The best way to spell English words correctly is to consult your dictionary frequently. The spelling rules are difficult, and the exceptions to the rules are too numerous.

Readers who want to examine a serious set of English language spelling rules can find a set in Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary starting at page 1187.

vowels and consonants

Vowels are certain letters in the English alphabet. The vowel letters are (a, e, i, o, and u). The letter (y) may occasionally function as a vowel. All other letters in the English alphabet are consonants.

Vowels and consonants are determined by human anatomy. The vowels can be pronounced without restriction of the airflow through the larynx (voice box). We restrict air flow through the larynx when we pronounce consonants. That difference affects the way we pronounce words, and consequently, the way we spell words.

spelling and meaning

The words examined below can cause problems because of similar spelling, because pronunciation is similar or because of confusion regarding the meaning of the words.


Animate objects, i.e., living creatures, specifically human beings, possess ability. Inanimate objects do not possess ability. Computers do not have ability. Programs do not have ability. Airplanes do not have ability.

You have the ability to play a musical instrument.
I have the ability to repair machinery.
She demonstrated her ability to work mathematical problems.

accept / except

Accept is a verb. Accept means to receive. Except is a preposition or, sometimes, a conjunction. Except means exclusion.

I accept the nomination.
Everyone was invited except me!

advice / advise

Advice is a noun. Advice means opinion. Advise is a verb. Advise means to offer advice.

I need your advice regarding my course choices for next semester.
She advised enrolling in a genetics course.
My advice was not accepted.
I shall advise her of your decision.

affect / effect

Affect is a verb. Affect means influence. Effect is a noun. Effect means execute or result.

Smoking adversely affects the health of many Americans.
His most recent statement does not affect my intention to vote for the other candidate.
This policy will go into effect on Monday.
The effect of narcotics on the nervous system is outlined in his report.

allay / alley / ally

Allay is a verb. Allay means lessen. Alley is a noun. Alley means small street. Ally can be a verb or a noun. Ally means unite.

Leaders allay fear among their followers.
His shop is located in a dark alley.
He will be a good ally in our pursuit of justice.

ascent / assent

Ascent is a noun. Ascent means upward advancement, or upward slope. Assent can be a verb or a noun. Assent means agreement.

His ascent in this organization has been remarkable.
The ascent to St. Catherine's Monastery requires substantial physical stamina.
He reluctantly gave his assent to our proposal.

allusion / illusion

Allusion is a noun. Allusion means indirect reference. Illusion is a noun. Illusion means erroneous perception or belief.

There is an allusion to Buddha in the poem.
Most authorities state that sightings of flying saucers are illusions.

altar / alter

Altar is a noun. Altar means elevated structure used for religious purposes. Alter is a verb. Alter means modify.

The priest approached the altar.
I will alter my class schedule.

bare / bear

Bare can be an adjective or a verb. Bare means exposed to view or without enhancement. Bear can be a verb or a noun. Bear means to support. The same word, bear, is also a noun and means a species of animal.

It was a cold day; he was bare headed.
The authorities had to strip the apartment to the bare walls to remove the amphetamine residues.
The bear growled and bared his fangs.
I will bear this burden all of my life.
That is a load-bearing surface.

capital / capitol

Capital is a noun. Capital means location of government. Capital also means material wealth. Capitol is a noun. Capitol means building where the legislature convenes.

The United States Capitol Building is located in Washington, DC.
The United States has 51 capitol buildings, one where each state legislature convenes and one in Washington, DC, where the United States Congress convenes.
American school children were once required to memorize the name of the capital city of each state.
He has enough capital to finance the project.

canvas / canvass

Canvas is a noun. Canvas means coarse fabric. Canvass is a verb. Canvass means discuss, or solicit.

She bought canvas to make new sails.
My hobby is oil painting on canvas.
Canvass the committee to determine if there is a consensus on this issue.
The political committee will canvass the town seeking votes for Smith.

cite / sight / site

Cite is a verb. Cite means quote, or mention. Sight is a noun. Sight means seeing or ability to see. Site is a noun. Site means location.

