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Top Ten Spelling Mistakes

Updated on September 22, 2010

Text messaging, tweeting, and online chatting. They're all fabulous forms of communicating. However, none of them are doing much toward teaching proper spelling. In these realms, we use a myriad abbreviations and alternative spellings. In fact, it not only makes no sense to spell everything out, but it's often technologically impossible (Twitter only allows 140 characters). And, I m kewl w/ dat. I accept that correct spelling has fallen into obsolescence here.

However, business and formal communication are something completely different. We still need that proper English; it's not yet a thing of the past. Abbreviated language and spelling mistakes are still nails on a blackboard to many. Prospective employers and college application readers may harshly judge mis-spellers as being sloppy and lazy. So, beware.

Some increasingly common spelling mistakes I see I've addressed below. A few of them are admittedly not easy to distinguish, and their rules not easy to remember. Silly as they may seem, I've provided some mnemonic devices (or memory aids) that I've found helpful when one has a senior moment, brain cramp, or C.R.S.

Principle vs. Principal

The difference between these two words is "LE" and "AL" at the end. When spoken, we often don't hear any difference.

A principle is an accepted rule, or a fundamental assumption or law. It is a noun.

Example: "I believe in the principles of good grammar."

Remember that a principle is a rule; they both have the same endings.

A principal has two commonly used definitions:

1) it can be a noun to describe the head of a school.

Example: "The principal caught me smoking in the girls bathroom."

2) It can be an adjective that means main, primary, or most important.

Example: "Yoga is my principal form of exercise and relaxation."

A tongue-in-cheek memory aid that I used for years is to remember that the principal is my P-A-L, and s/he is the main, primary and most important person. Both thoughts couldn't have been further from the truth when I was in high school, but the mnemonic served me well -- it got me through.

Compliment vs. Complement

The only difference in spelling is the "I" and the "E", but the meanings vary.

A compliment is a nice thing said about someone.

Example: "He really liked the presentation I gave. He gave me a compliment."

Here's an aid to remember that a "compliment" has an "I": Think, "who loves to have nice things said about him or her? I do! I like compliments!"

A complement is something that completes or makes perfect.

Example: "The combination of the Riesling wine and the chicken curry is perfect. The wine really complements the dish."

Since by definition, a "complement" makes something "complete", note the similarities of the the two word. They both have two "E"s. So think "a complement completes."

Desert vs. Dessert

The difference between these two words is the single "S" and the double "SS."

A desert is typically a sunny, dry place that supports little vegetation.

Example: "The sand dunes of the desert were magnificent in the morning, but by noon all we could think about was finding shade and water."

This sandy, dry place has very little, and things don't multiply easily there. The word "desert" can't sustain a lot either, it only has a single "S."

A dessert is the final course in a meal. It can be pie, cake, cookies, ice cream, fruit or a pudding (either in the American or British sense).

Example: "I was so glad I left room for dessert! The waiter came over with a cart filled with a variety of cakes, tarts, and pies."

This one should be easy to remember. Don't you always want more than one? The word "dessert" has more than one "S", too.

Two vs. To vs. Too

"Two" isn't usually a problem. Two is more than one and less than three. It's 2.

Example: I ate not one, but two pieces of pie. Three would've been excessive."

The problem arises between "to" and "too."

"To" is both a preposition and an adverb. It has many, many uses. The definitions are too numerous to list here.

Examples: "I drove from the office to the airport and then flew to Los Angeles." "She works from nine to five."

"Too" is the really important one. It means:

In addition. Example: "They're going for ice cream. I want to go too!"

To an excessive extent. Example: "She wasn't too happy to see her ex-boyfriend at the party."

Note that "too" always refers to an addition, an excess, an extreme or a lot. So think: "too" has two "O"s, it has an addition, an excess, a lot of "O"s.

Loose vs. Lose

One "O" or two "OO"s?

"Lose" is a verb to describe not winning, to be deprived of, or to mislay.

Example: "Put your coins in your pocket or you'll lose them."

You can't lose an "O" from lose or you won't have any more. You'll end up with "lse" and that doesn't make any sense.

"Loose" is an adjective that describes when something isn't fastened or can move freely.

Example: "His marbles were loose in the bag and fell all over the floor."

Imagine those "o-o"s in LOOse wobbling about "loosely."

NOTE: if you want to insult someone, "He's such a loser!" (note one "O"). If you want to compare the size of two pairs of pants, "The blue pants are looser than the beige ones." (two "O"s).

Affect vs. Effect

Ok, I admit it. To this day I have to think before using "affect" or "effect." I get them mixed up.

"Affect" is nearly always a verb meaning "to have an influence on."

Example: "How do you think that grade will affect my application to Harvard?"

"Effect" is almost always a noun and it means "the result of an action or a cause."

