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How to Spell Words Right, Even When They Sound Wrong

One of the common pieces of advice teachers give to students learning to write English is to think of how something sounds.  When a child is struggling to spell a new word correctly, the teacher will say, “Sound it out,” or “Read it out loud and listen to how it sounds.”  While this can frequently be a useful guide for knowing how to spell a word or form a sentence, have you ever wondered if this advice could more often send you in the wrong direction?

Where Do “Sounds” Come From?

First, let us take a look at where “sounds” actually come from and then what it means to listen to how something “sounds.”  A great example is the “sound” of a dog barking.  When we hear the “sound” of a dog barking, we know immediately what it is without actually having to see the dog barking, though that was not always the case.  When we were just born, for example, we may have heard a dog barking, but we did not know what that “sound” was.  Later, we learned to associate that “sound” with a dog’s barking, and that association became engrained in our memories.

Our Databases of “Sounds”

Each of us has a database of “sounds” in his or her memory and an association of what those “sounds” mean.  However, we do not all have the same “sounds” in our databases.  Consider, for example, two people.  One is a woman who knows the “sound” of an elephant, and the other is a man who has never heard an elephant.  While the man is no less intelligent than the woman, he is nevertheless not able to recognize the “sound” of an elephant when they both hear it.  This is not his fault, but for the simple fact that he has never heard an elephant before.  On the other hand, when the woman hears the elephant, she is able to recognize the “sound” immediately.

Errors in Our Databases

One issue is whether we have a particular “sound” in our databases, but another is whether we have the same “sound” as someone else but associate that “sound” differently.  Take for example a young child who hears the “sound” of an emergency vehicle siren.  Though the sirens of an ambulance, fire truck and police car may all “sound” differently, the child has not yet had the experience to hear and distinguish all of them and therefore incorrectly associates the “sound” of a police car siren with that of a fire truck.  This is certainly not the fault of the child, but due to the fact that the child simply has not yet had the experience two distinguish the different sirens.  He will not be aware of his lack of experience and will believe his association of the “sound” of the police car siren with the fire truck to be correct.

Correct and Incorrect “Sounds” of Words in Our Databases

The example of the child hearing the sirens is a great one, because the child believes he is correct that he is hearing a fire truck when instead he hears the “sound” of the police car, simply because he has not had the experience to associate the “sounds” correctly.  This also happens with language, from pronouncing a word correctly to then spelling it and forming phrases and sentences correctly, and this is particularly troublesome in English.  English is full of words that “sound” the same but are spelled differently.  It is also full of words that have more than one technically correct spelling, leading people to opt for the spelling that “sounds” right to them.

The Case of “Toward” vs “Towards”

Let’s look again at the example of the child and the siren but adjust it slightly.  Take now not one child but two, and take them from different countries, say from the United States and France, where both countries have police cars with sirens, but the “sounds” of the police car sirens are entirely different.  When the child from the United States is in France and hears the “sound” of the police card, she asks the other child what that is.  The other child says, “A police car,” and is correct, but the child from the United States disagrees because the siren she hears does not “sound” like the one she has associated with the siren of a police car.

The same happens with a word that has two different but correct spellings.  Take “toward” and “towards” for example.  There are many native English speakers who use “toward” and many others who use “towards.”  In the first group, “toward” is the spelling that “sounds” correct, while in the second group, “towards” sounds correct.  But are they really both right?

Spelling Words Right Even When They “Sound” Wrong

When it comes to knowing which way to spell a word, there is no better resource than a dictionary, but the choice of dictionary and knowing how to use it are equally important.

First comes the choice:  The dictionary must be an authoritative one, and it must be authoritative for the dialect—or version—of the language where it is being used.  There is, for example, a significant difference between how English words are spelled in the United States and how they are spelled in England.  Merriam-Webster Unabridged is authoritative for English spelling in the United States, Oxford English Dictionary is authoritative for English spelling in England, and you would not want to use them in the wrong setting.  Otherwise you would end up writing “colour” in the United States and “color” in England.

Equally important is knowing which spelling to use when you find more than one correct spelling of a word in the dictionary.  When you look up “toward” or “towards” in Merriam-Webster, for example, you will find both spellings listed in the same entry.  How do you know which one to use?  You go with the one that is listed first.  The first spelling is always the preferred spelling for the dialect of the language in which the dictionary is authoritative.  The other spellings are provided to show alternate correct spellings you may find in other countries or in prior eras in the English language.  In this case, “toward” is the preferred spelling in the United States, and “towards” is the preferred spelling in England.

Expert Proofreading Is the Key When It All “Sounds” Right

As you may have seen, though, there is a catch, and it is illustrated in the example of the two children hearing sirens in two different countries.  Each has an association of what a police car’s siren “sounds” like.  When the one child goes to the other country and hears the different siren, it “sounds” wrong and she concludes that it must actually be wrong.  When she returns to her country and hears the accustomed “sound,” she believes it is the correct one.  At no point does she doubt her association of the “sound,” and the same happens with language.  If there is nothing in our experience to indicate something may be wrong with what we are writing even when it “sounds” right, we will make errors without ever knowing it and not ever recognize when to look up words in the dictionary.  The only way around this is to engage an expert proofreading service. Only expert proofreaders have the training, experience and knowledge to be able to identify the errors in your writing when it all “sounds” right.  DLA Editors & Proofers offers such expert proofreading services and can help you catch errors when, through no fault of your own, you are otherwise unable to.

Posted in  Professionals
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