Spellos Ain't Typos

The Spello Dictionary

The lost art of spelling
in the post-literate
(and post-numerate, but that's another rant)


Standard spellos

A spelling dictionary for technoids, modern businesspeople, and others who did not learn to spell in school.  This really is intended to be helpful.  

"Make it possible for programmers to write in English, and you will find that programmers cannot write in English." (Comment on the possibilities for natural language programming)

"Make it idiot-proof, and someone will find a better idiot." (Caution from human factors group)

A typo is a misspelling that results from a slip of the finger on the keyboard. If the author notices the mistake, it gets fixed. A spello is a misspelling that results from a slip of the mind. If the word is then accurately transcribed, the author beams with pride over the wording of the document while the reader winces.

Most readers on the net these days are reluctant to correct the spelling in email, memos, etc., for fear of being labeled "!@#$%^&*ing nitpickers." This guide is intended as a self-help manual for all who care. More help is available in the orthography section in the back of a dictionary.

I'm not perfect, either, of course. Please feel free to complain about my sloppy grammar or informal idiom, or even spelling.

Standard spellos (in no particular order)


There is enormous confusion today about the use of the poor apostrophe. How can one poor, humble piece of punctuation cause so much confusion? Well, it can.

First, PLURALS. Plural words are NOT formed by adding apostrophe-s to the end of the singular word. This is very common -- and very jarring -- today. Some of these make my teeth hurt. Every one of these examples is one I have seen recently, some of them in email, some of them in signs in stores. :-(


car car's cars
box box's boxes
president president's presidents
country country's countries

Second, POSSESSIVES. Generally, possessive nouns ARE formed by adding apostrophe-s to the end of the word.


car the car's engine
box the box's contents
president the president's advisor
country the country's flag

However, possessive pronouns do NOT have apostrophe-s on the end.


I my, mine
we our's ours, our
he his
her her's hers, her
it it's its
you your's yours, your
they their's theirs, their
they there's theirs, their
they theyre's theirs, their
who who's whose

Third, CONTRACTIONS. Contractions are used to indicate the loss of one or more letters in the middle of a common phrase. The apostrophe is inserted in the place where the letters were deleted.


I am a I'm
we are a we're
you are a you're
he is i he's
she is i she's
it is i it's
they are a they're
is not o isn't
are not o aren't
cannot no can't
would not o wouldn't
have not o haven't
I will wi I'll

Sometimes-seen wrong versions include "couldent," "dident," "wouldent," "cant," and so forth. 


Probably the most common error among these is the use of "it's" where "its" is intended. The " 's" on "it's" looks like the possessive form, as in "Charles's," but it's not.  In "it's," it's a contraction.

This pair is particularly troublesome for many: a possessive pronoun with no apostrophe versus a contraction with an apostrophe.  The confusion here is that apostrophes are used for possessive nouns: Adam's apple, Eve's apple, Midsummer's eve.  But this is not generally the case for possessive pronouns: his, hers, ours, yours, and its.  He tipped his hat.  An idea before its time. 

"It's" with the apostrophe in it is a contraction, not a possessive.  "It's" means "it is."  It's easy once you grasp the concept.  Some examples:

Word Meaning Examples
possessive: belongs to it
Grasp the hammer by its handle. 
A cat always lands on its feet. 
possessive: belongs to him or her
His favorite color is orange.  Hers is pink. 
What's his is hers. 
A man's got to know his limitations. 
possessive: belongs to you, us, or them
Yours, Mine, and Ours.
If you show me yours. . . . 
contraction: it is
It's a bird, it's a plane!
It's my party.
It's time to go. 

Very common contextual errors, which spell checkers will not find
Word Meaning Examples
THEIR adjective, possessive pronoun: belonging to them They went to their just reward. 
Their house is very nice. 
Wait 'til you see the whites of their eyes.  
THEIRS possessive (absolute) pronoun, adjective: belonging to them This room is ours; that room is theirs. 
Are you friends of theirs?
THERE adverb: in that place Where? Not here.  Over there. 
Carry this rock from here to there. 
Don't go there.  
THERE pronoun, of an odd sort, or intensive: as in "there is..." or "there are..." There is no doubt about it. 
There must be some way out of here.
There are seeds in this jam.  
THERE'S contraction: there is There's no business like show business.  There's gold in them thar hills. 
Where there's a will, there's a way.  
THEY'RE contraction: they are I don't like the way they're staring at us.
They're going to kill us now. 
They're baaaaack.  


possessive: belongs to you
I like your style. 
Your hat is on backwards.
contraction: you are
You're right. 
You're nuts. 
possessive: belongs to you
Yours is bigger than mine.
What's mine is yours. 