A policeman will cite him for speeding if he doesn't slow down.
The soldier was cited for bravery.
The Parthenon is an awesome sight.
It was a beautiful sight.
Gettysburg, PA, is the site of a famous US Civil War battle.
This is the site where the new school will be built.

coarse / course

Coarse is an adjective. Coarse means rough, or lacking refinement. Course is a noun. Course means direction.

Order a cubic yard of coarse sand.
He has a coarse demeanor.
We followed a course established by bison.
Our course took us over the Arctic Circle.

complement / compliment

Complement is a noun. Complement means complete. Compliment is a noun. Compliment means praise.

Make sure that the display window has a full complement of Halloween costumes.
She received a nice compliment for her presentation.

consul / council / counsel

Consul is a noun. Consul means diplomat who represents commercial interests. Council is a noun. Council means group of people who deliberate issues. Counsel is a noun. Counsel means advice.

Who is the US Consul in Paris?
The city council will discuss that issue during the next council meeting.
I am going to seek counsel from my attorney.

decent / descent / dissent

Decent is an adjective. Decent means conforms to standards of propriety. Descent is a noun. Descent means downward movement, or downward slope. Dissent can be a verb or a noun. Dissent means disagree.

They always exhibit decent behavior.
The airplane made a rapid descent.
I shall dissent.
He is an aggravating dissenter.

duck / duct

Duck can be a noun or a verb. Duck means bird or heavy cloth or amphibious military truck or to avoid. Duct can be a noun or a verb. Duct means enclosed channel.

Ducks often fly in a vee.
He covered the load of cantalopes with duck cloth.
The duck was a WW II military vehicle.
That basketball player had to duck to get through the doorway.
Heating and cooling air is moved through air ducts.
I repaired it with duct tape.

farther / further

Farther can be an adverb or an adjective. Farther means physical distance, or remote point. Further can be an adjective or an adverb. Further means greater degree.

Would I travel farther if I circumnavigated the earth at the equator or if I circumnavigated the earth at the polar axis?
His thesis needs further explanation.
Shakespeare took me further into the soul of human nature than I imagined possible.

formally / formerly

Formally is an adverb. Formal means accepted convention. Formerly is an adverb. Formerly means at an earlier time.

She formally announced her intention to be a candidate.
Formerly, we did market that product.

forth / fourth

Forth is an adverb. Forth means onward from this time or place or order. Fourth is a noun. Fourth means position in a series represented by the number four.

"Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . ." (The opening words of a long and eloquent sentence from former US President John F. Kennedy's January 20, 1961, inaugural address.)
The Fourth of July is the date America celebrates her independence from foreign domination.

hear / here

Hear is a verb. Hear means perceive sound. Here is an adverb. Here means at this place.

I can hear the waves breaking on the beach.
The governor will be here tomorrow.

holy / wholly

Holy is an adjective. Holy means divine or sacred. Wholly is an adverb. Wholly means entirely.

The Bible contains Christian holy literature; the Torah contains Jewish holy literature, and the Koran contains Muslim holy literature.
Citizens are wholly responsible for the actions of a democratic government.

isle / aisle

Isle is a noun. Isle means small island. Aisle is a noun. Aisle means passageway.

We beached on a remote isle in a coral sea.
The aisle was blocked by shopping carts.

later / latter

Later is an adjective. Later means at a delayed time. Latter is an adjective. Latter means second of two things or near the end.

The delegation arrives at noon; Harrington will arrive later.
If your alternative is Professor Rutan or Professor Iben, choose the latter.

lead / led

Lead is a verb. Lead means guide responsibly. Led is a verb. Led is the past tense of the verb, lead. Lead is also a noun. The noun, lead, has the same pronunciation as the past tense of lead and means metalic element.

If you want to learn how to lead, study people who practice leadership.
Jody Williams led the successful movement to ban the use of antipersonnel mines.
People who work with lead, a heavy metal, must take extensive safey measures to protect their health.

lessen / lesson

Lessen is a verb. Lessen means reduce. Lesson is a noun. Lesson means period of instruction or act of instruction.

This medication will lessen the pain.
America's Vietnam incursion was a bitter lesson in political misperception.

loose / lose.

