English Words That Are Difficult to Spell: 5 Tricky Things ESL Students Should Remember

Have you ever encountered a word in English that you could not spell right, no matter how hard you tried?

Have you made a mistake trying to spell “acquaintance,” “colonel” or “rhythm”?

You are not alone!

There are so many long, complicated, difficult words to spell in English. Isn’t it amazing?

Spelling correctly is an important skill. It is essential for good written English. While spell-checkers are available in word processing programs on computers, on phones and even on web browsers, and they do make your life easier, you should still make spelling exercises a part of your English study routine.

The good news is that everyone makes English spelling mistakes!

Beginner students and native speakers alike are not immune (protected). The modern English language has over 170,000 words. Naturally, some of them are more difficult to spell than others. There are several reasons for this!

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5 Reasons Why English Words Are Difficult to Spell

Reason 1: Common letter combinations are confusing.

The English language has many combinations of letters that you see often. For example, CH, EI, IE and others can be particularly confusing for English learners. This is because these combinations may be pronounced differently in different words or not pronounced at all!

Here are some examples.

1. Achieve (to accomplish, get something done)

Common misspellings of “achieve” include acheive, acheve, archieve and even achiev. To spell it right, just remember:

  • There is no R in “achieve”
  • The H is followed by I, just like in the English alphabet!

Now let’s look at a few more similar words.

2. Receive (to be given something)

3. Perceive (to become aware of something)

4. Deceive (to lie to someone)

But wait—why are they spelled with EI instead of IE like the word “achieve”?

There is a great mnemonic rule in English that you may have heard:

I before E, except after C, or when sounding like “A” as in “neighbor” or “weigh.”

The words above are great examples that are commonly spelled wrong because people remember “I before E,” but not the “after C” part or any of the rest.

Recieve, percieve, decieve are all wrong! E comes before I in these examples, because the EI combination comes after C.

This spelling rule, however popular, has plenty of exceptions, one of the most common one being…

5. Weird (strange, unusual)

The correct spelling of “weird” is an exception to the mnemonic above. There is one common, incorrect spelling: “wierd.” The pronunciation of the word may also be to blame. A good way to remember to spell “weird” right is to think of “we” as part of the word. You may be normal, but we can be weird.

Look for more ideas of mnemonic devices and rules in English here and here!

Reason 2: Many English words have long strings of vowels.

Words in this group are difficult because the vowels in them form sounds that are normally represented by just one or two letters. As a result, some vowels “get lost” in the process.

The best way to remember the spelling of these tricky nouns and adjectives is to make associations with other words that you do know how to spell.

6. Acquaintance (someone you know)

“Acquaintance” is a tough one! The combination of U-A-I is not very common in the English language, but it occurs sometimes.

To master the spelling of this word, keep in mind that Q is always followed by U. Then memorize the A and I.

7. Beautiful (pleasing to the eye or the mind)

If you have ever studied French, you are familiar the E-A-U vowel string. It is quite common in French! In fact, the French word “beau” means “beautiful,” which may help you to remember how to spell this important English adjective.

“Beautiful” is also difficult due to the T-I part. People sometimes incorrectly spell the word as “beautyful” because of the obvious connection to the English noun “beauty.”

A rule of thumb to spell “beautiful” correctly is to alternate the Is and Us (U-T-I-F-U) and forget the Y in the noun.

8. Conscientious (hard-working, careful, attentive to detail)

This very useful adjective has a lot of Is and Os with Us and Es added. It can be difficult to spell it right.

Remember the mnemonic, “I before E, except after C”? It does not work here—this word is another exception to the rule.

If you are good at spelling the word “science,” which is yet another exception to the rule, you can use this to your advantage as well.

9. Queue (a line)

This word is all vowels. Wouldn’t it be better if it was just spelled Q? Or Kew? Remember that a Q likes a U. After that, add an E and repeat the vowel combination.

The term is more common in British English, whereas in the American English the word “lineup” or even just “line” is used.

10. Quay (a pier, a wharf)

A friend of mine once confessed that he used to spell the word “quay” as “key,” until the day he saw it in writing. Just like with the word “queue” above, remember the Q-U combination. The rest you just have to memorize: U-A-Y is just another tongue twister.

