5.4: Proofreading for Spelling

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. Identify and correct spelling errors in draft documents.

2. Plan, write, revise, and edit short documents and messages that are organized, complete, and tailored to specific audiences.

With the help of technology such as spellcheck features in Microsoft Word and online apps, as well as auto-correct and -complete on mobile devices, we can be better spellers than ever. We also must be better spellers than ever because, assuming we’re making full use of these technological aides, audience expectations demand impeccable, error-free spelling. At the same time, the secondary school system has for decades relaxed its teaching of writing basics such that many students enter the post-secondary system lacking basic writing skills (“University Students Can’t Spell,” 2010). Between high school and the professional world, college students must not only quickly learn these basics, such as not confusing its and it’s, but must also develop the attitude that such details matter.

Using technology close at hand to improve your spelling is crucial to helping you get there. Follow the procedure in § above (and shown in Figure; click on the thumbnail above-right to return to it) to set up your spellchecker in Microsoft Word so that it identifies errors as you go. Though it’s a good idea to draft quickly and leave the pace-killing attention to detail for the editing stage (see §4.3 above), you can look up spellings for words that you struggle with as you go by just highlighting them, going to the Review tool ribbon, and clicking on the Spelling & Grammar tool at the far left (or alt + R, S). The feature will activate to suggest the correct spelling of just that word. Always also run a spellcheck sweep of your entire document by scrolling up to the top of your document and, without anything highlighted, following the same procedure to activate the spellchecker to examine each error and the tool’s suggested corrections before you finalize your document for submission.

Screenshot of Microsoft Word showing how to spell check a document

What about spellchecking when writing outside of your word processor such as in an email? For this you must ensure that your internet browser spellchecker is on and properly set up. In Google Chrome, for instance, you would just:

  1. Click on the Settings icon (three stacked periods at the top right).
  2. Click on the Settings option from the drop-down menu
  3. Scroll down and click on Advanced Settings.
  4. Scroll down to the Languages section and click on the Spell check to expand the control panel.
  5. Click on English (Canada) to toggle on the feature so it turns blue. You will see there that you can also add custom words.

With the spellchecker turned out, your browser will identify misspelled words with by red-underlining them. If you have any additional difficulties, you can also move text to your word processor, use its more advanced spellchecker and editing features, then copy and paste your draft back into the email.

As good as the spellcheckers can be if you set them up properly, you must also know what to look for on your own so that you know what to approve when the spellchecker suggests edits. We’ll divide this self-editing skill into two of the biggest challenges to spellcheckers:

5.4.1: Spelling Names

How do you feel when someone misspells your name? If you’re like most people, you feel a little insulted, especially if the offending person had easy access to the correct spelling. Spelling people’s names correctly is not only an essential principle of netiquette, but also key to maintaining your credibility in correspondence. If you’re addressing a hiring manager in the cover letter to a job application, for instance, and her first name happens to be one of the 155 unique spelling variants of the name Caitlin (Burch, 2001), your livelihood depends on spelling her name just as she does herself. Otherwise, your lack of attention to detail becomes an invitation for her to deposit your application directly in the shredder.

Be especially vigilant with names during the proofreading stage of the writing process and use technology to help. With naming trends in the last couple of decades tending towards unique spellings both for people and products, spellcheckers may be of little help at first. Your best bet is to carefully confirm the name of the person in question by finding multiple sources that confirm their name (e.g., documents at hand, as well as their LinkedIn profile online), or the name of the product by consulting the company website, and add it to your spellchecker. When your spellchecker is doing an active sweep and grapples with the unfamiliar name, click on the “Add to Dictionary” option. That way, you can teach your spellchecker to be vigilant for you.

5.4.2: Spelling Homophones

Many spelling errors involve homophones, words that sound the same in speech but are spelled and used differently in writing. When you mean there but write their or they’re in your draft, a sophisticated grammar and spellchecker will mark it as an error because it’s incorrect in the context of the words around it despite being spelled correctly on its own. Just in case your checker is fooled by it, however, familiarizing yourself with the most common homophone-driven spelling errors is wise. Ensure at the proofreading stage that your writing hasn’t fallen into any of these traps.

