Top ten misspelled words in our corpus
For many students of English, and some native speakers as well, English spelling can be confusing given all the idiosyncrasies and apparent inconsistencies that make up the written language. As Ian Brookes has argued in a previous blog post, the difficulties partly arise from the fact that the spellings of English words reflect their origins rather than their sounds.
The spelling issue got us interested in how often those tricky words show up spelt incorrectly in our corpus. We have looked up the words from our list of common misspellings in the Oxford New Monitor Corpus and identified the top ten most frequent misspellings appearing in it.
Frequency (per billion words): 3,369
Correct spelling: accommodate
It isn’t hard to identify the difficult part about the spelling of accommodate: the verb has not one but two double consonants – c and m – so you’re twice as likely to miss one out. However, people tend to forget about the second m a lot more often. With 3,369 instances per a billion words, accomodate is used a lot more frequently in our corpus than acommodate with only 19 instances.
Frequency (per billion words): 3,380
Correct spelling: which
The inclusion of which in this list might come as a surprise to some. Surely, the spelling of a word as common as this should be clear? With over two million mentions, the pronoun and determiner does indeed get more mentions in our corpus than any other word listed here – and this is probably one of the main reasons for the relatively high number of occurrences of the misspelt form wich.
However, it might also be possible that which is following in the footsteps of what by dropping the ‘h’ in colloquial writing. While not yet added to the dictionary, a search for wat returns 10,794 results in the corpus, with a number of example sentences containing other simplified and abbreviated spellings such as ‘wat r u talking abt?’ which points towards the apparent misspelling being used deliberately.
Frequency (per billion words): 3,832
Correct spelling: receive
You may remember learning ‘i before e except after c’ when you were in school. Still, despite this being a well-known grammar rule, many people get the spelling of receive wrong: we could find 3,832 instances of recieve in the Oxford New Monitor Corpus. But to be fair, English words including a combination of the letters i and e can be a source of confusion. Think achieve, where you put the i before e, or weird where it’s the exact other way around. And there are even some notable exceptions to the rule as in science or efficient. Watch this short video for a more detailed explanation of the issue:
Frequency (per billion words): 3,991
Correct spelling: until
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the preposition was spelt with two ‘l’s in the Middle Ages, and its short variant till is still spelt that way, which might have contributed to the confusion about the word’s correct spelling. It is, however, worth noting that another shortened alternative, ‘til, which dropped the second l, has also come into use.
Frequency (per billion words): 4,808
Correct spelling: occurred
Occurred poses a similar case to accommodate. Both words are of Latin origin, and both include two double consonants. Again, people here are more likely to forget about the second letter at the end. The spelling occured can be found 4,808 times in the corpus while ocurred only appears 154 times.
Frequency (per billion words): 5,767
Correct spelling: separate
Another word from Latin that people often get wrong is separate. Here, knowing the etymology is key to spelling it correctly. The verb entered the English language via sēparāt-, participial stem of sēparāre, from the prefix sē- and parāre, meaning ‘to make ready, prepare’.
Frequency (per billion words): 5,815
Correct spelling: government
We just recently looked at silent letters in English, and how they make the language more difficult to learn. The problem with silent letters, like the n in government (which is sometimes pronounced and sometimes isn’t; both options are included in our dictionary entry), is that it’s easy to forget about them in writing. As with which, government is also such a frequently used word – it gets almost five million mentions in the corpus – that it might explain its high position in our list of top misspellings.
Frequency (per billion words): 7,758
Correct spelling: definitely
The adverb is another Latin derivation; it is from dēfīnītus, meaning ‘defined, bounded, limited, distinct, precise’. In order to remember that definitely is spelt with an i rather than an a, you might find it helpful to recall other common terms that include the finit stem like finish or finite.
Frequency (per billion words): 8,407
Correct spelling: pharaoh
OxfordDictionaries.com lists pharaoh as the only correct spelling of the name of the ancient Egyptian ruler. Surprisingly, it is the supposedly incorrect pharoah that returns more corpus results between these two – 8,407 mentions compared to 6,205 for pharaoh. Is it perhaps the pronunciation /ˈfɛːrəʊ/ that makes people misspell it? A look into the OED actually reveals that pharoah has been around in nonstandard use since at least the 16th century.
Frequency (per billion words): 8,646
Correct spelling: publicly
Publically is a similar case – the OED even has its own entry for it which tells us that the adverb came into use as early as the late 18th century. However, unlike pharaoh/pharoah the ‘correct’ spelling, publicly, is still the preferred variant by quite a margin as the corpus search shows. It was mentioned 247,237 times, whereas a search for publically produced 8,646 results.