Spelling tips for journalists

Image by Jesper Sehested at PlusLexia.com, released under Creative Commons BY 2.0
Image by Jesper Sehested at PlusLexia.com, released under Creative Commons BY 2.0

The ultimate misuse 

Chapter 4 from the book A journalist’s guide to the use of English

NO ONE CAN DEVELOP WORD POWER without the ability to spell, for mis-spelling is the ultimate misuse of words.

Good spelling is primarily a matter of observing and remembering. Below are 80 words which are frequently misspelled. Test yourself on these.

Abhorrence, accommodation, acquiescence, adolescence, annihilate, Antarctic, asphyxiate, auxiliary, benefited, cemetery, chequered, connoisseur, convertible,  corroborate, debatable, definitely, descendant, destructible, discreet, dissatisfaction.

Ecstasy, effervescence, eligibility, embarrassment, emissary, exaggerate, exhilaration,
fahrenheit, fallacious, fallible, forty, fuchsia, fulfilling, funereal, gauge, haemorrhage. handsomely, harassed, heinous, humorous, hygiene, hysterical.

Idiosyncrasy, immigration, incoherency, innocuous, innuendo, jeopardise, liaison, licentious, loquacious, maintenance, manoeuvre, mantelpiece, meanness, Mediterranean, miniature, miscellaneous, mischievous, nonchalant, noticeable.

Occurred, omitted, oscillate, paraphernalia, profession, privilege, pseudonym, recommend, reconnaissance, referred, resuscitate, separate, supersede, tendency, tranquillise, unnecessary, unparalleled, veterinary, vociferous.


THE main problem occurs with words ending in Y. The rule is that if Y follows a vowel, the S is added to form the plural.
E.g. donkeys, moneys, storeys.

But if the Y follows a consonant, you must change the Y to I and add ES.
E.g. ladies, pennies, stories.

Some trouble arises over unusual plural forms and these have to be memorised.
E.g. Singular: series oasis

Plural: series oases
A good deal of confusion arises over plurals ending in OS or OES.

Here are a few guidelines:

1. Monosyllabic words take OES. E.g. goes, noes.

2. Words used frequently in the plural take OES. E.g. heroes, potatoes.

3. Long words take OS.  E.g. archipelagos, generalissimos.

4. Proper nouns take OS. E.g. Romeos, Lotharios.

5. Alien words take OS. E.g. commandos, ghettos.

6. Words which have a vowel before the O take OS. E.g. cameos, folios.

7. Abbreviated words take OS. E.g. photos, pros.

The following examples confirm the above rules: dominoes. embargoes, mosquitoes, mottoes, tomatoes, tornadoes, curios, dynamos, magnetos, manifestos, mementos, provisos

Distinctive spelling

SOME words have a distinctive spelling according to the part of speech in which they are used. These must also be memorised.

Noun Verb
Advice Advise
Envelope Envelop
Licence License
Practice Practise
Noun Adjective
Dependant Dependent


HOWEVER, while observation and memory are the keys to good spelling, there is additional guidance which can help. This was published on pages 131-133 of THE PRACTICE OF JOURNALISM, included within a chapter on Good English by Dr. Syntax.

The whole chapter is worth reading but one page is quoted here, for this is an area where even good spellers flounder.

“Many writers hesitate when they find they must write certain words about the spelling of which they feel unsure; and some words have an odd look when written. Benefit and its derivatives are an example. Should it be benefitting or benefiting? The rule about adding a suffix (-ing, -ed, -er) which begins with a vowel falls into two parts:

“1. When the suffix is added to a word of one syllable which ends with a consonant preceded by one vowel, the consonant is doubled before the suffix is added. E.g. bed, bedding; sob, sobbed; dig, digger; sun, sunny.

“2. When the word has more than one syllable, the final consonant is doubled before the suffix only if the last syllable of the word is stressed. E.g. befit, befitted; begin, beginning; occur, occurred; but gallop, galloping; parallel, paralleled; devil, devilish; benefit, benefiting.

