[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J24, 1998-2, pp11-17]
See review of Queen's English Society conference proceedings.

The Spelling Standards of Undergraduates, 1997-98.

Bernard Lamb.

Dr Bernard Lamb is Reader in Genetics in the Biology Department, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London SW7 2AZ. He is Chairman of the London Branch of the Queen's English Society and has written books on English standards, English for technology, how to write about biology, and also on genetics, and wine and beer judging.


The spelling standards of first and final year undergraduates in 1997-98 were assessed. Error frequencies of 14 monitored words ranged from 5 to 82%, being 78% or more for five of them. Overseas students were significantly less bad than British students. The wide range of quoted mistakes includes putting one word as two words, or two words as one, many single/double letter errors, wrong plurals, confusing plurals with possessives, and wrong Latinate endings. The effects of the errors on the effectiveness of the scientific writing and ways of reducing the errors are considered.

1. Introduction.

Spelling is important. Bad spelling gives the impression that the writer is ignorant, careless and unintelligent. It can mislead, confuse and frustrate the reader, and delay or prevent comprehension. For example, a non-dyslexic British undergraduate wrote: "Next, as a whole animal normally produced a large amount of sperm with an ejucation..." Interpreting ejucation as education does not make sense, so presumably ejaculation was intended, but the reader should not have to guess.

The present work is part of a semi-quantitative study of students' English started in the 1970's. This particular study was made of the spelling standards of current undergraduates, to see what kinds of errors were made, how often, what effect they had on the effectiveness of the written work, and how such errors might be prevented or reduced in future. These errors were in writing for assessed tasks in genetics, not in special spelling tests. They are from the serious practical use of English when the students can - if they choose - use dictionaries, textbooks or other aids to correctness.

My national survey of the standards of UK undergraduates' English (Lamb, 1992a) showed that these studies of undergraduate biologists at one institute gave similar results to those of students of a wide range of arts, science, engineering and medical subjects in the 17 universities surveyed in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Most UK students have been through the same kinds of primary and secondary education, usually with the same kinds of English syllabus and exams, especially GCSE English, so the present findings should be of more than parochial interest.

All students had a lecture from me in first year on writing scientific English, with advice on correct spelling and its importance, and they had been recommended to read a book (Pechenik and Lamb, 1994) on how to write about biology. They had all had previous work back from me, with corrections of spelling and grammar, and knew that I took such matters seriously. For their practical books, they usually had schedules which gave the names of organisms and chemicals, as well as methods. In lectures and practicals, I spelled new terms on the board, often giving etymologies and spelling tips, especially for words frequently spelled wrongly, including ones with unusual plurals. I expect traditional British spelling.

Spelling has here been interpreted broadly: some errors are in regions of overlap between spelling, word confusions, mistakes in parts of speech, and grammatical faults. When the lists of errors are examined, I recommend considering which mistakes could mislead or delay the reader, especially ones completely changing the meaning. The lists are provided to illustrate particular points and as future research material, as not all aspects can be considered here. A few words of context are sometimes given. As the work was marked primarily for its genetics, under considerable time pressure, some errors were undoubtedly missed. Those recorded here represent about two thirds of the observed errors, with those not recorded largely being variants on those given, e.g. a noun spelled wrongly in the plural as well as in the singular. Although errors are usually shown in italics, Latin names of organisms are by convention also shown in italics even when correct: they should always have an initial capital letter for the genus and a lower case letter for the species.

Judged by nationality, as in the passport, about one quarter of the students were from overseas: including them in this survey was expected to increase the average spelling standards. My previous comparison of overseas and UK students (Lamb, 1992b) showed that overseas students were significantly better at spelling ordinary English words, but were little better at scientific words. I have excluded results from dyslexic students and obvious 'foreignisms' such as cleate (create), flavourable (favourable), flavour (favour), fries (flies, entirely consistent) and roaster (rooster); some 'foreignisms' were made by British students of overseas ancestry. I have excluded some words which were probably 'slips of the pen', such as strerile, unless the mistake was made consistently.

