A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – especially when it comes to spelling.
The English word most commonly misspelt in published documents and on the internet is supersede, an analysis by lexicographers has found. But it is not pure ignorance that leads many of us to get it wrong. Rather, the problem is that many of us know a little bit too much.
Ask ten-year-olds to spell supersede, and there is a good chance they will get it right (or at least they will correctly put an s in the middle) because they will spell it phonetically. But ask adults, and it is quite likely that they will come up with supercede, basing this on their knowledge of the words intercede, precede or cede (from the Latin cedere – to yield).
In truth supersede comes from the Latin supersedere, meaning to desist from.
The same temptation to apply knowledge gets us into trouble with another of the most commonly misspelt words, consensus, which is frequently spelt incorrectly as concensus by those who wrongly believe that it relates to the word census. (Census is from the Latin censere – to assess; whereas consensus is from the Latin consentire – to agree).
Although a misinterpretation of Latin often lies at the heart of the problem, more often people make wrong assumptions based on their knowledge of the correct spelling of other, similar words.
Many are tempted to spell liquefy as liquify, simply because they know the correct spelling of liquid. Similarly, sacrilegious is often incorrectly spelt as sacreligious because people associate it with religious. The same goes for inoculate, which is often misspelt by those who know that innocuous has a double “n”.
Ian Brookes, the managing editor of dictionaries at Collins, said: “The real spelling problems occur when people have learnt the rules or have a bit of knowledge, but then make mistakes in how they apply this.”
Another common reason for misspelling is where words are spelt differently from their pronunciation. The top five misspelt words in this category are conscience, indict, foreign, mortgage and phlegm.
Researchers at Collins compiled their list of misspelt words by running thousands of documents on the internet through a software program designed to pick up spelling mistakes. They included published books and articles, as well as blogs, to ensure that they covered a wide range of writing styles and media. Supersede was by far the most commonly misspelt word, being wrong on one in ten occasions.
So much of English spelling is not phonetic. The ee-sound, for example, can be spelt in more than ten ways: seem, team, convene, sardine, protein, fiend, people, he, key, ski, debris and quay. Then there are all the spelling “rules”, which exist only to be broken. Think of all the words that break the “i before e except after c” rule: weird, seize, leisure, neighbour, foreign.
These problems have led the Spelling Society to campaign for the past 100 years for a new simplified and phonetic form of spelling. The same desire for reform recently prompted Ken Smith, a lecturer at Bucks New University, to begin a campaign for “variant spellings” to be fully accepted into common usage, such as arguement for argument and occured for occurred.
As a publisher of dictionaries, Collins insists that standard spellings serve a valuable purpose. But the company is sympathetic to people’s difficulties and is holding a public vote next month to find out which word British schoolchildren think has the stupidest spelling.
Five most difficult words based on wrong assumptions relating to content are:
supersede (precede), inoculate (innocuous), sacrilegious (religious), consensus (census), liquefy (liquid)
Five most difficult words based on a foreign language root:
broccoli (Italian), haemorrhage (ancient Greek), connoisseur, manoeuvre, lieutenant (French)
Five most difficult words based on difference in pronunciation are:
conscience, indict, foreign, mortgage, phlegm
Source: Collins Dictionaries