Example: "Thank goodness that one bad grade didn't have an effect on her getting into Harvard."

A stupid, but very practical mnemonic I learned is: R-A-V-E-N.

Remember Affect-Verb Effect-Noun.

Its vs. It's

"Its" (no apostrophe) is the possessive form of it.

Example: "The dog chased its tail around and around." or "Its fur is brown."

Compare "its" to other possessives:

1) The possessive of "her" is "hers" (you wouldn't put an apostrophe. I hope.).

Example: "The dress belongs to her. It's hers."

2) The possessive of "he" is "his." (you definitely wouldn't put an apostrophe, right?)

Example: "His car is a Porsche. Cool."

3) The possessive of "they" is "their."

Example: "That couple owns it. That is their house."

"It's" (with an apostrophe) is a contraction of "it is."

Example: "It's Godzilla!!" In other words, "It is Godzilla!"

The apostrophe is never, ever (NEVER!) used when something is a possessive. The apostrophe is used when there is a contraction of IT and IS.

Less often, but still used, "it's" (with the apostrophe) is a contraction of "it has."

Example: "We've already got three dogs. This one? It's got to up for adoption."

Cannot vs. "Can not"

Cannot means "is not able to" and is one word. Just remember that. There is an exception to this rule, but it is unlikely to ever come up. So, for the sake of argument:

"cannot" is one word.

As a way to remember, "'cannot' cannot be pulled apart."

For the masochists: The only (very rare) exception is in sentences like "You can do it, or you can not do it." In this case, the two words have their separate meanings ('are able not to'). Like I said, for the sake of argument, "cannot" is one word.

Stationary vs. Stationery

The difference is merely the "A" and the "E" at the end of the word. These were the bane of my existence in school. I could never remember which was which.

If you don't think spelling's important, consider this passage:

"I ran a red light. I hit a stationary van. Then, the car fishtailed and I hit a stationery van."

Do you know what the series of events was? Was the first van a paper truck, or was the first van not moving?

The word "stationery" means writing paper and envelopes, and can also include other writing materials like pens and pencils. It is a noun.

Example: "For our wedding, I chose beautiful lilac-colored stationery."

"Stationary" means not moving or standing still. It is typically used as an adjective.

Example: "The mime on the street was completely stationary. I thought he was a statue."

The mnemonic device I've used for years is that envelopes are stationery. Envelopes starts with an "E", stationery has the "E."

A lot vs. "A lot"

"A lot" doesn't exist in the English language. Period.

"A lot" is an adverb that means very many or a large number.

Example: "'A lot' is two words. Some people might think two words is a lot for so few letters."

Just memorize this one. 'Nuf said.

Admit it, you make one of these mistakes. - Which one's your "favorite" to make?

I know this is a lot of information. If you cannot remember all these correct spellings, that doesn't make you a loser. What's principal is that you study them bit by bit and learn them to complement your knowledge. Once you know them all, congratulate yourself with a dessert or two (or three)!

Which is your favorite spelling mistake?

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    • profile image

      Bartukas 5 years ago

      Interesting lens thanks

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Capital vs. Capitol. The Texas capitol building is in the state capital, Austin - which also happens to have a few venture capital companies who office not far from the capitol.

    • profile image

      dannystaple 7 years ago

      Article vs article (although the latter is not recognised by my spellchecker). I am a Brit, which means I use British spelling, We like to use S's in words like summarise, and U's in behaviour and colour - interesting when being a netizen, and when picking article keywords. I do abbreviate, and I do txt speak, at the right occasions though.

    • corinnemwestphal profile image

      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @Peregrina LM: Thanks. I'm starting to discover that we're Never alone. There's always someone out there who has one's own malady. :-) Thanks for stopping by.

    • corinnemwestphal profile image

      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @joanhall: Joan, I wonder sometimes if it's a disconnect between brain and fingers (when typing). I do the same with "its" and "it's." I know perfectly well when I should use one or the other, but I always go back and proof because often enough, I'll discover I typed in an apostrophe where it shouldn't be. Agrgr.

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      Something weird that happens to me sometimes when I'm typing is that I will type out the word "their" or "there" when I mean the other one, even though I know the correct usages perfectly well. Bizarre.

    • Peregrina LM profile image

      Peregrina LM 7 years ago

      And here I thought I was the only one who agonized over compliment/complement and affect/effect. Great lens!

    • corinnemwestphal profile image

      corinnemwestphal 7 years ago

      @resabi: Ah! That's the spirit! Thanks for joining in the fun.

    • profile image

      resabi 7 years ago

      When the bag opened and his marbles got loose, he thought he would lose his marbles. But then he calmed down. I cannot understand why he was so upset... Very entertaining and useful lens. Love the mnemonics and the illustrations. Blessed.