2. Materials and methods.

These data were collected in academic year 1997-98, on 78 first-year students on a Cell Biology and Genetics course, and on 21 final-year students on an Applied Genetics course. Our biology undergraduates have a minimum of grades BCC at A-level and grade C at GCSE English, or equivalent overseas qualifications.

The materials analysed were mainly genetics practical books, about 50 pages long for the first-year course, and about 70 pages for the final-year course, plus about 15 pages of tutorial essays. All the writing was done in the students' own time, so they could consult dictionaries, text books or lecture notes whilst writing. About one third of the writing was word-processed, when spell-checkers could have been used - but usually were not, to judge by the errors. Before recording say hand-written soup as an error for soap, I checked the writing of letters u and a in other words.

For essays and the final-year students' practical books, errors were recorded when they were noticed. For the first-year students' practical books, a chart of 14 important words was used, recording whether each of these was used correctly or wrongly for each student. Other errors were noted. Recording errors as they occur gives only minimal estimates of error levels, as not all students use each word. Thus if 20 out of 99 students got a particular word wrong, the actual error rate could be 100% if only those 20 used it and all got it wrong, or 20% if all 99 students used that word, mainly correctly. The error frequencies are therefore accurate for the 14 chart words but are usually considerable underestimates for other words.

It can be assumed that only one student out of 99 (1%) made each error unless a percentage value or 'several' or 'many' is quoted. If a student sometimes got a word right and sometimes got it wrong, then he or she did not know how to spell it and is counted as having got it wrong. Where handwriting was ambiguous, no error was recorded. If an error was made consistently, then 'consistent' is recorded, to show that it is not a 'slip of the pen'. Where words include more than one type of error, they are only listed under one type; e.g., innorder to is listed under one word/two word errors, but not under single/double letter errors, and loosing (for 'losing') is listed under word confusions, not single/double letter errors.

3. Results.

3.1 One word / two word errors.
What constitutes a single word is fundamental. One word/two word errors often change the intended meaning, or produce nonsense.

One word written instead of two words: afew (2%), alright (2%), alot (7%), aswell (2%; consistent for one student), to breakdown, eventhough, inexactly the same way, infact (6%), innorder to (2%, consistent), inorder to, ontop, sorboseminimal (sorbose minimal medium).

Two words written instead of one: asco spores (ascospores), an other, a specially (especially), counter balance, dis advantage, a free martin (freemartin), further more, in tact, off spring (3%), over lap, over laps (these last two were from different students), tog ether, where as, which ever, with in.

There were also cases of two separate words which should have been joined by a hyphen, or written as one word: cross subject reviews, extra nuclear genes (that means additional genes in the nucleus, while genes outside the nucleus was the intended meaning), a hand out sheet, non desirable.

3.2 Single letters for doubled letters. (sometimes with doubled letters for single letters, too)

Some of these errors change the meaning but others do not.

abarant (aberrant), abberations (3%), abberent (3%), aberation (aberration), Abott (several)/Abbot (8%) (Abbott, surname), abreviated, abreviation, accomodate, alotted, aparent, aparantly, apears, asexualy, Aspergilus, assymetric, bar body (Barr, man's surname), begining (4%), controled (2%), coton (2%), counseling, crasa (species name, crassa, 3%), dafodil, disect (4%), disecting (9%), disimilar (2%), disolve, distiled, especialy, floculent, imposible, inteligence (3%), inteligent, interupting, labeled, labeling, mamalian, mamals (21%), mellenia (millennia), millenium, occasionaly (3%), occurance (3%), occured (9%), occurence (9%), occuring (6%), oposite, parafin, posses (3%)/poses (possess), posseses (3%), procede, program (for programme; in science, we distinguish between a computer program and a programme of work), Punett (3%)/punit/punnet/punnit (surname, Punnett), realy, Sacharomyces, Salmonela, spilage, Staphylococus, succesful (4%)/ succesfull, succesfully (2%), to (for too, e.g. to hot, to close to) (7%), totaly, transfered, unecessary.