Properly "kernel." There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that the front panels of some dozens of early computers had to be replaced in the field after the computers were installed because the label on the "kernel mode" light was misspelled this way. Sometimes carelessness can cost real money.
Properly "separate." A very common spello, not limited to computer people.  A good mnemonic for this: "There is 'a rat' in 'separate.' "
Properly "definitely."  Think sort of finite, infinite, and de-finite as related. 

Properly "privilege." Again, not limited to computer people, but we use the term much more often and therefore have many more opportunities to commit various barbarisms. Many similar words are mangled these days. 

priviledge privilege
privelege privilege
privaledge privilege
alledged alleged
ridgid rigid


Properly "protocol." Perhaps there is an image of one participant "calling" another that causes this spello.


Properly "fluorescent," unless you're referring to the glowing bread that's always warm from the Yucca Flats Bakery (or the cheap imitation from Three Mile Island Bakery).


"Roll" is a common misspelling for "role," meaning "part taken or played by someone."


In the U.S.A., forming the participle from the present generally requires doubling the terminal consonant only if the accent would then (in the participle) cause the preceding short vowel to become long. This holds true generally for any suffix beginning with a vowel.

Example: "e'dit" (where the apostrophe indicates an accent) can become "e'dited" without a major change of pronunciation. The "i" is still short because there is no accent on the syllable. On the other hand, "re-fer'" cannot become "re-fer'ed" because it would then rhyme with "revered." Doubling the terminal consonant yields "re-ferr'ed" (rhymes with "absurd"), retaining the short vowel. Simple, eh?


edit edited, editing
target targeted (if you think it's a verb)
travel traveled, traveling
consider considered, considering
layer layered
differ differed
journal journaled, journaling (if it's a verb)

club clubbed
plan planned
pet petted
jog jogged
defer deferred
refer referred
confer conferred
rebel (verb) rebelled
recap recapped

This rule differs in the U.K. and probably in Australia, and I don't know about Canada. In English English, the terminal consonant is (almost?) always doubled if it's an L. Even in the U.S., some words, such as "travelled" and "cancelled" are usually rendered with two Ls.

Every good rule has its glaring exceptions, and this one is no exception. Some people today are gainfully employed as programmers. They write programs for a living. Note that the terminal consonant is doubled even though the accent is on the first syllable. Maybe this odd spelling comes from the British "programme" instead of "program."

Similarly, today we format disks. The process is universally spelled "formatting" with two t's. And there are probably a number of other modern examples. Go figure.


Properly, "usable" and "usage" and "truly".  There is some confusion about when you drop the e. Similar rule to the one stated above about changing the pronunciation. If dropping the e and adding the suffix would cause the pronunciation of the ultimate consonant to change (from soft to hard c or g, for instance), then don't drop the e.

Keeping the e is quite rare, but mistakes can happen in both directions.


use useage usage
use useable usable
alternate alternateing alternating
practice practiceing practicing
surprise surpriseing surprising
true truely truly
glue glueing gluing
definite definateley definitely
hard hardley hardly
slow slowley slowly
age ageing aging (in the U.S.)

notice noticable noticeable
manage managable manageable, management
knowledge knowledgable knowledgeable
trace tracable traceable
advantage advantagous advantageous

One odd case is "queueing" as in "queueing theory." The word was invented only recently, and the commonly accepted spelling does, note, have five consecutive vowels. I think this spelling derives from visual aesthetics: "queuing" is just not quite so pleasing.  However, Mr. Google-Ngrams informs us that the short form is slightly more popular in the last few decades.


Properly "useful." Yes, a thing that is beautiful is full of beauty, but it isn't rendered that way in English anymore. Similarly for "hopeful," "helpful," "grateful," "wasteful," and many others.


Properly "practically." The adjective "practical" already contains the "-al" suffix, so add the "-ly" to it. A common error modifying words that end in "-ic" or "-ical."  Similarly for "theoreticly" and other adverbs.  


Properly, these end in "-ence" and "-ent."  There is a lot of confusion over endings such as "-ent" versus "-ant" and "-ible" versus "-able."  Often our pronunciation simply doesn't reflect the spelling; that's what dictionaries are for.

