment”, getting the vowels right for English but using the consonants of French appartement.

    Etymology helps with spelling English correctly, but classical conditioning (i.e. reading a whole lot) helps much more. After a while, the shape of a word just looks worng.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    After a while, the shape of a word just looks worng.

    I agree. Good spelling depends a lot on visual memory. Of course, reading a lot will imprint word memories in one’s brain. But we all have different brains, and there are different components to memory. I remember being shocked years ago to discover that one of my classmates that I considered brilliant was making spelling mistakes.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    I’m amazed that English speakers can spell in English. To a native English speaker, all (OK, many) non-stressed vowels must seem to be represented completely randomly. The only way to know how to spell an English word is to know a related word in some other language.

    Definately. ;-|

  44. Letters and words are the only thing I have visual memory for, which shows what constant exposure will do even for non-visual people.

    As for “definately”, I’m spared that spelling due to finite and infinite, but those are much more technical terms than definitely.

  45. I deliberately chose many years ago to pronounce sacrilegious in the old-fashioned way, sak-ri-LEE-jus, so I would never be tempted to make the obvious misspelling.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, that reminds me: hypocrite “criticism of hippos”. How did that happen?

  47. I had either 3 or four mistakes, and then it threw me out at W. How? Why? It just skipped ahead and disappeared. Damn. I’m not taking it again. ‘Twouldn’t be fair anyway.

  48. (I’m with the whacky faction.)

  49. m-l: I remember being shocked years ago to discover that one of my classmates that I considered brilliant was making spelling mistakes.

    Yes, I agree that it’s hard for us not to pass judgement on people for this. It must be because we were taught, or brainwashed, at an early age to see bad spelling as a sign of stupidity and laziness. Now that the study of dyslexia is more nuanced, I hope that they use a more subtle method to teach children the importance of spelling.

  50. The fact that each round specified initial letter was helpful: knowing the words not starting with, say, D were spelled correctly seemed to give a foundation from which to build. Which was completely irrational. Of course for C S K G J it was genuinely helpful, by which I mean precluded a certain type of misspelling.

    Spellcheckers have made me lazy for words like ac[c?]om[m?][o|a]dating. It’s the likes of censer-censor that are still lurking in the long grass.

    I could never spell wacky “whacky” because that’s not how I pronounce it, etymology be damned. OTOH, although I say “computer whiz”; I can accept “computer wiz”. It’s a synonym, not a variant. These are my rationalisations, I’m sticking to em.

  51. I also got “lollypop” wrong, but do not believe that it is wrong. Or at the very least, that it should be right.

  52. I’ve gotten up to H and concluded that I can’t spell. I did know this already, though.

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