3.3 Double letters for single letters. (sometimes with single letters for doubled letters, too)

abberration (3%), accross (3%), ammend, annoculation (inoculation), anomally, appliccable, arrising, assexually, bananna, beggining, collonies, connidia, conserrve, defficent (2%), defficiency, derrived, devellopment (3%), developp (3%), developped (2%), dillution, dissadvantage, dissappeared (2%), dissappointing, dissorder, Drosophilla (4%), extreemly, fillaments, gellatine, haemophilliac (7%), Hollandric (holandric), innaccuracies, innaccurate/innacurate, innacuracy (2%), innoculate (7%), innoculated (8%), innoculating (6%)/inocculating (3%), inocculation, loccii, looop, miss-aligned, misscarriage, mollar, mycellium, neccessarily, neccessary (4%), occassionally (2), occurrs, opperate (2%), overidding, pilli (17%), pippette, possition, preffer, pressence (2%), proccessing, prooved (3%), reccesive/reccessive (2%)/ressessive (recessive), reccombination, ressembling (2%), thallasaemia, too (for to, e.g., is too inherit) (3%), tripple (4%), untill, whoose.

3.4 Word confusions. Some are confusions between completely different words, with different meanings, while some are different parts of speech for the same root word.

abhorrent (aberrant), adopted (adapted, consistent, 2%), to advice (advise, 3%), are advice (advised), this affect (effect, many; see Table 1), aga (agar), analogous (analogues, noun), analogous (anomalous), analyse (analysis, 2%), asceptic (aseptic), how the doctors asses that they are learning (assess), assumed (deduced, many), autonomous (autosomal, 3%), autosomal (autonomous).

baring (bearing), be (by), beech (beach), bellow (below), born (borne, 3%), braked (broken), braking dormancy (breaking), brow penis (brown).

castrated (spayed), central (ventral), cheeper (cheaper), check/chick (cheek), chronic (3%)/cronic (chorionic), colonies (colonise), maize comb (cob), a compliment of (complement), they compliment (complement), complimentation (complementation), a concreted conclusion (concrete), sex cones (combs, many), contaminates (contaminants), councilling (5%)/ counciling (counselling), cure (treat; this is a very important difference).

detects (defects), different (difference), discreet line of yeast colonies (discrete, consistent), divise (divide).

more easier (easily), effect (effective), having an effected child (affected, 6%), this effects (affects, several), experience (experiment), extend (extent).

father (further), favoured against (selected), who will fertile (fertilise), fir (for), formally (formerly), to found (find, 2%), fungi/fungus (fungal, 5%).

grew (grow, consistent).

he (it, of a fungus), a heal (heel), holiday/ Holiday pools (Holliday, man's name), holts (halts).

idealistic figures (idealised), illicit a response (elicit, 10%), inables (disables), incubate (incubator), incur (confer), infected (affected, several), infected (inoculated), infers (implies), its (it is).

lager (larger), were laying (lying), lead (led, several), lease (least), to leech out (leach), less dead cells (fewer)/less red colonies (fewer)/less double crossovers (fewer), the liming of the cheek (lining), loosing (losing, 4%), low (law, consistent).

mail and femail flies (male, female), a heat-proof matt (mat), after matting (mating), melamine (a plastic, for melanin, a skin pigment), melatonin (melanin), mineral (minimal, 2%), mongrel (Mongol), a mounting needle (mounted, 6%), multiply (multiple), mutagenic (mutated).

normal (normally).

would of (have, 2%), original (originally), ova (ovary, consistent), ovens (incubators), an overlap (overlay).

patents (patients), peace (piece), penicillin (Penicillium, mistaking the antibiotic for the fungus producing it; 14%), permeations (permutations), phenylketonuria (phenylalanine, 7%), physiological (physical), plastid (plasmid, with a totally different meaning, 2%), point density (buoyant), polydactyl (polydactyly, 11%), more popular classes (frequent), we used a potter to separate... (a Potter homogeniser), a poxy resin (epoxy), practise (noun, practice, several), preformed (performed), presented (present), prime (primer), principals of (principles, several), proprieties of different mutants (properties, consistent).

rage (range), has raised (risen), ransom mating (random), ration (ratio, several), reaper (reappear), reel (real), refrigeration (incubation), revel (reveal), ribulose (riboflavine, mistaking a sugar for a vitamin, several).

scrapped (scraped), sole (role), roughly seeking (speaking), seize (size), sense (sensitive), solution (suspension, many), sorbase (confusing the enzyme with the sugar it works on, sorbose), washing one's hands with soup (soap), specie (species), short statue (stature, consistent, 4%), strips (stripes), suffers (sufferers, consistent, 3%), sun (son, consistent), synthesis (synthesise, 2%).

tacking (taking, consistent), tale (tail), a televise screen (television), than (then), their (there, several, including one consistent), is though to be (thought), thoughs (those), to have to causes/tow (two, 2%), too (two), transistor (transmitter), tree (three), triploidy (trisomy), trypsin (tryptophan, several; this is a bad error, confusing an enzyme with an amino acid).