Misspellings of this type are extremely common, and our failure to challenge them when they appear in writing only perpetuates them by misleading a new generation of programmers and casual writers.  Most of these mistakes are just plain careless.  They originate from a lack of reading, but they persist because people pay less attention to their spell checkers than they probably should.  Those little red worms crawling under your words might signify something important. 


existance existence
non-existant non-existent
dependant dependent
independant independent
independance independence
consistant consistent (confused with constant?)
consistancy consistency
inconsistant inconsistent
intelligant intelligent
competant competent

persistant persistent
persistance persistence
primative primitive (confused with primary?)
definate definite
infinate infinite
definately definitely
visable visible (confused with viable?)
flexable flexible
devine divine
delecate delicate
compatable compatible
incompatable incompatible
responsable responsible
occurrance occurrence
convertable convertible
incumbant incumbent
coherant coherent
sentance sentence
violance violence
negligance negligence
opponant opponent

stagnent stagnant
redundent redundant
dissadent dissident (two mistakes!)

scandel scandal
urben urban
asylem asylum
refinary refinery

Another confusion of endings. A "principle" is an ethical doctrine (and a lot of other things: look it up); a "principal" is a chief actor and the amount due on your mortgage (and a lot of other things, too). The most amusing misuse I've seen was the resume from the person claiming the title "Principle Software Writer." I don't think he/she got the job.

The plural of "medium." If a software product is distributed only in one magnetic form, then it uses "only one distribution medium," not "only one distribution media," as is commonly said and written. The same goes for news media: there are many different media, but a single newspaper is only one medium.

Similarly, "criteria" and "phenomena" are the plurals of "criterion" and "phenomenon," respectively. Similarly, "symposia" has recently been abused into a singular, but is properly the plural of "symposium."

Let's not talk about "data."



Try not to patronize restaurants that spell it this way.  When the Huns adopted the term "Caesar" for their leader, they transliterated the spelling "Kaiser," as in Kaiser Wilhelm or kaiser roll, which should give a hint about how to spell it.  Yes, it is disturbing to think that Julius Caesar was actually pronounced YEW-lee-us KEYE-sahr.  And that Cicero was actually KEY-keh-row.  Shudder. 
(for pickle, nickel)
(for license)

Properly, "supersede."  At least twice that I know of, this misspelling has been inserted -- permanently -- into the syntax of computer languages.  Once some customer writes a script containing the word, you can't revoke it; you just have to add the correct spelling as a synonym, and promise to use a spell checker in the future. 
(for considerable, response, resource)

THEN is a conjunction that indicates a passage of time or a logical implication.  "I went to the store, and then I went home."
THAN is used in comparisons.  "Two heads are better than one."


loose lose
lead led
peek peak pique
poll pole
read read red
roll role
shear sheer
shudder shutter
than then
past passed

Gross phonetic errors


Properly "homogeneous." The word is supposed to sound like "hoe-moe-JEE-knee-us" because it has another "e" in it. After you homogenize ("hoe-MAH-jen-eyes") something, such as milk, it is homogeneous.
Properly "barely," as in "Your performance is barely tolerable. If it were any worse, it would be unbearable."
(for explain)
(for moot, which almost no one understands anyway)
(for disperse)
(for guessed, and vice versa)
(for tail, and vice versa)
(for peace, and vice versa)
(for site)
(for procedure; mistake prompted by "proceed")

Standard thinkos



(comparative superlatives)


(by analogy with reactive, but nonexistent)


(malapropism for respectfully)

Lost causes, some word confusions, some just grammar



Properly, "between you and me" and "between her and me." Prepositions, like "between" and "like," take the objective case as their objects. We wouldn't even think of saying "The truck ran over he." Same thing.  Think of "just between us chickens. . . ."  "Between us" not "between we."


Almost hopeless, but try these, I hope, simple rules. 


Different words with different meanings, and endlessly confusing.  Lie is to repose.  Lay is to place.  (Lie is also falsehood, but that is an entirely different meaning and not confused with these.) 

present Please lie down on the examining table.
present You have been lying in the sun too long.
past She pushed him, and he lay back smiling.
past The cat lay in wait for its victim.

present Lay the board on the workbench, please.
past When the concrete arrived, they laid the foundation.
past He laid out his suit for tomorrow.

present !WRONG! Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big, brass bed.
(Dylan used poetic license; it sounds better. No problema.)


Often mistaken due to similar pronunciations. Most of them are verbs.

present Choose one from column A and one from column B.
past On yesterday's quiz, I chose the wrong answer.

present My mommy told me not to lose my wallet.
past I lost my mind, but it was no big deal.

present Lead us not into temptation.
past You led me to believe this crap.
(participle) I was led astray.

"Loose" is not the same as "lose."  It isn't often a verb at all; it's mostly an adjective, as in "This doorknob is loose." 

The other kind of "lead" is a heavy metal.


