Hard words for good spellers: the evil spelling test

Teresa Nielsen Hayden's evil spelling test is back, with more "words that trip up good spellers, arranged in an order that’s intended to increase their difficulty."

The origin of the test was pragmatic rather than theoretical. I made it out of words and word combinations which I’d seen misspelled by good spellers. I’ve gradually come to appreciate the role played in it by over-thinking and second-guessing. It’s easier to remember how to spell battalion when it’s on its own (two Ts, one L) than when it follows artillery (one T, two Ls), and is followed by vermilion (one L, though it’s pronounced like million) and guerrilla. Millennium and millenarian are a wicked pair all by themselves. They’re followed by miscellaneous because (a.) it’s often misspelled, and (b.) it’ll trip up test-takers who figure that if the last three words had double Ls, this one has to be single.

Here are a few of the words at the start: "bazaar dumbbell bizarre abattoir accede precede supersede occurrence inoculate desiccated espresso..."

And it ends with "siege seize niece weird sieve".

The return of the evil spelling test


    1. OUCH, Cory!  I-before-E-except-after-C-or-when-sounded-like-A-as-in-“neighbor”-or-“weigh.”

      but yeah, I had to google the name; so, yes, pedantic post.  Also:  English is retarded.

  1. English spelling is just completely arbitrary. With historic spellings baked in from various eras, various conventions, various languages, it has absolutely no coherent logic. Not all orthographies are like this. Ever heard of a Spanish spelling bee? No, because Spanish makes sense.
    We act as though good spelling is a natural part of language, but really, it’s just memorizing a lot of arbitrary, meaningless data.
    Thank god for spell check, giving us some breathing room from this idiotic nitpicking, and letting us focus on actual writing.
    Here’s just one of many, many issues: Vowels. English has an unusually large vowel inventory; yet it only has the five vowel signs the Latin alphabet gave it. Yes, there are “long” and “short” versions, but those don’t describe all the sounds. What’s worse, the most common vowel, the schwa, which we typically reduce unstressed vowels to, doesn’t have a sign. So in most multi-syllable words, at least one vowel is utterly arbitrary. Arbetrary. Arbotrary. Arbatrary. Arbutrary.

    1. Even ‘regular’ orthographies are based on some standardized version of a particular language which no-one actually speaks. There are only degrees of inconsistency for individual speakers.

    2.  You are right, to a point. People shouldn’t worry about spelling too much.
      But a reason for spelling you have completely glossed over is the preservation of the roots of words. Learning the basic sets of roots that our weird English language comes from is the key to understanding what words really mean. ‘Abitrary’ is related to ‘arbiter’ – how could you easily see the direct connection if they weren’t spelled the same? The importance of the actual short ‘i’ sound becomes more apparent as well when looking at both words together.
      My basic point is, spelling isn’t just about how we currently pronounce words. There’s a lot more to language than that. It’s not utterly arbitrary at all.

      1.  SCR and Abbie are both right.  We need to reconcile this within this century, y’all.

        1. I can read a 17th-century English text no problem. In my native language on the other hand whose orthography, grammar and vocabulary have been streamlined multiple times since then? No chance at all.

  2. hemorrhage

    I think not. Not here, anyway.

    Two tips for spelling- if you know you have a problem with particular words, learn their etymology (e.g. ‘Fuchsia’ is easy to spell if you know it was named after Mr. Fuchs) and pronounce them as they’re spelt (e.g. say ‘minuscule’, not ‘miniscule’).

  3. I wonder if “the spelling gene” (as a commenter at the link called it….great phrase!) is really just describing people who are visual rather than aural learners.  Spelling words in English can trip you up if you process language in your head by hearing it, because English pronunciation is all over the place, but if you see the words in your mind’s eye instead, it’s much easier to know when what you’ve just written doesn’t look right.

    1.  I’ve heard people say that the visual/aural/kinesthetic learners thing is bunk, but I don’t completely believe them, because from my experience I learn best visually. Incidentally, I’m a great speller and horrible at pronunciation. I definitely see words when I’m spelling them instead of hearing them.

  4. Around 1995, I visited my uncle Henry,  born in Brooklyn, who ended up  @ UC Berkeley as a Romance Language Maven some years after his stint in the infantry in WWII. We were in a cafe near the Cathedral in SF, and he asked to see the manager. He asked him a couple of innocuous questions, and then said something like :” You are  Albanian, aren’t you?”  The guy insisted he was Italian, until Henry, with good-naturedly told him  (in Italian, of course) that there are THREE C’S in CAPPUCCINO, and the big painted sign outside the cafe is mis-spelled.  The guy admitted he was Albanian, but it was better for business to pretend to be Italian,  and we all had a laugh.  I really miss Haschala. RIP

  5. Back in 1984, I came in second place at the San Diego County level of the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee.  Missed going to DC by mishearing “writhingly,” of all words.  Could have sworn the guy was pronouncing a “v” rather than a “th.”  Oh, well.  It was all downhill from there.  Anyway, spelling is about the only thing that has always come easy to me, though it has not been lost on me how often I’ve worked underneath people with truly atrocious spelling.

    I’d do well on this test, having taken a peek, but there are a few for which I’d have to make sure I didn’t rush.  My old nemesis “sacrilegious” is there, but I conquered that devil some years back and consciously vowed never again to think of it containing “religious” as a root word. I would probably get “millenarian” wrong since I’ve never used it.  Let me look it up.  (browses m-w.com) Ah.  Okay, with a definition, I think I might have gotten it right.  But I’d never heard of that word before, even during the Y2K hysteria of my late 20s.  For what it’s worth, Disqus gives it the ol’ red underscore as well.  For what that’s worth, Disqus also red-underscores “Disqus,” so what does it know?

    About an hour ago, while looking up a work-related email from last month, I found, to my horror, this humiliating line of text which I shamefacedly confess I typed myself:  “Here’s the PO, which is also making it’s way through accounting.”

    I swear before you all that I cannot remember the last time I made that particular typographical mistake, but it can’t have been anytime in the last quarter century.  I showed it to my wife, and she removed her wedding band and attempted to hand it back to me.  I was shaken to my core.

    I fuck up six different ways before breakfast every morning, but spelling has always been my super power.  But now I’m forced to realize that no part of me is remotely infallible.  What will my kids think of me?  For that matter, what would Dr. Sascha Dublin, who bested me at the 1984 Bee and went on to dominate the 1988 Academic Decathlon and win thousands on Jeopardy! and graduate magna cum laude from Brown and get her doctorate in epidemiology and basically kick my trailer-park ass in any way I choose to compete save a belching contest… what would she think?

    Toldja it was all downhill.  Think I’ll go listen to some Mike Ness now.

    1. I always enjoy your posts, but you seem to have drunk an extra cuppa something this morning.


      (Oh, wait….look at that time stamp….someone was out late partying last night.)

    2. Making an its/it’s sort of mistake is devastating (I just made a typo in “devastating” that I never would have caught, thank you spell check). You know that you never make that mistake, but the person you’re writing to doesn’t. 

      Unless it’s a close friend (in which case it doesn’t really matter anyway but in such cases I have sent corrections which probably just makes me look like an ass) you can’t send a second message correcting yourself for such a minor mistake. And honestly, the other person probably didn’t even notice because they probably do it wrong all the time. 

      But – you can’t know if they are like you and will forever judge you negatively because of this grievous error.

      The worst thing though is that when I’ve been reading a lot of comments on the internet, what trips me up is not when someone uses “its/it’s” incorrectly but when it’s used correctly because that’s less common!

Comments are closed.