General Mechanics

Common Spelling Errors

It is important to be familiar with common spelling errors to avoid them in your own writing.

Learning Objectives

Recognize common spelling errors

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • It is important to be familiar with spelling errors that writers frequently make so you can avoid them in your own writing.
  • Knowing why these mistakes occur will help you write with better awareness.
  • Word-processing programs usually have a spell-checker, but you should still carefully check for correct changes in your words. This is because automatic spell-checkers may not always understand the context of a word.

Key Terms

  • phonetics: The study of the physical sounds of human speech (phones) and the processes of their physiological production, auditory reception, and neurophysiological perception, as well as their representation by written symbols.
  • typo: A spelling error.
  • homophone: A word which is pronounced the same as another word but differs in spelling or meaning or origin, for example: carat, caret, carrot, and karat.

The Importance of Spelling

Misspelling a word might seem like a minor mistake, but it can reflect very poorly on a writer. It suggests one of two things: either the writer does not care enough about his work to proofread it, or he does not know his topic well enough to properly spell words related to it. Either way, spelling errors will make a reader less likely to trust a writer’s authority.

The best way to ensure that a paper has no spelling errors is to look for them during the proofreading stage of the writing process. Being familiar with the most common errors will help you find (and fix) them during the writing and proofreading stage.

Sometimes, a writer just doesn’t know how to spell the word she wants to use. This may be because the word is technical jargon or comes from a language other than her own. Other times, it may be a proper name that she has not encountered before. Anytime you want to use a word but are unsure of how to spell it, do not guess. Instead, check a dictionary or other reference work to find its proper spelling.

Common Spelling Errors

Phonetic Errors

Phonetics is a field that studies the sounds of a language. However, English phonetics can be tricky: In English, the pronunciation of a word does not always relate to the way it is spelled. This can make spelling a challenge. Here are some common phonetic irregularities:

  • A word can sound like it could be spelled multiple ways. For example: “concede” and “conceed” are the same phonetically, but only “concede” is the proper spelling.
  • A word has silent letters that the writer may forget to include. You cannot hear the “a” in “realize,” but you need it to spell the word correctly.
  • A word has double letters that the writer may forget to include. “Accommodate,” for example, is frequently misspelled as “acommodate” or “accomodate.”
  • The writer may use double letters when they are not needed. The word “amend” has only one “m,” but it is commonly misspelled with two.

Sometimes, words just aren’t spelled the way they sound. “Right,” for example, does not resemble its phonetic spelling whatsoever. Try to become familiar with words that have unusual or non-phonetic spellings so you can be on the lookout for them in your writing. But again, the best way to avoid these misspellings is to consult a dictionary whenever you’re unsure of the correct spelling.


“Bread” and “bred” sound the same, but they are spelled differently, and they mean completely different things. Two words with different meanings but the same pronunciation are homophones. If you don’t know which homophone is the right one to use, look both up in the dictionary to see which meaning (and spelling) you want. Common homophones include:

  • right, rite, wright, and write
  • read (most tenses of the verb) and reed
  • read (past, past participle) and red
  • rose (flower) and rose (past tense of rise)
  • carat, caret, and carrot
  • to, two, and too
  • there, their, and they’re
  • its and it’s

Typographical Errors

Some spelling errors are caused by the writer accidentally typing the wrong thing. Common typos include:

  • Omitting letters from a word (typing “brthday” instead of “birthday,” for example)
  • Adding extra letters (typing “birthdayy”)
  • Transposing two letters in a word (typing “brithday”)
  • Spacing words improperly (such as “myb irthday” instead of “my birthday”)

Being aware of these common mistakes when writing will help you avoid spelling errors.

Capital Letters

Capital letters are used to make certain words stand out.

Learning Objectives

Identify words that must be capitalized

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Three situations in which a capital letter should always be used are at the start of sentences, proper nouns, and for the pronoun “I.”
  • Names and nicknames, languages, geographical names, religions, days of the week, months, holidays, and some organizations are considered proper nouns.
  • In titled works (such as books, articles, or artwork) the majority of the words are capitalized.

Key Terms

  • capitalization: Writing a word with its first letter as a capital letter (upper-case letter) and the remaining letters in lower case.
  • proper noun: A word denoting a particular person, place, organization, ship, animal, event, idea, or other individual entity.