Table 5.4.2: Common Homophone Misspellings

Misspelling Correct Spelling When You Mean to Say
ad add to put together
add ad advertisement
advice advise to guide (verb)
advise advice guidance (noun)
air heir successor
already all ready everyone is ready
all ready already previous
altar alter change
alter altar church object
ant aunt mother’s sister
are our belongs to us
aunt ant insect
bare bear animal
bear bare naked
beat beet vegetable
beet beat assault
been bin box
bin been past participle of to be
cite sight / site vision / place
complement compliment flatter
compliment complement matches or pairs well
could of could have maybe
council counsel advise
counsel council decision-making group
cue queue lineup
dear deer animal
deer dear greetings
defiantly definitely for sure
desert dessert after-dinner treat
dessert desert leave
ensure insure take out insurance
fair fare cost of transportation
fare fair honest / light / carnival
hear here this place
heir air oxygen
here hear listen
hole whole entire
holy wholly entirely
hour our belongs to us
insure ensure make sure
its it’s it is
it’s its belonging to it
knew new just arrived
lead led guided
led lead in front / heavy metal
mail male man
male mail letter sent by post
manner manor mansion
manor manner way
missed mist fog
mist missed didn’t get it
new knew knowledge of
our hour / are 60 minutes / form of to be
pair pare / pear peel / fruit
pare pair / pear couple / fruit
peace piece part
pear pair / pare couple / peel
piece peace calm
plane plain simple
plain plane flat surface, airplane
principal principle rule, concept
principle principal main, one in authority
queue cue prompt
sail sale being sold
sale sail wind-catching boat sheet
seam seem appear to be
seem seam joining line in a garment
should of should have ought to
sight cite / site credit a source / place
site cite / sight credit a source / vision
steal steel metal
steel steal rob
storey story tale
story storey floor of a building
tail tale story
tale tail animal appendage
their there / they’re that place / they are
there their / they’re belongs to them / they are
they’re their / there belongs to them / that place
through threw tossed
threw through passed
to too / two also / 2
toe tow drag
too to / two toward / 2
tow (the line) toe (the line) foot digit (conform)
two to / too toward / also
ware wear / where put on clothes / what place
weather whether if
weak week 7 days
wear ware / where pottery / what place
week weak not strong
whether weather climate
where wear / ware put on clothes / pottery
whole hole opening
wholly holy sacred
whose who’s who is
who’s whose belongs to who
would of would have didn’t get to do
your you’re you are
you’re your belongs to you

For more on this topic, see Homophones (Singularis, 2013).

Key Takeaway

key iconNear the end of the editing stage, proofread for spelling errors with a combination of a spellchecker and your own editorial vigilance, looking especially for problems with homophones, as well as people’s and products’ names.


1. Go through the above sections and follow the links to self-check exercises at the end of each section to confirm your mastery of the punctuation rules.

2. Take any writing assignment you’ve previously submitted for another course, ideally one that you did some time ago, perhaps even in high school. Scan for the punctuation errors covered in this section now that you know what to look for. How often do such errors appear? Correct them following the suggestions given above.


Burch, N. (2001, February 1). You say Caitlin, I say Katelynne… Irish Names from Ancient to Modern. Retrieved from http://www.namenerds.com/irish/Katelyn.html

Singularis. (2013, July 28). Homophones. Retrieved from http://www.singularis.ltd.uk/bifroest/misc/homophones-list.html

“University students can’t spell.” (2010, February 1). Maclean’s. Retrieved from: http://www.macleans.ca/education/uniandcollege/university-students-cant-spell/



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5.4: Proofreading for Spelling Copyright © 2019 by Jordan Smith; Melissa Ashman; eCampusOntario; Brian Dunphy; and Andrew Stracuzzi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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