Spellcheckers and commonly confused words

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Advice Leaflets

Advice leaflets originally produced for the Study Advice Service in the University of Hull, which holds the copyright:

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This leaflet was originally written in 2006. As technology has changed since then, some of the details here may no longer be applicable.

English Spelling is notoriously illogical and hard to learn. If you are bad at spelling, the best answer is to persevere. Learn the spelling of the words you need - and use them. In their correct forms!

The leaflet on Homophones deals with the most basic of common errors.

However, the computer age has brought the wonderful Spellchecker tool. Won't this do the job for you?


A spellchecker is a wonderful tool. But it must be used with caution. Above all, it must be used WITH INTELLIGENCE. One weakness of computers is that they are not as clever as you. They can do some things better - many things much faster - but they do not understand any human language.

A spellchecker is essentially a list of words that are correctly spelled. The computer takes each word that you write and then looks up its list to see if that word exists. So if you mis-type a word (e.g. three when you meant to put there), the machine will ask "Is there such a word as 'three'?" As the answer is 'yes', it will move on to the next word. It is not clever enough to think, "Oh, that should be 'there'. Change it."

As you have made an error, and it remains uncorrected, the machine has NOT helped you. You - the human - still have to make your own decisions about right or wrong. That is why the spellchecker dialogue box offers you a choice between 'Change' and 'Ignore'. So think before you make it.

There is no substitute fro proof-reading.
Sorry: Three is no substitute for proof-reading

When you proof-read, be aware that you will do it best with a fresh eye. It is very easy to read what you meant to say, not what you actually did say. Some suggestions for helping your eye to be fresh include:

  1. Print out your draft so that you read it on paper instead of on screen yet again.
  2. Leave your work, when you have finished writing it, for 24 hours, or at least overnight, before you begin to proof-read it.
  3. Read your writing aloud (to yourself). It is amazing what you see when you hear it!
  4. Read your text sentence by sentence in reverse order - read the last sentence first, then the second last and so on.
  5. Proof-read your friend's or classmate's essay - and get her or him to check yours. It will be easier to spot mistakes in a text that is new to you. (But choose a good friend!)

You should be aware of word pairs that can go wrong - nouns ending in -ies can be mis-typed as verbs ending in -ise (e.g. apologies/apologise). The ending -ion can become in; the word in can become the word ion (a term from Science).

Often the spellchecker will be defeated if an accidental typing error produces a wrong word that nevertheless exists, but differs from the word you meant by only one letter. Your friend, I trust, is not a fiend, nor even a fried. (For some reason, though I have often seen the first of these mistakes, I do not remember ever having seen the second. But it is just as possible, theoretically.)

Be careful with spaces as well as letters. Note that throughout ≠  through out, and into  ≠ in to, nor does on to = onto.

The Spelling table shows some of the words which can be confused that Study Advice Services advisers often see - many in our own work; many in the work of our clients.

Each computer user will make her or his own characteristic typing mistakes (or typos, informal way of saying the academic typographical errors). One that I make often is to type an extra s when I think I have just typed a, so that 'and', for example, comes out as 'asnd'. The spell-checker often suggests 'sand' for this. (Sometimes I just type 'sand', and the machine accepts this. In both cases, I am wrong. I hardly every mean to use the word 'sand'.)

Learn to watch out for your own characteristic errors.

If you use Microsoft's 'AutoCorrect' tool, you can use it to correct your own common errors more efficiently. (It can be a very annoying feature if you are trying to include inaccuracies in your text - as I am in this document!) For further guidance see a good word processing manual.