Normal verses dumpy wing (versus), very (every).

were (where, many, e.g. "Although the colonies where smaller, there where more present."), who (which, of a bacterium, and of a plant, 2%), wild life (wild-type).

3.5 Error frequencies in the chart of selected words. The data come from 78 practical books from first-year students.

The results in Table 1 show error frequencies for different words ranging from 5% to 82% for British students, with five out of 14 words being wrong 78% of the time, or more. The error frequencies for different words ranged from 0% to 75% for overseas students, with none in the 78% or more category. Many errors were made in scientific words or names, as well as in ordinary words, even though the scientific words were usually in the schedules from which the students wrote up these practicals.

Table 1. The frequency of spelling errors and word confusions in selected words, analysed separately for British and overseas students.

Students British Overseas
Word% Wrong Sample size% WrongSample size
Ordinary words
its (possessive pronoun) *78925 4
separate *533606
Scientific words or names
Mendel's ** 7942176
Total over all words
* 2 x 2 χ² test difference between British and overseas students significant at the 5% level, or
** significant at the 1% level.

For complementary and effect, the errors were word confusions with complimentary and affect, confusions about which the students had been specifically warned more than once as they completely change the meaning. For some other words, the mistakes were single/double letter errors as shown in sections 3.2 and 3.3, e.g. occured for occurred, sometimes with other errors too, as in occurance. For the names Hardy-Weinberg (they wrote about the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium), the error was often in the omitting of the hyphen, or in putting Weinburg. The many different errors made for Mendel's and for Drosophila (the fruit fly) can be seen in section 3.6.

Table 1 shows that the overseas students were significantly better than British students at spelling its, separate and Mendel's, and had an overall error level of 24%, which was significantly less than the 40% error level for British students, confirming my earlier findings (Lamb, 1992b). It is useful to know whether most of the errors in sections 3.1 to 3.8 were made by just a few very bad spellers, or whether mistakes were widespread amongst the students. This was tested on the Table 1 data and was found to be the latter case: on the 14 selected words, of the 78 British students, 12% made no errors, 65% made 1 to 3 errors, 18% made 4 to 6 errors, and 4% made 7 to 9 errors. Of 19 overseas students, 42% made no errors, 37% made 1 to 3 errors, 7% made 4 to 5 errors, and none made more than 5 errors.

3.6 Bad spellings.
Some of these ignore simple spelling rules, e.g., recieve, or show a poor understanding of the words' origins, pronunciation or meanings, e.g. outway (outweigh). It must be stressed that the error frequencies are minimum values, with real values usually being much higher, as not all words were used by all students; some were used by only one person.

abscence (several)/ absense (several), abscent, accure (occurred), acheived (many)/ achived (4%), acrospore (ascospore), addative, aeborne/ airborn/ air-borne/ air-bourne/ airbone/ airbourne (7%) (airborne), affacted, affectional (affectionate), albanism (albinism, 9%), alchohol, allel (allele), ambigous, amniocyntesis/ amniocience/ amnioscience/ amneocentesis/ amnioscentesis (amniocentesis), analine (aniline, several), analasys/ analisis, analyzation (analysis), annoculation (inoculation), anomylous, anormal (abnormal), anthanoic/ anthrallic (anthranillic), anthropods (arthopods), apparant (3%)/ apperant, applys, to apose (oppose), as apose to (as opposed to), arbitary (2%), arisal, ascomycote (ascomycete), ascorspore/ ascopore (ascospore), ascot (asco), Asparagillus/ aspargillus / Asbergillus (consistent) / aspodillus (Aspergillus), asterix (asterisk), attatched (several), aureous/orius (aureus).

