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Boutros-_____ & Spelling Correctly

This week I am working on an old Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, and one of the clues renewed my belief about spelling correctly.

The clue is “”Diplomat Boutros Boutros- ________.” When I read it, I immediately knew how to pronounce the answer, but I wasn’t sure how to spell it.

Why was I certain of the answer but not the spelling? Because I hadn’t read about Mr. Boutros-Ghali lately. His term as Secretary-General of the United Nations ended in 1996, and I had not recently seen his name in print.

For me, that’s the key: Reading it. Seeing it in print. Recognizing the letters. I believe that if we want to be good writers, we need to do more than practice writing. We need to read. And if we want to be good spellers, we need to go beyond spelling practice. We need to read–to see the words in print.

Sometimes people in writing classes admit to difficulties recognizing the differences between simple words: then and than, accept and except, loose and lose. I share strategies and tips for sorting out all kinds of word pairs. But I think the best overall advice is this: Read. The two words in each of those pairs have distinct meanings. So reading them, seeing them in print, is an excellent way of identifying their distinct uses and spellings.

I admit that I am a visual learner. When I study a new language, I have to see the words in print, or I feel lost. It’s possible that my focus on reading is only good for people like me. But if you want to spell and write better, give it a try. Read. Read a lot. Read closely. Then proofread your own writing.

What do you think about the relationship between reading and spelling?  Please share your thoughts and any ideas you have about becoming a better speller.

Now I will return to my crossword puzzle.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

12 comments on “Boutros-_____ & Spelling Correctly”

  • My complements for the page. I chaet hsilgnE sa a dnoces egaugnal.
    I was most interested in your article about spelling. I have always had a terrible time with spelling.
    As you can see, my second sentence in this comment is somewhat difficult to read at a first glance. If you put it up to a mirror, it might get easier. I have written it backwards. It is an exercise I use to help spelling. Writing difficult words backwards, seeing words in numbers, blocks of letters, or associating them with colours are all exercises that can help remember how a certain word is spelt. Reading is always a helpful association, but you can do so much more.

  • I am intrigued by the idea of writing something backwards. How does that help to spell it correctly?

    Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  • Hi,
    After reading many books about brain and memory, I have found they all have one thing in common. Change!
    Changing patterns and old habits, gives you an excellent tool to view things in a different perspective. If you associate words with numbers, mirror vision, colours, or blocks of letters, it gives each individual learner another perspective to memorize. Each learner has his or her own unique way of learning, as teachers we have to give him or her all the possibilities known to us to enable their learning process.
    Practicing looking at words in a different way gives people with memory problems an immediate solution to recognizing new words other than waiting to find it in another context or book.
    For example: If you look at the word “tempered” by how many letters it has, in two groups, “temp” and “ered” you begin to group all words that end in “ered” (there are thousands). Therefore, you start to group more words into its category and begin to spell them correctly because you remember the word has 8 letters as opposed to not knowing at all. Immediately you start to think of other words in this group, “cornered, battered, fingered,…” the list goes on. Once you have built up groups of words in this way, the task of separating the exceptions, like the ones in your article, seems to become easier as words fall into their groups. As everything, it takes practice. For some, it is more enjoyable to read, for others, games like these are intriguing. It always depends on your learner.
    The “mirror vision” or writing words backwards, in a learner’s mind, or on paper, works in somewhat the same way, but instead of numbers, it becomes “pictures”. Some people tend to look at things through shape; therefore changing the word’s “shape” makes spelling easier for the learner, because in the mirror vision the word becomes more complicated making the “real” way now seem easier.

  • I would like to give you an example of what I mean about using “mirror vision for better spelling.”
    In your article Boutros, you were doing a crossword puzzle (another excellent exercise for spelling) and you couldn’t remember how to spell “Ghali”. If you try reading an article, not only in a forward sense, but also practice reading and writing it from a mirror vision, you now have two distinct visions of the same word or words of interest. In this case, “Ghali” or “ilahG” By envisioning both, your memory will be enhanced for a more accurate spelling.
    Try this with words that give you problems like the ones you mentioned, “lose” and “loose”. “lose” or “esol” and “loose” or “esool”. Now associate the meaning of each word with a colour… for example “lose” when you lose something it’s red, and “loose” when something is loose it’s green. (Notice you have one “e” in red and one “o” in lose, and you have two “e” in green and two “o” in loose. red=lose green=loose)
    You now have three distinct associations of these words to help you remember which one is the one you need to use in your written work.
    It’s up to you to choose which exercise, or combination thereof, works best for you.

  • Thanks for these examples and explanations. I especially like “ilahG” for “Ghali.” I can SEE how that would be helpful.

    Using colors seems to require remembering several things rather than one. Unless I could make a strong color association with a particular word, I would probably not try that approach.

    I like to use memory devices that link to the meaning of the word or related words. For example, “discrete” with separate e’s means “separate or distinct.” “Discreet” with e’s together means “having it together” (behaving prudently).

    In classes, I suggest linking the one-o “lose” with the one-o “lost.”

    I am glad you have introduced me to new ways of thinking about spelling. Thanks!


  • Okay, here I have to ask you, why did you write “e’s” with apostrophe-s? A plural doesn’t normally take apostrophe, does it? Or is this because it makes it easier to read? Is there a specific rule?

  • You are correct. Normally an apostrophe is dead wrong for a plural. But apostrophes work well to make letters plural when the simple plural might make readers stumble. The plurals “is” and “us” and “Is” would definitely confuse readers. Although my “es” might not, I decided to use the apostrophe just to be certain.


  • Thanks for your explanation. While writing my previous comment, I was muddling with all kinds of rules through my head and opted for quotations and no s -‘two “o”- in “loose”‘.
    I guess the apostrophe exception is another one of those “just the way it is” rules, which makes sense, and it does help the reader.

  • One more comment on the topic of English spelling that you have most likely already heard, is what the famous writer, George Bernard Shaw, once asked.
    “How do you pronounce the word ‘ghoti’?”
    You are probably saying something like “go-tee” right? Wrong, says Shaw, “It’s pronounced ‘fish’. Do you know why?”

  • Shaw went on to explain.
    The gh in “enough” is pronounced f
    The o in “women” is pronounced i
    The ti in “nation” is pronounced sh
    Therefore, ghoti is pronounced fish in English.
    So, to all those who have difficulty with spelling, fret not, there is a good reason. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense!
    Thank you Mr. G.B.Shaw!

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