Capital letters identify proper names, people and their languages, geographical names, and certain government agencies. Different style manuals have different rules for capitalization, so it’s important to have a style guide on hand while you write in case you have a question about capitalization. There are manuals for MLA, APA, Chicago/Turabian, and other styles.

However, there are general rules for capitalization which apply to all writing.

Starting a Sentence

Always capitalize the very first word of a sentence, no matter what it is.

  • Experienced cooks usually enjoy experimenting with food.

The Pronoun “I”

Always capitalize the first-person singular pronoun “I.”

  • Sometimes, I wish I could cook with them.

Quoting Others

Directly quoted speech is capitalized if it is a full sentence.

  • The head chef said to me, “Anyone can become a good cook if they are willing to learn.”

Proper Nouns

Names or nicknames, people, languages, geographical names, religions, days of the week, months, holidays, and some organizations are considered proper nouns. Proper nouns should always be capitalized.

Names and Nicknames

A name or nickname should always be capitalized. This includes brand names.

  • John Paul II
  • Cindy Parker
  • Buffalo Bill
  • Pepsi
  • Nike
  • Scotch tape

People and Languages

Names referring to a person’s culture should be capitalized. Languages are also capitalized.

  • African Americans
  • Caucasian
  • Eskimos
  • French
  • English
  • Japanese

Geographical Names

The names of cities, states, countries, continents, and other specific geographic locations are capitalized.

  • Arctic Circle
  • China
  • New York
  • Europe


Government agencies, institutions, and companies capitalize their names.

  • Ford Motor Company
  • International Red Cross
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • University of South Carolina

Days, Months, and Holidays

Days of the week, months, and holidays are always capitalized. However, seasons (fall, spring, summer, and winter) are not capitalized.

  • Tuesday
  • October
  • Independence Day


Religions and their adherents, holy books, holy days, and words referencing religious figures are capitalized.

  • Christianity and Christian
  • Hinduism and Hindu
  • Islam and Muslim
  • Judaism and Jew
  • Bible, Koran, Talmud, Book of Mormon
  • Easter, Ramadan, Yom Kippur
  • God, Allah, Buddha

Titled Work

In titled works (such as books, articles, or artwork) the majority of the words are capitalized. A few exceptions are a, an, the, and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet. These words are only capitalized if they come at the beginning of the title. This can vary based on style, so be sure to check your manual for specifics.

  • The Scarlet Letter
  • From Here to Eternity
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Girl with a Pearl Earring

Abbreviations and Acronyms

An abbreviation is the shortened form of a word or phrase.

Learning Objectives

Use abbreviations appropriately in an academic context

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • There are rules that explain how a writer may shorten a long word or phrase into an abbreviation or acronym.
  • Following abbreviation and acronym rules ensures that the reader always understands what these abbreviations mean.
  • Phrases like “lol” or “brb” are considered inappropriate for formal papers.

Key Terms

  • abbreviation: A shortened form of a word or phrase, used to represent the whole.
  • acronym: Abbreviations formed from the initial components in a phrase or a word. These components may be individual letters (as in CEO) or parts of words (as in Benelux and Ameslan).


An abbreviation is the shortened form of a word or phrase. Most abbreviations are formed from a letter or group of letters taken from the original word. In an academic paper, abbreviations are rarely used to stand in for major concepts or terms. Instead, they are usually shortened forms of commonly used but relatively minor words, such as “km” for “kilometer” or “Dr.” for “doctor.” Most are common enough that a writer does not need to provide the reader with an expanded definition. If an abbreviation is not particularly well-known, consider whether you should use it or use the longer (but easier to understand) word.

Style Conventions for Abbreviations

Style guides may differ somewhat on how to punctuate abbreviations. Listed below are the most common guidelines, which cover most of the scenarios for using abbreviations. However, this is not a completely comprehensive list. If told to use a specific style manual, such as MLA or Turabian, be sure to check what it says about specific usage rules. And whatever style you decide to use, remember to be consistent with how you use and punctuate abbreviations.