Loose is an adjective. Loose means not restrained. Lose is a verb. Lose means misplace, or involuntarily relinquish.

The dog is loose.
Admiral Mulberry is a loose cannon on deck.
Did you lose your driver's license?

odor / smell

Odor is a noun. Odor means olfactory nerve stimulant. Smell is a verb. Smell means perceive scent.

Flowers produce fragrant odors.
People smell the fragrant odors emitted by flowers.
Flowers do not smell. Flowers can't smell; they have no olfactory nerves.

passed / past

Passed is a verb. Passed means move beyond, or transfer. Past can be an adjective, noun, adverb, or preposition. Past means earlier time.

He passed the ball to Simmons.
The past behavior of this student reveals a trend.

personal / personnel

Personal can be an adjective or a noun. Personal means particular person, or private. Personnel is a noun. Personnel means group of people associated with an organization

Mr. Raymond is the CEO's personal assistant.
I think her religious belief is a personal matter.
All company personnel must attend a safety briefing.
The Personnel Department will change its name to Human Resources Department.

peace / piece

Peace is noun. Peace means absence of conflict. Piece is a noun. Piece means a part of something.

Peace eluded humanity during the twentieth century.
I'll have a piece of the chocolate cake.

plain / plane

Plain can be an adjective or a noun. The adjective means simple, unadorned, apparent. The noun means treeless expanse of land. Plane can be a noun, adjective, or verb. Plane means flat surface.

Clothing styles are relatively plain this spring.
"In Spain the rain falls mainly in the plain." (From My Fair Lady)
Airplane wings are designed as a plane surface on the bottom but require curvature on the top to facilitate lift.
Use a carpenter's plane to smooth the surface of a board.

precedent / president

Precedent is a noun. Precedent means example. President is a noun. President means presiding officer of an organization.

If our opponent wins the case, it will set a legal precedent.
Mr. Oster, President of Widget Products Company, will retire in June.

principal / principle

Principal can be a noun or an adjective. Principal means senior position, or presiding person. Principle is a noun. Principle means fundamental standard.

Mr. Noriega is our high school principal.
Vernard Cantwell was the principal in that investment consortium.
Our athletic department adheres to the principle that performance drugs will not be tolerated.

rain / reign / rein

Rain can be a noun or verb. Rain means condensed water vapor that falls to earth. Reign can be a noun or a verb. Reign means rule by a sovereign power. Rein can be a noun or a verb. Rein means strap usually made of leather.

"Just a walkin' in the rain. . . ." (From the musical and stage play and movie of the same name)
Reign by hereditary monarchs has been replaced by constitutions, laws, and elected officials.
Use the reins to control the horse.

right / rite / write

Right can be a noun, adjective, or verb. Right means correct, or direction clockwise from current orientation, or legal or natural entitlement. Rite is a noun. Rite means ceremony. Write is a verb. Write means express thoughts utilizing graphic symbols.

That suit becomes you; it is the right suit for you.
Turn right at the next street intersection.
In democratic societies citizens have a right to trial by a jury of their peers.
Many societies have developed marriage rites.
I use cursive characters when I write.
I occasionally write letters to my friends, but I find that it is easier to write email messages.

stationary / stationery

Stationary can be a noun or an adjective. Stationary means fixed in place. Stationery is a noun. Stationery means writing paper.

I exercise on a stationary bicycle.
I use plain white stationery for most of my correspondence.

statue / statute

Statue is a noun. Statue means sculpted, carved or cast form. Statute is a noun. Statute means law enacted by a legislature

Have you seen the statue of Marines raising the US flag on Iwo Jima?
The attorney cited the statute that prohibits keeping endangered animals as pets.

their / there / they're

Their is, traditionally, a possessive pronoun. Some authorities list the word, their, as an adjective. Their means possessed by persons or things. There is an adverb or an expletive. There means designated location. They're is a contraction of a pronoun and a verb: they are.

Their hotel confirmations have arrived.
I will attend their graduation ceremonies.
I cannot be there.
I will be there at 5 pm.
There is a coffee shop at 454 Southern Boulevard. (expletive)
They're scheduled to arrive at 2 pm.

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