“There are a few exceptions to each part of the rule and these must be memorised. E.g. bus, buses; travel, traveller; gas, gases; cavil, cavilling. If two vowels precede the final consonant of the word, the rule above does not apply; so we must write: bias, biased; peer, peering; proud, prouder; beat, beaten; bleed, bleeding.

“What happens when a word ends with a silent E and you want to add a suffix depends on another rule, which also has two parts. It all depends on what letter begins the suffix, and this is the rule:

“1. If the suffix begins with a consonant the mute E remains, e.g. safe, safety; same, sameness; exceptions include duty, truly, awful, width, judgment, acknowledgment.

“2. If the suffix begins with a vowel, the mute E is dropped, for example, bake, baking; sane, sanity; mile, milage; rate, ratable.

“But sometimes the mute E distinguishes between two words with different meanings, such as singeing (burning) and singing; lineage (family descent) and linage (payment by the line).”

2020 notes by John Bottomley

1. The spelling of some of the examples of suffixes given above may be subject to variation within the established house style of a newspaper or magazine publishing group, some of these established spellings may occasionally seem archaic but the important element in the use of such a style guide is guaranteeing consistency.

2. This guide was compiled long before the advent of social media and all its accompanying spelling and grammatical pitfalls. But it was also written before the increasing domination of American English in the worldwide web, particularly in the default setting of ‘American English’ rather than ‘English’ in computer spell checks. With an increasing over-reliance on the perceived infallibility of spell checks as a means of avoiding errors, the American spelling of such words as organize, realize etc (instead of the English organise, realise) and favor, honor, color (instead of the long-established accepted English favour, honour and colour) may well ultimately be the norm, particularly in rapidly developing countries or where learning spoken English is the priority.

The potential for spell checks to choose what traditionally may have been the wrong spelling will remain however. Four of the five examples given in the above list of Distinctive Spellings show differing spelling of nouns and adverbs. American English does not replicate these rules and the words ‘licence’ and ‘practice’ are now regularly mis-used.

Spell checks have been embraced by publishing and newspaper companies as a way of cutting costs, both for printed and online work. Sub-editors and proof readers are becoming more rare.  But when the spell check programme (program?) suggests there should be no hyphen in the word ‘re-form’ then you may end up using a word which changes the whole sense of what you are writing.

Even worse are bad spelling habits online being transferred to the printed page, again not always picked up by spell checks. Don’t write ‘would of, should of, could of.’ Yes, some journalists do this now. The word is ‘have’ not ‘of’.

So not rely on spell checks alone, if there is nobody else checking your work, check it yourself with the use of a good dictionary.

Module revised by John Bottomley 2020

About this training module

Ted Bottomley and Anthony Loftus were both journalists and training managers at the Express & Star group of newspapers in the UK. The group has given this site permission to publish the module (above), which is one of six taken from the book ‘A journalist’s guide to the use of English’, first published in July 1971 but still relevant today. You can find links to all six chapters below.

Ted BottomleyTed Bottomley spent his whole working life in newspapers and more than 25 years in journalism. He was a former weekly newspaper editor, and had a long association with the National Council for the Training of Journalists. He was a member of the Publishing and Editorial Training Committee of the Printing & Publishing Industry Training Board. In the UK journalists still compete to try to win the prestigious ‘Ted Bottomley Award’.

Anthony LoftusAnthony Loftus was a high court reporter and film and music critic before becoming the Editorial Training Officer of the Express & Star group. He was a member of the Institution of Training Officers and the Association of Lecturers in Journalism, and the chair of the West Midlands Regional Training Committee of the National Council for the Training of Journalists.

You can read more about the book, the men behind it, and how it has been revised and updated by Ted Bottomley’s son, John, a newspaper journalist for 40 years.

The six chapters of ‘A journalist’s guide to the use of English’