Spelling tips

Why bother with a post on spelling tips? After all, there are spellcheckers and dictionaries galore out there (see my blog on useful sites for a list of some good online English dictionaries for some examples). But even these useful tools don't always help (one of my favourite illustrations as to how spellcheckers can let you down is this YouTube video by Taylor Mali). A quick guide or a memorable tip can come in handy, so I'll be adding a few to this post every now and then. Here are two to start with – I constantly use the first one myself.

Practice or practise? And other -ise/ice questions

A common spelling question is when to use ‘s’ and when ‘c’ in words like this, where the ending sounds the same. In fact, I think ‘practice/practise’ is the most common example.

In UK spelling, the version with ‘c’ is the noun form, while ‘s’ is the verb form.

And when you’re writing, it’s very easy to use the wrong one.

Here’s a very handy quick tip to help you remember which one’s which: replace your word with the word 'advise' or 'advice'. Which one makes sense in the context? If it's the one that has a definite 'z' sound ('advise'), then it's the verb form you need: practise. If not, then it's the noun form: practice.

Verb: Please practise this. (Please advise me about this.)
Noun: Please do your piano practice! (Please give me some advice!)

Remember that the adjective ‘practised’ derives from the verb form, so just as you would have ‘he practised hard for his speech’, you would then have ‘he is a practised speaker’ – both with ‘s’.

It gets more confusing because the US spelling is different – it uses the ‘c’ form for both noun and verb (although does also use the ‘s’ less commonly – also for both noun and verb – according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary).

Oddly, nouns like 'defence' and 'offence' use the 's' form in American spelling ('defense' and 'offense'). Spelling rules can never be taken for granted!
Have a look at the OED online for some example sentences and a handy usage note. Chambers' online dictionary takes a slightly different approach (and its etymology goes further back).

Lead or led?

This can be tricky, because ‘led’ can look wrong. After all, for English, it’s a remarkably straightforward spelling.

‘Lead’ can be two different words, one a noun (the metal lead, represented on the periodical table as Pb), the other the present tense of the verb ‘to lead’ (e.g. ‘The hospital leads the way in experimental treatments’).

The verb is pronounced ‘leed’, but spelled ‘lead’.

The noun is pronounced ‘led’, but spelled ‘lead’.

And then it gets complicated ... because the past tense of the verb is also pronounced ‘led’. And it is spelled that way.

So: ‘She led the horse into its stall.’

I think one of the reasons the spelling gets confused is because the past tense of ‘to read’ is pronounced ‘red’ but spelled ‘read’.

I don’t have a handy tip for this one – but feel free to bookmark this post in case you ever need a quick reminder 😉

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