Spelling is hard

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I think I've gotten this one wrong a few times myself:

(The headline was corrected a few minutes ago…)

[Update 6/15/2010 — KF writes:

My dear husband always corrects my grammar…. Spelling is difficult; walls are hard.
Many people fail to use the word hard correctly….

KF's husband can be added to the list of those who are ignorant about hard.  The OED's entry has:

5. a. Difficult to do or accomplish; not easy; full of obstacles; laborious, fatiguing, troublesome.

a1340 HAMPOLE Psalter vi. 4 Ful hard it is to be turnyd enterly til þe bryghthed and þe pees of godis lyght. c1440 Promp. Parv. 227/1 Harde yn knowynge, or warkynge, difficilis. 1559 W. CUNINGHAM Cosmogr. Glasse 97 It is as harde, and laborus, to get the Longitude. 1611 BIBLE Transl. Pref. 2 So hard a thing it is to please all. 1653 WALTON Angler ii. 60, I see now it is a harder matter to catch a Trout then a Chub. 1711 STEELE Spect. No. 36 {page}8 How hard a thing it is for those to keep Silence who have the Use of Speech. 1876 MOZLEY Univ. Serm. iv. 90 Often..what we must do as simply right..is just the hardest thing to do.

Mr. KF's little crotchet seems to be yet another example of prescriptivist invention without any foundation at all in actual usage. The general idea seems to be that if there are two words with overlapping meanings, they should be redefined so as to eliminate the overlap. I haven't encountered this particular (hard != not easy) peeve before, and it's not common enough to have been noted in the MWDEU entry for hard, which is mostly about the history and usage of hardly. But I imagine that Mr. KF is not the only person who believes it.]

[Update #2 — KF, coming out from behind her husband, responded:

I totally disagree. Hard (to do) is different than hard by itself. And the biblical translation is just that…not a preferred one.

(The OED's "1611 BIBLE Transl. Pref." reference is to the "translators' preface" to the 1611 King James Version of the bible — it's not a part of a translation at all, and the only preference involved is the translators' implicit views about English usage, which clearly include the idea that hard can mean "difficult".)

KF is shifting the goal posts here, since her (husband's?) original complaint was that only (things like) walls are hard, so that the word should only be used for a physical object or substance  "That does not yield to blows or pressure; not easily penetrated or separated into particles; firm and resisting to the touch; solid, compact in substance and texture", as the OED puts it.

This disallows common and standard collocations like "hard work", "hard problems", "a hard job", and so on, and well as the many commonplace instances of "hard to VERB" meaning "difficult to VERB". So KF shifts her ground:  the key thing now is for hard to be by itself in predicate position without a complement, and serving as the opposite of "easy" rather than the opposite of "soft".

I tried some other quotations from esteemed writers:

Benjamin Disraeli: "Manners are easy," said Coningsby, "and life is hard."

Bret Harte: After Mother Nell left her husband — for which step she gave no reason except that her life was hard and dull—she formed other associations and thought no more of either husband or child.

Herman Melville: The task was hard, but how glorious the reward!

Wilkie Collins: Law may be hard, but it can't be harder than music.

But KF was unmoved: "I hear what you are saying.. but just because something is hard, doesn't mean it's difficult."

She's definitely a hard woman to persuade. In fact, in her case, I'd say that it's effectively impossible. When she's not persuaded by the OED, Benjamin Disraeli, and Herman Melville, there's no way that she'll "yield to blows or pressure" from me.]


  1. Urban Garlic said,

    June 13, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

    Interestingly, it's correct in the text. More proof that headline writing and article writing are separate processes, I guess.

  2. Chris Brew said,

    June 13, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

    They are probably diehard supporters of Franjo Seper


    campaigning on a platform of religious liberty and use of
    the vernacular in catholic liturgy.

  3. Kevin Lyda said,

    June 13, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

    My trick for remembering this is that two a's separate the two e's in separate.

  4. Cliff Crawford said,

    June 13, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    I have a vague memory of a teacher in elementary or middle school telling us that the verb should be spelled "separate" and the adjective "seperate". (Or is it the other way around…) It wasn't until I was in grad school that I realized they should both be spelled the same way.

  5. GAC said,

    June 13, 2010 @ 11:21 pm

    I didn't see the error until I looked at the bit of the article.

  6. john riemann soong said,

    June 13, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

    It's easier once you know French, because the French pronunciation doesn't reduce the a.

    For some English words, their French pronunciation hangs near the back of my mind for some reason, almost unconsciously.

  7. Stephen Nicholson said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 1:47 am

    Spelling is hard, I had to run this through my computer's spell check before I was sure which word was misspelled. If you hadn't pointed it out, I wouldn't have noticed.

