Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age



To understand the limited power of the spell checker, enjoy the following poem, whose origins are unknown.

I have a spelling checker
It came with my PC;
It plainly marks four my revue
Mistakes I cannot sea.
I've run this poem threw it,
I'm sure your pleased too no,
Its letter perfect in it's weigh,
My checker tolled me sew.

Just as so many of us rely on calculators to do all our math for us—even to the point that we do not trust calculations done by our own hand—far too many of us use spell checkers as proofreaders, and we ultimately use them to justify our own laziness. I once received a complaint from an outraged professor that a student had continually misspelled "miscellaneous" as "mescaline" (a hallucinogenic drug). The student’s spell checker did not pick up the error, but the professor certainly did, and he told me that he even speculated privately that the student who wrote the paper did so while on mescaline.

So proceed with caution when using spell checkers. They are not gods, and they do not substitute for meticulous proofreading and clear thinking. There is an instructive moment in a M*A*S*H episode, when Father Mulcahy complains to Colonel Potter about a typo in a new set of Bibles—one of the commandments reads "thou shalt commit adultery." Father sheepishly worries aloud that "These lads are taught to follow orders." For want of a single word the intended meaning is lost. Always proofread a hard copy, with your own two eyes.

Six Rules for Spelling

I have a crusty old copy of a book called Instant Spelling Dictionary, now in its third edition but first published in 1964, that I still use frequently. I adapted the six basic spelling rules that appear below from that dictionary. Even without memorizing the rules, you can improve your spelling simply by reviewing them and scanning the examples and exceptions until the fundamental concepts begin to sink in. When in doubt, always look up the word. And do not forget that desktop dictionaries work just as well as electronic ones.

Rule 1

In words ending with a silent "e," you usually drop the "e" before a suffix that begins with a vowel.

survive + al = survival

divide + ing = dividing

fortune + ate = fortunate

Common Exceptions:

manageable singeing mileage
advantageous dyeing acreage
peaceable canoeing lineage

Rule 2

In words ending with a silent "e," you usually retain the "e" before a suffix than begins with a consonant.

arrange + ment = arrangement

forgive + ness = forgiveness

safe + ty = safety

Common Exceptions:

ninth (from nine) argument (from argue)
wisdom (from wise) wholly (from whole)

Rule 3

In words of two or more syllables that are accented on the final syllable and end in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel, you double the final consonant before a suffix beginning with a vowel.

refer + ing = referring

regret + able = regrettable

However, if the accent is not on the last syllable, the final consonant is not doubled.

benefit + ed = benefited

audit + ed = audited

Rule 4

In words of one syllable ending in a single consonant that is preceded by a single vowel, you double the final consonant before a suffix that begins with a vowel. (It sounds more complex than it is; just look at the examples.)

big + est = biggest

hot + er = hotter

bag + age = baggage

Rule 5

In words ending in "y" preceded by a consonant, you usually change the "y" to "i" before any suffix that does not begin with an "i."

beauty + ful = beautiful

accompany + ment = accompaniment

accompany + ing = accompanying (suffix begins with i)

If the final "y" is preceded by a vowel, however, the rule does not apply.

journeys obeying essays
buys repaying attorneys

Rule 6

Use "i" before "e" except when the two letters follow "c" and have an "e" sound, or when they have an "a" sound as in "neighbor" and "weigh."

i before e (e sound) e before i (a sound)
shield vein
believe weight
grieve veil
mischievous neighbor

Common Exceptions:

weird foreign forfeit
either ancient neither
sovereign siege height
seize surfeit leisure