Abbreviations should be capitalized just like their expanded forms would be. If the original word or phrase is capitalized, then you should capitalize the abbreviation. If the original is lower case, then the abbreviation should be too. Abbreviations usually end with a period, particularly if they were formed by dropping the end of a word (the major exception being the use of acronyms). When a sentence ends with an abbreviation, use only one period for both the abbreviation and the sentence.

  • She lives in N.Y. (New York is abbreviated as “N.Y.” In this example, it comes at the end of the sentence but there is only one period.)
  • He got a ticket for going 70 mph when the speed limit was 55. (Miles per hour is abbreviated “mph.” Note that it is not capitalized.)
  • The CIA is depicted in many action movies as highly secretive. (CIA is always capitalized because Central Intelligence Agency is always capitalized.)


Acronyms are abbreviations that form another word. Laser is so frequently used as a word that few people know it is an acronym. Laser stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” Scuba is also an acronym standing for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.” Although this was the foundation for acronyms, they do not always form another word. More often than not, acronyms are formed from the initial components of a series of words. These components are usually individual letters, but some may use the first syllables of words. The main purpose of acronyms is to act as shorthand for longer terms, particularly those a writer wants to reference frequently. In the right circumstances, acronyms can make these terms more manageable for the writer to use and for the reader to understand.

Using Acronyms in Academic Writing

While acronyms can be very useful, only some of them are considered appropriate for use in scholarly writing. In general, acronyms can be used to stand in for job titles (such as CEO), statistical categories (such as RBI) or the names of companies and organizations (such as FBI). Other instances may arise depending on the type of paper you are writing—a scientific essay, for example, might have acronyms for the names of chemical compounds or scientific terms. In most cases, you will be able to judge whether or not an acronym is appropriate based on the context of what you are writing. The only category of acronym that you should never use is slang, especially terms derived from texting. Phrases like “lol” and “brb” may be fine in casual conversation, but would make a writer seem unprofessional in a serious paper. For all acronyms you choose to use, making sure that the reader knows what they mean is essential. The first time you use any acronym, make sure to use its expanded form first. For example:

  • Jonathan recently joined the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is known for fighting for the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.
  • The Family Research Council (FRC) was founded in 1981.

Once the abbreviation has been identified, as shown in these examples, you can use the abbreviated version in the rest of your document.

Style Conventions for Acronyms

Most acronyms are written in all-uppercase with no punctuation between letters. This differs from abbreviations, which are normally written with periods in order to note the deleted parts of words. A small number of acronyms use slashes to show an ellipsis, as in “w/o” for “without.” Spaces are not used between the different letters of acronyms. Apostrophes are generally not used to pluralize abbreviations. They are, however, used to form possessives.


Sometimes it is appropriate to write numbers as numerals; other times they should be spelled out.

Learning Objectives

List the rules for using numbers in different kinds of writing

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In academic writing, numbers that can be expressed in one or two words should be spelled out.
  • Numbers that are more than two words long should be written as numerals.
  • The proper usage of numbers in technical writing varies considerably.

Key Terms

  • numeral: A symbol that is not a word and represents a number, such as the Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3 and the Roman numerals I, V, X, L.

Style rules for inserting numbers into text vary considerably. Whether numbers should be written out (e.g. two, two hundred) or written as numerals (e.g. 2, 200) depends on what kind of writing is being done.

Numbers as Words

In strictly academic writing, numbers of one or two words should be spelled out with letters. For example:

  • Anthony was able to bike five miles in less than an hour.

Notice that 5 is written out as “five” because it is one word.

  • Maria bought five bananas, two bunches of grapes, and six oranges for her fruit salad. She needed twenty-one servings for the luncheon.

Notice that each number is written out, including 21, because all of them are one or two words.

Numbers as Numerals

Numbers that are more than two words long should be written as numerals. For example: “Our vacation to North Carolina ended up being 728 miles, as a round trip.” Or, in the case of years: “Tony was born in the fall of 1966.”