Often used backwards.  On television, almost always used backwards.  The verb "comprise" is a synonym for "include" or "contain" or "embrace."  It is not a fancy version of "compose."  Look it up.  Properly, the whole comprises the parts, just as the whole includes the parts. The parts compose the whole.  The whole is composed of its parts, if you like passives (a subject for another day).  Yes, a story comprises three parts: beginning, middle, and end.  No, the several chapters do not comprise the book.

Now, on the lighter side, we have a poem from a man who knows how to do it and simply doesn't want to.

Subj:	Starbuck is a Prof. at BU who resides in lovely Milford, NH...
Subj: fyi (and, to you Ripley Superspellers, SO THEIR!)

*The Spell Against Spelling*

a poem
to be inscribed
in dark places
never to be spoken aloud


My favorite student lately is the one who wrote about feeling clumbsy.
I mean if he wanted to say how it feels to be all thumbs he
Certainly picked the write language to right in the first place.
I mean better to clutter a word up like the old Hearst place
Than to just walk off the job and not give a dam.

Another student gave me a diagragm.
"The Diagragm of the Plot in Henry the VIIIth."

Those, though, were instances of the sublime.
The wonder is in the wonders they can come up with every time.

Why do they all say heighth, but never weighth?
If chrystal can look like English to them, how come chryptic can't?
I guess cwm, chthonic, qanat, or quattrocento
Always gets looked up. But never momento.
Momento they know. Like wierd. Like differant.
It is a part of their deep deep-structure vocabulary:
Their stone axe, their dark bent-offering to the gods:
Their protoCro-Magnon pre-pre-sapient survival-against-cultural-odds.

You won't get ME deputized in some Spelling Constabulary.
I'd sooner abandon the bag-toke-whiff system and go decimal.
I'm on their side. I better be, after my brush with "infinitessimal."

There it was, right where I put it, in my brand-new book.
And my friend Peter Davison read it, and he gave me this look,
And he held the book for a little while and said, "George..."

I needed my students at that moment. I, their Scourge.
I needed them. Needed their sympathy. Needed their care.
"Their their," I needed to hear them say, "their their."

You see, there are SPELLERS in this world, I mean mean ones too.
They shadow us around like a posse of Joe Btfsplks
Waiting for us to sit down at our study-desks and go shrdlu
So they can pop in at the windows saying "tsk tsk."

I know they're there. I know where the beggars are,
With their flash cards looking like prescriptions for the catarrh
And their mnemnmonics, blast 'em. They go too farrh.
I do not stoop to impugn, indict, or condemn;
But I know how to get at the likes of thegm.

For a long time, I keep mumb.
I let 'em wait, while a preternatural calmn
Rises to me from the depths of my upwardly opened palmb.
Then I raise my eyes like some wizened-and-wisened gnolmbn,
Stranger to scissors, stranger to razor and coslmbn,
And I fix those birds with my gaze till my gaze strikes hoslgmbn,
And I say one word, and the word that I say is "Oslgmbnh."

"Om?" they inquire. "No, not exactly. OSLGMBNH.
Watch me carefully while I pronounce it because you've got only two
more guesses
And you only get one more hint: there's an odd number of esses,
And you only get ten more seconds no nine more seconds no eight
And a right answer doesn't count if it comes in late
And a wrong answer bumps you out of the losers' bracket
And disqualifies you for the National Spellathon Contestant jacket
And that's all the time extension you're going to gebt
So go pick up your consolation prizes from the usherebt
And don't be surprised if it's the bowdlerized regularized paperback
abridgment of Pepys
Because around here, gentlemen, we play for kepys."

Then I drive off in my chauffeured Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham
Like something out of the last days of Fellini's Rougham
And leave them smiting their brows and exclaiming to each other
O-U-G-H-A-M Ougham!" and tearing their hair.

Intricate are the compoundments of despair.

Well, brevity must be the soul of something-or-other.

Not, certainly, of spelling, in the good old mother
Tongue of Shakespeare, Raleigh, Marvell, and Vaughan.
But something. One finds out as one goes aughan.

[Published in BOSTONIA, March 1984]


Fresh, new evidence of rampant illiteracy and abuse, since the latest draft

I will have to add these to the list soon.
carear, guarentee, 
high-jacking [a new low]
strick [for strict] [typical of sounds-like spelling]
desease [for disease] [similarly]
comprise [for compromise]
teanage [a new low]

[almost all of these atrocities make my teeth hurt.]

Then there are mistakes that even educated people make:

wreck havoc [for wreak]
site instead of sight, or vice versa


Comments and flames to the author: webmaster@ricksoft.com
"Why use logic when there's a flamethrower handy?" Hey, go ahead. I didn't exactly leave the gloves on when I wrote this.

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Revised: October 31, 2014.