By Kelly Laycock
Let’s begin with this tasty morsel by Margo Roark :
Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques for my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it to say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.
As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
It’s rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it
Eye am shore your pleased two no
It’s letter perfect awl the weigh
My checker tolled me sew.
How do I organise a post about a topic as big as misspellings and misused words in English without crippling myself with doubt about misusing a word in it? I could try to be pithy and write an entire post in the format of the poem above and see if my readers could decipher it. But that sounds like a lot more effort than I want to expend, and a lot more creative than I feel. Still, the mass confusion continues, so I thought it might be fun to add my voice to this comedy of errors.
In every grammar reference book and website I’ve consulted, there are lists and lists of words that are “commonly misused” for various reasons. Most of these materials lay out long alphabetical lists that you can search, much like a dictionary, but I find that method unhelpful unless you know exactly which word you are looking up. I know from experience that I will never internalize all the correct spellings and uses of the million or so words that exist in the English language , so what I need are categories of words to watch for. And once again I lean on my Bible, Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook.
In the chapter “Spelling and Hyphenation”, she calls attention to the gaps left by spellcheckers:
…spellcheckers do not distinguish between homophones (principal and principle), do not account for spellings determined by usage (resume and résumé), and may allow variant spellings (catalog and catalogue) in the same document. And, of course, spellcheckers do not highlight a misspelled word if the misspelling is itself a word (from and form).
From this quote, I’ve collected a number of great categories to start with: homophones, variant spellings, and misused words and phrases. To this list, I will add redundancies, which continually plague our otherwise concise writing. Considering the amount of material I had to choose from, I’ve split this topic into two posts, Homophones and Variants in Part 1, and Misused Words and Phrases along with Redundancies in Part 2. Enjoy!
1. Homophones (and other similar-sounding words)
In case we’ve forgotten, homophones are words that sound the same but differ in meaning (caret, carrot, karat). A subcategory of homophones are homonyms, words that share the same spelling and pronunciation but that have different meanings (rose, the flower, and rose, the past tense of rise). All homonyms are homophones, but not all homophones are homonyms. I’ve added a few words that aren’t exactly homophones, but are similar enough to cause confusion.
|accept (v), except (prep)||Except for part two, I accept the terms of the agreement.|
|adverse (adj), averse (adj)||Because he enjoyed a challenge, he was not averse to the adverse conditions he was facing.|
|advice (n), advise (v)||She tried to advise her client, but her advice fell on deaf ears.|
|affect (v), effect (n or v)||The advice affected her client, but the effect was not what she had predicted. The protesters were trying to effect a change to the policy.|
|allude (v), elude (v)||The lawyer alluded to a previous witness’s testimony without directly naming the witness. The drug dealer eluded the police vehicle by turning down a back alley.|
|ascent (n), assent (n or v)||The royal assent was given to the new legislation. His ascent up the corporate ladder was not without personal sacrifice.|
|assure (v), ensure (v), insure (v)||The counsellor assured his client that she would have time to ensure that her property was insured before the hearing.|
|cite (v), sight (n), site (n)||Lawyers must learn to cite their sources correctly. He caught sight of the historical site from the bus window.|
|compliment (n or v), complement (n or v)||She gave her mother a compliment on her new hairstyle. Her scarf complemented the colour of her suit.|
|council (councillor), counsel (counsellor)||The council members gathered in the boardroom. She called her legal counsel to discuss the progress of her case.|
|dependant (n), dependent (adj)||The woman’s dependants were all dependent on her single income.|
|elicit (v), illicit (adj)||In the course of the trial, the lawyer elicited a confession of the illicit dealings of the accused.|
|farther (physical distance), further (time or quantity)||He pushed his chair farther away from the table. She needed to do further research into the topic.|
|its (possessive pronoun), it’s (contraction of it is)||It’s impressive to see how the chimpanzee takes care of its young.|
|principal (n), principle (n or adj)||The principal’s principle rule of thumb was to follow the principle of fairness.|
|wave (v), waive (v)||The accused waved to his family as he entered the courtroom.
The accused waived her right to counsel when she refused to call a lawyer.
2. Variant Spellings
For Canadian spelling, we find ourselves caught between two superpowers: British English and American English. The Canadian Style recommends using the Gage Canadian Dictionary, which it says reflects most federal government departments and agencies, more so than the two big guns: Oxford (British) or Merriam-Websters (American). As Canadians, I feel we are certainly aware of this dichotomy, but that doesn’t mean we are any less confused by it! When in doubt, check your dictionary! Here is a sample of the big differences (British on the left, American on the right). Canadian spelling usually leans toward the British variants.
|Nouns ce/se||Nouns re/er||Verbs single l/double ll|
|Nouns our/or||Verbs ise/ize||Past tense verbs double ll/single l|
Other variants that have developed over time and are not considered wrong in any way. They represent preferences expressed by specific publishers or others, and many have developed into industry standard spellings, ultimately causing the others to be less used and appear more like relics. Here are a few examples from Einsohn  (I’ve put my own preferences on the left and italicized any that are considered industry standard):
afterward, backward, forward, toward
afterwards, backwards, forwards, towards
*I prefer resume without the accents because I find they create a cluttered look if the word is used too frequently in a paragraph. Besides that, the context will always clarify the pronunciation between the noun and the verb of this homograph (words that are spelled the same but have different meanings or pronunciations), much like other pairs of this type.
After the interruption, she was ready to resume composing her resume.
The record label chose to record the band’s first album.
She was content to find the content of her manuscript unchanged.
In the next post, we’ll continue this theme and look at all those tricky misused words that we can’t keep straight. Stay tuned!
 The English Spelling Society, “Poems showing the absurdities of English spelling” online. Accessed June 20, 2014. http://www.spellingsociety.org/news/media/poems.php
 Global Language Monitor http://www.languagemonitor.com/number-of-words/number-of-words-in-the-english-language-1008879/
 Einsohn, Amy, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 125