  8. J.H. said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 2:35 am

    I can identify that 'separate' is spelt wrongly if it's someone else's mistake (as in the headline above), but when I try to spell it myself, I look at both versions and see both as correct.

    John, I think I'll take on your advice. Muttering "sé-pa-rer" under my breath will probably work out well for my writing, though probably not so much for others' impressions of my sanity!

  9. Roger Depledge said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 4:06 am

    This discrepancy between headlines and text crops up frequently and in more than one language. Why don't headline-writers have spell checks?

  10. ElizMo said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 4:31 am

    Never spelled it wrong – because I know there's a rat in separate!

  11. Sili said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 4:32 am

    As a dirty foreigner not having mastered vowel reduction does indeed help.

    I can never get "medieval" right, though. Guess I need to look up the etymology the next time I have access to the OED.

  12. Nicholas Waller said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 5:20 am

    @ Sili – or "mediaeval" or indeed "mediæval" – as in the music group Mediæval Bæbes. (Warning – the link starts singing in a YouTube vid after a few seconds).

  13. Rolig said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    @ Nicholas Waller – "medieval" is correct in American orthography, and even the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (2005) lists it, unmarked, as a variant of "mediaeval". Not to be confused, of course, with the compound that refers to the harmful effects of 21st-century mass culture: mediaevil.

    As for "separate", whenever I have to write this word and hesitate over it, I think: "I smell 'a rat' here."

  14. Bill Walderman said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    Anyone who spells "separate" "seperate" is definately ignorant.

  15. pj said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    Bill, did you mean 'ignorent'?
    My mental check-word for 'separate' is 'apart'.

  16. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 8:50 am

    @john riemann soong: That's a good approach in general, but a bit of caution is required: some common English reduced-vowel misspellings actually match the vowels in the French etymon or cognate. (The only example I can think of offhand is "responsable" for "responsible", but I'm certain I've encountered at least a few others.)

  17. Army1987 said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    Being an Italian native speaker, I hardly misspell vowels in words of obvious Latin or Romance etymology. (This doesn't work for Germanic words with no cognate in Italian: I *do* sometimes start up typing F-O-U- for "forth" or B-I-L- for "build", though I generally catch the error and correct myself before even getting to the end of the word.)

  18. Theodore said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    Statistically, what class of spelling errors is most common in English among native speakers? It seems like this type (a reduced vowel) has to be near or at the top of the list.

  19. Steve Harris said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    Curiously, the single most common mistake in my experience is not with a reduced vowel: "loose" used as the verb "lose". Two things play a part here, I guess: the silly way "lose" is spelled, and the fact that "loose" can, indeed, be a verb.

    But I have no statistical evidence that this is spelling mistake #1; it may just be high in my personal peevology.

  20. mpg said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    In elementary school, we were taught that "separate" is "a rat" to spell correctly.

    (For what it's worth, we were also taught that "the principal is your pal".)


  21. Anonymous said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Spelling is only hard if you are a native English speaker. Everyone else learns proper spelling automatically. :)

    http://www.d-e-f-i-n-i-t-e-l-y.com/ :D

  22. mollymooly said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    I never misspell "separate", but I have to fight the urge to insert a second A in "mackerel", by some spurious analogy.

    "what class of spelling errors is most common in English among native speakers? It seems like this type (a reduced vowel) has to be near or at the top of the list."
    Indeed; especially -ant/ent, -ary/ery, -able/-ible.

    Looking at OUP's list of common misspellings suggests doubled letters is the other main one. Vowels are harder than consonants, although -s-, -c-, and -sc- get intertwingled a lot.

  23. Gadi said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    Other that the loosers (sic) mentioned above, the most annoying and regular spelling mistakes I see native speakers make on the web is mistaking "they're" with "their" and "you're" with "your", which is not only painful on the poor reader's eyes, but makes the writer, who may be a perfectly nice and intelligent individual, look like a complete and utter boor. I call it a spelling mistake and not a grammatical mistake because it clearly demonstrates that a native speaker does not think grammatically. I can't fathom how many seem to always get the spelling wrong when a large part of the time (when the word is stressed) the two are pronounced differently as well. In general I find that there is a tendency to favour the possessive ("their", "your") regardless of grammatical context.

    Or to summarise in the style one those inane posters one finds in schools and hospitals:

    "When you make spelling mistakes we all loose."

  24. Lazar said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    I often have trouble spelling "existent" and "existence". My solution is to think of the word "existentialism".