Also, the following numbers are written as numerals:

  • Dates: December 7, 1941, 32 BC, AD 1066
  • Addresses: 119 Lakewood Lane, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
  • Percentages: 45 percent or 45%
  • Fractions and decimals: 1/3 and 0.25
  • Scores: 20 to 13 or 15–18
  • Statistics: average age 25
  • Surveys: 2 out of 5
  • Exact amounts of money: $861.34 or $0.67
  • Divisions of books: volume 6 or chapter 5
  • Divisions of plays: act 2, scene 4
  • Time of day: 12:00 AM or 4:35 PM

Technical Writing

In technical writing (i.e., research writing or other writing that includes measurements or statistics), the proper usage of numbers varies substantially. Typical rules to follow in technical writing include:

  • Technical quantities of any amount are expressed in numerals (3 feet, 12 grams, et cetera).
  • Nontechnical quantities of fewer than 10 are expressed in words (three people, six whales).
  • Nontechnical quantities of 10 or more are expressed in numerals (300 people, 12 whales).
  • Approximations are written out as letters (approximately ten thousand people).
  • Decimals are expressed in numerals (3.14).
  • Decimals of less than one are usually preceded by zero (0.146); however, this may vary depending on the style you are asked to write in.
  • Fractions are written out, unless they are linked to technical units (two-thirds of the members, 3 1/2 hp).
  • Page numbers and the titles of figures and tables are expressed in numerals.
  • Back-to-back numbers are written using both words and numerals (six 3-inch screws).

Special Cases

There are many special cases for writing numbers. A number at the beginning of a sentence should be spelled out as words. Within a sentence, the same unit of measurement should be expressed consistently in either numerals or words. In general, months should not be expressed in terms of numbers.


Numbers in the news: When numbers are used in text, many basic formatting rules apply.


Writers use italics to emphasise certain words such as titles, scientific words, and foreign words.

Learning Objectives

Identify situations in which italics should be used

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Italics are a typeface feature designed to make words stand out. There are general rules to using italics properly.
  • Titles of textbooks, fiction or nonfiction books, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, films, epic poems, plays, operas, musical albums, television shows, movies, works of art, and the names of legal cases should all be italicized.
  • Italics can also be used to emphasize certain words.
  • Italics should always be used with scientific terms, algebraic equations, and foreign-language words.

Key Terms

  • italics: A typeface style that is used to add emphasis to words.

Italics are letters that slant slightly to the right. When using a word processor (like Microsoft Word) italicized words generally look like this:

This sentence is in italics.

Italics should be used consistently in your writing. In general, italics are used to identify the title of a major publication (such as a book, newspaper, or magazine), for emphasis, for scientific or technical words, and for foreign words.


The titles of major literary works should be italicized. This includes textbooks, fiction or nonfiction books, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, films, epic poems, plays, operas, musical albums, television shows, movies, works of art, and the names of legal cases.

  • My favorite book is July’s People by Nadine Gordimer.
  • I read The New York Times to keep up with the political debates.
  • I have every Taylor Swift album except Today Was a Fairytale.
  • The 1976 version of the movie Carrie was much scarier than the newer version.
  • Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are my two favorite epic poems.
  • The Scream by Edvard Munch is a well-known painting.

Keep in mind that smaller published works, such as an individual article from a newspaper/magazine/journal, or a single poem, should be set in quotation marks. For example:

  • The magazine Southern Living published an interesting article on traveling in the U.S. called “The South’s Best Roadside Attractions” in the November, 2015 edition.


When you need to emphasize a word you can use italics to make it stand out. Sometimes, emphasizing certain words gives the sentence a sarcastic tone. It can also emphasize a fact as true. Let’s review some examples.

  • She only wants to make 100% on every test.
  • If they are offended, then that’s their problem.
  • These are the files we need.

Scientific or Technical Terms

Italics are often used in scientific and mathematical writing. Algebraic equations are usually italicized. The scientific (Latin) names of species are also italicized. Here are some examples.

  • Slope is found by calculating y=mx+b.
  • Several more Homo sapiens fossils were discovered recently.
  • The scientific name for the house sparrow is Passer domesticus.

Foreign Languages

Words in foreign languages should also be italicized. Here are a couple of examples.

  • In an interview, Julia Alvarez once said, “What I can’t push as successfully out of sight are my own immigrant childhood fears of having a gringa stepmother with foreign tastes in our house.”
  • I was at the coffee shop when a man approached me and said, “Como esta?” like he knew me, but I don’t speak Spanish.

The only exceptions are words that have been integrated into English like cliché, patio, and karate. Otherwise, foreign words should be italicized.

imageBubo scandiacusThe species name is italicized because species names are in Latin.