The Spellchecker is the writer’s friend. It catches silly errors and major misspellings. It keeps us from making mistakes that would make us look like rank amateurs. But there are things it can’t do for us. There are times when we’re on our own. We need to be alert and aware of those times.
The English language has many words that are homophones–words that sound alike but are spelled differently. It also has homographs–words that are spelled the same but have different meanings or uses. Those don’t usually cause the problems that homophones do, but sometimes they create confusion. For example, several times I’ve seen “lead” used where “led” was the word that should have been used. It’s confusing, because “led” is the past tense of the verb “lead” which is a homograph of “lead” meaning the metal often used in pipes, solder, etc., for which “led” is a homophone. Despite that confusing explanation, I would think that almost all writers know the difference between “lead” and “led”, just as they know the difference between the homophones “it’s” and “its”; “there,” “their,” and “they’re”; or “to, “too,” and “two.” However, when we are writing a first draft, and ideas are coming as fast as we can type them into the computer, it is easy to type the wrong word without thinking because we’re in creative mode, and our critical and analytical faculties are not engaged. Sometimes–but not always–in the case of “its” versus “it’s” or the other most common homophones the spell checker will ask, “Did you mean ___?” supplying the homophone of the word we used. Sometimes that’s helpful and allows us to catch a silly error; at other times we did not mean what it suggested we might have meant.
Even though the spell checker thoughtfully asks us about the very familiar homophones, it is no help at all when it comes to the less common ones. What can help in several cases are mnemonics. Let me give some examples.
*mantel and mantle: Mantel is the shelf over the fireplace and ends in el like the el in shelf. A mantle is a cloak and has a consonant + l (tl) as does cloak (cl).
*hanger and hangar: hanger has an e like the e in closet, which is where you’d find a hanger; while hangar has an a like the a in airplane, which goes into a hangar.
*discrete and discreet: in discrete the two e’s are separated by a t, and discrete means separate, whereas in discreet the two e’s are together, perhaps sharing secrets which they will be discreet (exercising prudence) about telling others.
*strait and straight: strait is a narrower word than straight and describes a narrow waterway connecting two large bodies of water. You can also be “in dire straits” when you’re in a tight spot. Strait is most often misused in the combination “straitjacket,” The jacket used to restrain someone may leave that person in dire straits.
*stationary and stationery: Something that is stationary stays in one place, so stationary ends in ary like the a in stay, while stationery is used for writing letters and ends in ery like the er in letter.
*arc and ark: an arc is part of a circle and has a c like circle, while an ark is like a trunk and, like trunk, ends in k
*compliment and complement: Compliment has an i in the middle, and I like to receive compliments. A complement completes something, so it has the e in the middle.
*alter and altar: To alter is to change or make something different and ends in er like the er in different. You pray at an altar, which ends in ar, reversing the ra of pray.
These are a few examples of mnemonics – tricks to help the memory. You may never need them. I find them helpful. If you do use mnemonics, please add a comment sharing ones you’ve found helpful.
There’s no cure, though, for mistakes we make just because we aren’t concentrating on spelling when we’re writing an exciting scene. And often, when we edit later, our eyes skip right over those mistakes, seeing what we expect to see instead of what is actually there on the paper. That is one of many reasons that it is always wise to have someone read our manuscripts. I remember workshopping a manuscript I had edited many times. A reader said, “Do you realize you have the horse swishing its tale?” I certainly knew the difference between tail and tale, and I should have caught the error on one of my many edits, but I hadn’t. I was terribly embarrassed at the time, but now I understand how easily that sort of thing can happen. A good copy editor should catch that type of error, but self-published manuscripts or those published by some small presses may not get copy-edited. My advice is no matter how skilled a speller or grammarian you may be, always have at least one other person, someone with a sharp eye for detail, go over your manuscript before you submit it or publish it yourself.