Why can some people correctly spell a word they’ve never used and other people sometimes spell their own name wrong?
There are at least two theories of spelling. One theory holds that spelling is accomplished phonetically. One constructs a word by hearing the groups of sounds in the word. But hold the homophone! Since English spelling has many exceptions to the rules, this method can get you in trouble. Some words have the same pronunciation but different meanings and sometimes different spellings. These words are called homophones. One word that always fouls me up is “palate” whose pronunciation works for three different words: ‘p-a-l-a-t-e’, meaning “the roof of the mouth”, ‘p-a-l-e-t-t-e’, as in “a painter’s palette of colors”, and ‘p-a-l-l-e-t’, which can mean “a portable platform for carrying freight”.
The theory of spelling that I use is the “sight method”. As I spell a word I compare it to the picture of the word in my mind. This method requires that you have seen the word sometime before, even if you’ve never used it, and it requires a good memory. The sight method is not flawless, however. I always mispell the word “misspell” by using only one “s”. See? I did it again. This word must have been mispelled the first time I saw it.
Some people, like my brother, use a statistical method. One time he was told by a grocery cashier that ‘f-o-u-r-t-y’ on his check was misspelled. He replied, “I alternate ‘f-o-u-r-t-y’ and ‘f-o-r-t-y’ so that I’m guaranteed of getting it right half the time.”
Every day at work I walked past an irritating sign. It said, “Caution! When the red light is flashing, X-rays are emmitted.” “Emmitted” should, of course, only have one ‘m’. For years I wondered who “Emmit” was.
Good spellers always notice spelling errors. On roadtrips my mother would frequently point to signs with misspelled words. She’d say, “Look! ’M-a-s-a-c-h-u-s-e-t-t-s’ is spelled wrong.” We always found this odd because we were driving in Virginia. I bet that even people who live in Massachusetts don’t know how to spell it. They’ll say things like, “Oh, I’m from Boston”. The joke’s on them because there’d be no actual spelling involved anyway if they were saying, “I’m from Massachusetts”.
So if you’re a naturally good speller, congratulations; you’ll have an easy life. If you can’t hit the broad side of a spelling bee, though, never mind. Just look-up your troublesome words in the dictionary. Of course, you’ll have to know how to spell them first.