Why is spelling some words so hard?

28 July 2015

Question

Why is it I can remember the most obscure trivia, but can't spell the word "necessary" . For the record, I have written the word out hundreds of times on paper, put it on a flash card, and spelled it out letter by letter verbally. Yet, I still can't remember it after a few hours!

Answer

We asked Naked Scientist Ginny Smith why we find certain spellings so hard to remember:

Ginny - Well, our brains remember things by trying to fit them in with stuff we already know. So, it's much, much easier to remember a fact that links to another fact that you already know. And this means that trivia can be quite easy to remember particularly if it's a piece of trivia of something you're interested in and something you already know a bit about. Spelling's are kind of arbitrary so they're a lot harder to remember. You just have to rote learn them. Some people find that really tricky. One way you can help yourself learn things like that is to try and relate it to something that you already know. So for example, if you're having trouble with one C and two S in 'necessary', you might want to remember that when you leave the house, you need one coat, but you need two shoes. Now because that's something you know, every time you go out, you put on one coat and you put on two shoes, hopefully, next time you go to spell the word 'necessary', you'll remember that it's necessary to have one coat and two shoes, and that will help. Can't help with the vowels though.

Chris - There's a number of words which are judged to be extremely hard to spell in English. Do you want to have a go.

Ginny - No, I'm awful at spelling.

Chris - Try this one - loquacious.

Ginny - Not a chance. I've been watching a programme about child geniuses where they have to do spelling out loud and they're incredible, some of them. People's brains just work in such different ways. I read ridiculously quickly and I think that's why I can't spell because I basically inhale whole sentences in one. I don't break it down letter by letter. That means that I'm really, really bad at spelling. That's my excuse at least.

Chris - Want to try loquacious, Ewen?

Ewen - Gosh, no. I'm going to pass on that as well.

Ginny - But spelling's only been invented fairly recently. If you read very old texts, people just made up how they fancied spelling a word. As long as it sort of sounded vaguely right and you knew what it was meant to be, it was fine. So, it's a recent invention.

Ewen - The things that do get my goat are the recent accepted changes in spellings or spellings where other countries spell them wrong for example, 'aluminium' as in our American cousins.

Chris - Careful with 'aluminium' because in fact, the correct way of spelling it is the way that it's spelled in America. It's 'aluminum'. It was actually Humphrey Davey who changed it to 'aluminium'

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