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Time for a New Year’s resolution? Definately? Defiantly? Definitely!


Looking for a New Year’s resolution? Forget losing weight, exercising more and quitting the bad stuff. How about we all resolve to spell “definitely” correctly … and “separate” … and “lose” … and “you’re” …

Spelling is a treasure hunt

We all have words that trip us up and it is tempting to blame the apparent randomness of English spelling for our errors, and absolve ourselves of any responsibility for getting them right. After all, spell-check will fix them for us.

But when we rely on spell-check we miss out on some great learning. Contrary to popular opinion, English spelling is not random and chaotic. The spelling of a word is the story of its meaning and history. Spelling is a fascinating treasure hunt - a genealogy of the English language.

There are five ways into a word:

  1. Think about the meaning of the word

  2. Unpack the way the word is making that meaning by looking for the base word and prefixes and suffixes

  3. Find out where the word has come from

  4. Listen to the sounds in the word

  5. Check if any spelling rules apply

Good spellers use all of these strategies. Poor spellers rely on sounds - so it is odd that we focus almost exclusively on sounds with poor spellers in schools, denying them the very tools that could help them most.

Getting spelling right

Rather than provide an accusatory list of the “most annoying” spelling errors of 2014, I’m offering a “genealogical” approach to getting them right in 2015.

Definitley, definately, defiantly.

This is definitely the most commonly misspelled word I see in my work with undergraduates. It’s also the first response to all questions asked of athletes - “Yeah, definitely”. So it is must be a word worth investigating!

Damian Du Toit, CC BY

Let’s take the word back to its roots - definite. Definite is an adjective that we can use to describe nouns - a definite advantage.

We add the suffix ‘ly’ to turn the adjective into an adverb - definite + ly. An adverb gives us more information about verbs and adjectives. For example,

Interviewer: “You must be relieved to have the win”.

Sportsperson: “Yeah, definitely [relieved]”.

Interviewer: “It was a great match”.

Sportsperson: “Yeah, definitely [was]”.

So “definite” + “ly” won’t be “definit” + “ley”.

You can use this understanding of how suffixes work to get all those “ly” endings right - truly, madly, deeply right.

It works for “ty” as well. So next time you are stuck on safety (or is it saftey?) and ninety (or is it nintey?), strip them back to their base and suffix - safe + ty, nine + ty.

It will also help with accidentally (not accidently) and publicly (not publically).

Remember, we put the suffix “ly” on the end of adjectives to turn them into adverbs. Accident is a noun, so we can’t write accident + ly. To turn accident into an adjective we add the suffix “al” to make “accidental”. Now we have an adjective to which we can add “ly” - accidental + ly.

“Public” is a noun as in “the general public”. But it can also be an adjective as in “a public statement”. So we can put the “ly” on the end of “public” - “public” + “ly”.

Sounds right?

But what about “definately” - why is that such a common error? And if it is one of your errors how can you fix it?

The reason for this error accounts for about 50% of our spelling errors as adults. When we get to that second “i” in definitely we hit a very special sound in English called the schwa. The schwa is that caveman sounding grunt - “uh”. In Australian English it seems to be everywhere - on the end of mother and tractor, and in the middle of words like “defin_i_te” and “separate”. In Kiwi English it’s there in words like “f_i_sh” and “ch_i_ps”.

It is a sound we can write in any number of ways and in “definitely” many of us opt for an “a”. So when sounding out lets us down (and it so often does in English spelling) go back to meaning and look at the base word - “definite”.

This is where a little family history comes in handy. “Definite” shares the same Latin root as “finite”. It means to be bound by something, to have limits. And in “finite” that pesky schwa sounds disappears and we can hear the second “i” making a much less ambiguous sound that leads us more directly to choosing the letter “i”.

First rule of spelling - what does it mean?

And as for “defiantly” - well that it is a different word altogether, from the root word “defy”. This is an important reminder that correct spelling is pointless if you don’t know the meaning of the word. And I’ve written before on the pointlessness of spelling tests and spelling lists for this very reason.

How do we learn?

We learn new information by making connections to existing information. Stories about words give us context, and a logic we can connect to next time we need to spell the word. And when we look at words this way, not only do we improve our spelling but we build our vocabulary as well.

Spelling reformists who’d like to change English so it is written the way it sounds would be destroying the language’s DNA and wiping out the family history of every word. Advocates of “phonics first” approaches are doing the same thing. Spelling is reduced to abstract sounds and letters, rather than the fascinating exploration of word meaning, language history and vocabulary building it should be.

Make your resolution now

So what is your spelling Achilles heel? Occasionally, independent, accommodation, recommend, relevant, embarrass, February? Tackle it head on in the new year by investigating its family history.

And if you are inspired to share your most annoying spelling error in the comments section, give us your strategies for getting it right too.

This is one New Year’s resolution that is easy to keep, and with benefits well beyond January 31st.

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