Reason 3: Double consonants are even more challenging.

With words in these group, the difficult thing to spell are the double consonants.

While there are a lot of examples and exceptions to the rules, pronouncing the words correctly will help you spell the words correctly too. The sounds produced by double consonants are elongated. With one exception, all words below have more than one double consonant. So, remember to double up!

11. Accessible (easily reached)

Common misspellings: acessible, accesible and even accesseble

How to remember it: double the C and double the S!

12. Address (the location of a place)

The most common misspelling is, of course, “adress” or “addres.”

To make it easy to remember, recall that to send something somewhere, you need to add the address to your mail!

13. Accommodation (lodgings)

Common misspellings: accomodation, acomodation

It is the M and not the C that gets lost from this wonderful word more often. Don’t forget that both are double consonants!

14. Committee (a group of people formed from a larger group to get something done)

Such a treat to spell, “committee” has double Ms, double Ts and double Es, too!

Common misspellings: comitee, commitee

How to remember it: Committees are groups of people, so make sure to give M, T and E some company!

15. Occasional (occurring only sometimes)

As you can see, double Cs are one of the most common double consonant combinations in the English language. The way this word is most commonly misspelled is “ocasional.”

Think of this word as something occurring on occasion—both words need double Cs!

Reason 4: A word may change its meaning depending on how you spell it.

These words sound absolutely the same, but are spelled differently depending on their meaning.

Misspelling these words is very common among native English speakers, who automatically spell the words one way, while wanting to say something else (sometimes even without realizing it).

The rule to spelling these kinds of words right is memorizing the correct spelling for all of them, then choosing the one you want to use! The difficulty is only in knowing which one is which.

16. & 17. Lose / Loose

Lose means to not win. Loose means something about to detach or not fitting tightly. You lose a game, but your T-shirt is loose, not the other way around.

18. & 19. Weather / Whether

Weather is the natural phenomenon of rain, sunshine, snow and other daily changes in the atmosphere. Whether is a conjunction meaning “if.” Whether the weather is good or bad depends on your mood!

20 & 21. Than / Then

Than is a conjunction and a preposition used to compare and/or contrast two or more things. Then is an adverb meaning “after that.”

For example: If one cake is cheaper than the other, then we are getting the cheap one.

22. & 23. & 24. There / Their / They’re

There is an adverb indicating location. Their is the possessive form of “they.” They’re is a contraction of “they are.” Do not confuse the three!

There is a fun (if a bit naughty) comic by The Oatmeal explaining some of the words above.

Reason 5: Some words are just difficult.

You may have trouble spelling the examples above, but the words below are just hard, period. They may combine difficult consonants with lots of vowels, or be pronounced one way and spelled the other… Some are just difficult to type right. Whatever the case might be, study them and memorize them. You will eventually get there.

25. Privilege (an advantage, an opportunity)

Common misspelling: privelege

How to remember it: I-I followed by E-E.

26. Psychology (the science of the human psyche)

Common misspellings: psichology, sychology

The P is silent, and our friend CH is also here. This is a hard word to spell, so you just have to remember it.

27. Rhythm (a pattern of sound or movement)

Common misspellings: rhytm, rythm

How to remember it: There are two Hs in this word, and only one Y.

28. Separate (standalone)

Common misspelling: seperate

How to remember it: There are two As and two Es, and the As separate the Es.

29. Sincerely (honestly)

Common misspelling: sencerely

How to remember it: E is not the only vowel present in the word. I comes before E in this word, even though the mnemonic does not apply.

30. Definitely (without doubt)

Common misspelling: definately

How to remember it: Think about something finite when spelling this word, since “definitely” puts an end to all arguments!

To sum it up…

These are just some of the examples of many, many English words that are difficult to spell.

Every English learner is unique, so some people will have difficulty with some words but not with the others. You may have your own great examples of tough English words! You may also have to come up with your own ideas and rules on how to remember their correct spellings.

Don’t worry if you spell something wrong. Making spelling mistakes is something that happens to everyone all over the world, even to people who speak English as natives! Take the time to study the correct English spellings of words you use most often, and don’t be afraid to consult a dictionary when in doubt.

Happy spelling!

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