  25. Ben said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    I am a good speller myself, but at the same time spelling mistakes that others make rarely bother me. It's usually obvious what the writer meant to spell, and usually what they did (mis)spell is pronounced the same or close enough to the word they meant to spell, so it doesn't block my flow of reading at all. Spelling errors of this sort I only vaguely notice unless I'm specifically looking for them.

    So while I would never write definately, I don't care if somebody else does. Similarly with separate/seperate. It also doesn't bother me when when writers mix up real words like their/there/they're, its/it's, complement/compliment, affect/effect — in all these cases the pronunciation is the same and the context almost makes the meaning clear so the material is made no more difficult to read.

    The only spelling errors that bother me are the ones that disrupt reading flow — and these ones bother me a great deal (my spelling peeve rays are very focused I guess). I think lose/loose is probably the most annoying one of all for me. Even when the context makes it clear which was intended, my mental playback always plays what was actually spelled first before realizing what I'm reading makes no sense. It really stops me in my tracks every time I encounter it.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

    Another common class of error occurs when the word sounds as if it could be spelled with a more familiar pattern: Isreal, Lybia, and the champ, Dalmation, one of very few words that get more Google hits spelled incorrectly (5,280,000 for me today) than correctly (3,050,000).

  27. Eric said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 11:55 pm

    Maybe I'm missing an obvious joke, but I can't make sense out of this "rat" mnemonic that's been mentioned a few times. The original error involves the 2nd vowel in "separate" and its derivatives–not the 3rd. I spell it wrong all the time, but always in the (wrong) way the Times writer spelled it: with "e" instead of "a" for the 2nd vowel. Is it really common to incline toward spelling it "separete," etc.? That doesn't look like an easy mistake for any English speaker to make.

  28. Kenny Easwaran said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 2:22 am

    Another class of course is a pair of homophones that are both uncommon, as in "aught" and "ought". Though perhaps speakers in some variants of English pronounce those words differently.

  29. Jessica said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 2:41 am

    I almost always type out 'calendar' incorrectly and have to go back and fix it.

    I also messed up the spelling of tomorrow while teaching English class about a year ago. I spelled it tommorow.

    Eric – it's not remembering 'rat' so much as it's remembering 'a rat' which mirrors the spelling of the troublesome part.

  30. Chaon said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 5:01 am

    I want to thank everyone for sharing their experiances on this issue.

  31. TO said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 5:27 am

    @ Gadi
    Not only are ‘you’re,’ ‘your,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘there’ normally unstressed, but even when they are stressed they are pronounced the same by many (most?) English speakers. I pronounce them the same, and I suspect that most North Americans do as well. ‘You’re’ and ‘your’ both show up as ‘yer’ and ‘yore’ in eye dialect, which is not ‘dialect’ but nonstandard spelling for normal spoken English pronunciations. I often misspell them myself, when I'm not careful, although I have no trouble distinguishing them if I pay attention. If it’s unfathomable to you that people could switch them, perhaps you indeed pronounce them differently, but that certainly doesn’t mean everyone does.

  32. Bill Walderman said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    'some common English reduced-vowel misspellings actually match the vowels in the French etymon or cognate. (The only example I can think of offhand is "responsable" for "responsible", but I'm certain I've encountered at least a few others.'

    'correspondance' meaning 'transfer station'


  33. Weedy said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    Eric: There's "a rat" in "separate", not there's a "rat" in "separate"

  34. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    No empirical evidence here, but I suspect part of the problem with there, their, and they're is that well-intended lesson planners teach all three at the same time, so as to forestall the error. This would seem, on the contrary, to guarantee the conflation it is designed to solve.

    I stopped using mnemonics when I got my first word processor back in the 80s.

    But of course this only works because I had already learned to spell. Many of today's kids never learn to spell, and spell-check only reinforces the dysfunction. For evidence, countless examples abound. Or simply read a freshman essay.

  35. john riemann soong said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    " (The only example I can think of offhand is "responsable" for "responsible", but I'm certain I've encountered at least a few others.)"

    Probably suffixes like -able and -ance

    The vowel shifts are sort of interesting.

    French borrows from proto-Romance -able while some English words go back to the classical Latin -ible (from habilis)

    Latin –> Old French has some odd transitions where /e/ goes to /a/ and /a/ goes to /e/ (before being reduced to /E/ or the Fr. schwa in modern French). I can't quite figure it out — some of the transitions seem irregular. When I took French phonetics I thought I would end up investigating these historical sound change rules, but I guess not.

  36. john riemann soong said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    "Many of today's kids never learn to spell, and spell-check only reinforces the dysfunction. For evidence, countless examples abound. Or simply read a freshman essay."

    sorry but as a young'un I simply have to disagree with you on that one. they misspell simply because they do not read or write enough.

    btw, I really hate how some HS teachers approach essays (and I'm now a third-year college student). off the fly they assign some essay of x words or y pages…. and they get surprised when the essays are lacking in substance or elegance.

    exercises that really work well are spontaneous acts of writing… pop quizzes in writing as a form of /expression/, and then work from there

    oh I needn't mention the horrible teachers that pull out S&W

  37. john riemann soong said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    "you're" and "your" are both slightly different for me when stressed, with the former slightly longer, but maybe it's an artificial artifact of my 1.5 generation'ness

  38. Teresa said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    separate because it is linked to pars,partis = latin for component part, portion, share etc.

  39. Karen said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    @Gadi: It should be incredibly obvious, but doesn't seem to be, that writing the wrong one of a pair (or triplet, etc) of homonyms is outrageously easy. You're right that it's a spelling error, but it's not the usual sort: people don't know how to spell "existent" but they write the wrong word for "there, they're, their". And then, often, read right over them in their own prose… Is a puzzlement, but (thank you for not saying so, by the way) not a moral failing.

    And ps – I too pronounce them all exactly the same way. I have cousins who pronounce "their" "they-er" (funnily enough, "they're" doesn't sound like that), but for me, all three are the same sound, even stressed – except that when stressed "they're" becomes "they are" with a clear break in between them.

  40. john riemann soong said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    "It should be incredibly obvious, but doesn't seem to be, that writing the wrong one of a pair (or triplet, etc) of homonyms is outrageously easy. "

    Probably different from person to person.

    It's only when I'm tired and late at night that I start substituting words like "right" for "write" and not notice it.

    for me such spelling errors stand out to me probably because I'm partially OCD when it comes to how words look. it's the most childish thing. When I was young (around eight) I had this little phase where I liked words with even numbers of letters over ones with odd ones, except for 2 and 3 letter words where I liked the 3-letter word over the 2-letter one. I don't know why.

  41. Linus said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

    Since we're talking about most common spelling mistakes, mine are doubled consonants that might reasonably be single, or single ones that might be double. Sheriff, necessary, address, accommodate, and parallel are among my most troublesome words.

  42. Jessica said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    I also pronounce your/you're and there/their/they're exactly the same, except they're when it's stressed.

    I thought of a few more random misspellings that have been haunting me since elementary school.

    I sometimes make the (somewhat common) mistake of writing 'teh' instead of 'the', and the (less common) mistake of writing 'beacause' instead of 'because' (although this one hardly ever happens anymore). This is when typing or writing longhand, with similar frequency.

    Anyone got a theory on what is going on there?

  43. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    I work for a newspaper named The Sentinel, and it is common to have people misspell it "sentinal" when they write it.

    I have heard the difficult/hard distinction before, but I don't remember where I encountered that particular peeve.

  44. John Cowan said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 2:49 am

    For me the most often mistyped word is return, which muscle memory makes reutnr every time, and then I have to fix it. At least it's obviously wrong.

  45. Lars said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 3:10 am

    @Teresa: How strong is that link between L. paro: and part-? Seems hard to bridge semantically.

  46. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    @john riemann soong

    I don't think we're in disagreement. I might have added the the primary way one learns to spell is simply through copious reading. Without a solid reading habit, bad spelling is sure to follow.

    I still maintain the spellcheck reinforces the problem.

  47. john riemann soong said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    Lars: They are false cognates (friends?).

    part/portion traces to PIE *per- (allot/allocate)
    separate traces to PIE *per- (produce/bring forth)

    they're homonyms in PIE (according to the reconstruction) but I wonder if they influenced each other.

  48. Ben said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    I would like to challenge the notion that spell check is an inherently disruptive force to good spelling. While I do understand that it is possible to use it as a crutch, it's also possible to use it as a learning tool — it gives negative feedback every time a word is spelled wrong. For me at least, it has improved my spelling over time because my mind does its best to avoid those red squiggly lines.

  49. speedwell said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    Spelling is only hard if you are a native English speaker. Everyone else learns proper spelling automatically. :)

    Not so. Some of us learned our spelling right the first time, when it was the easiest. You haven't had the full range of human experience until you've been sent to the principal by your third-grade teacher for correcting her spelling, and the principal said you were right and not your teacher, but to never do it again.

  50. Terry said,

    June 18, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

    This one knocked me out of the 5th grade spelling bee. I am still traumatized, and I still struggle with the correct spelling.

  51. Ellen K. said,

    June 19, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    Speedwell, that bit you quoted doesn't say spelling is hard for all native speakers. Just that native speakers are the only one's it's hard for. Though I don't agree with that.

  52. nbm said,

    June 20, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    Having mastered "calendar," people then go on to write "lavendar."

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