baliure (failure), behavior (2%)/behavoir, belifs (beliefs), beleive (3%), benefitial, it must be bloked last (blocked), burgandy (Burgundy).

caffin (caffeine), caliculated (calculated), calonised (colonised), canidia (8%, usually consistent)/ conidea/ conididia/ candidia (conidia), carcus (carcase), cebreal (cerebral), center (3%), charchoal, chlorin (chorion), chromasems (consistent)/chromasomes (several) (chromosomes), cinnebar (several) / cinnibar (several)/ cininabar (consistent)/ cinubar (cinnabar), cockeral (2%)/choceral, coinedence, color, compitence, compleatly/ complitely, comprable, concidering, concievable, concieving, condence (condensed), condusive (2%), confermed, contaminent, continuos, contridicts, convertes, convertion, convinient, corrispond, corrosponding, coverspip (coverslip), was critised (criticised), critisms (criticisms, consistent), cyctine (cystein), cymine (thymine).

definate (5%), degredation (4%), delation/ deleation (deletion), deliterious (several), delt, dendancy (tendency), depature, desease (3%), desinged (designed), detramental, develope (several), developement (3%), devestating, devided, devision, diatype (ditype), dicide, didgets (digits), dieat (diet), dieing, diffence/differance (difference), disasterous, discarted (discarded), discribed, blood donar/ doner (donor), down's syndrome (Down's), Drasophila (consistent)/ drosophilla/ Drophila/ Drosophia / Drosophial (3%)/ Drosophilia (many)/ Drosophyla / Drosophilla/ Drosiphila/ Drosphila (consistent) (Drosophila, see Table 1), dumby (dumpy).

edastasis/ edostasis (epistasis), ejucation (ejaculation), enitrely/ entirly (entirely), enoculation (inoculation, consistent), environement/ enviroment (several), enviromental (several), envolves (4%), epidermis (epidermidis, species name; many), equaliberium (consistent)/equilibruim, excreats (excretes), exept (except), existant, experements, explaination (several), extreame, extreemly.

fangal (fungal), farely (fairly), fertalise, fibers (fibres), flouresce (fluoresce, several), flutuations (consistent).

garunteed (guaranteed), genatalia/ genetalia/ gentalia, genitle (genital), geneotype (genotype), gyrandromorph/ gynomorph (gynandromorph).

Hallondric (holandric), haemoglobulin (haemoglobin), haemophelia (haemophilia), haemophyliac/ haemophilic/ haemophaeliac (haemophiliac), haermophrodite/ hermaphrodyte (hermaphrodite), Harleem (Haarlem), heigh (high), hereditability (heritability), hurds (herds, consistent).

identicle (several, consistent), inaffective (ineffective), incubater, independant (many, see Table 1)/ indepentant, independantly/ indipendently, infinately (2%), intelegence (intelligence), intellegent, interefference/interferance (interference, several), intergrated (2%), interpretate, intresting, irrelavent (several).

kernal (kernel), Kliefener/ Keiffer/ Kleinfelter's (several) (Klinefelter's syndrome).

laballed, larvea, leathal, lossed (lost, consistent), lycine (several)/ lysene (2%)/ lycin (3%)/lyciene/ lysin (several, consistent) (lysine, see Table 1).

maiting, malten agar (malt), mannar (manner), mantained, mays (maize, several), Medel's/ Mendal's/ Mendals/ Mendles/ Mendels (many) (Mendel's, see Table 1), Medelian (several)/ Mendilian (Mendelian), Melangoster (melanogaster, see Table 1), meoise (meiosis), merizygote (merozygote), metabalites (metabolites), methodes, mieoisis (meiosis), mieotic (meiotic), minature (many)/minituare/ minture/ miniture (many) (miniature), mold (mould), molercular, monitering, mouvements, mutagenices (mutagenesis), mutent, mytated (mutated).

necesserally (3%), negitive, negligable (7%), neitheir, nessecary (3%), neucleotides (nucleotides, 2%), Neurospa/ Neurospera/ Neuraspora/ Neurospra/ neurospora (many) (Neurospora), neutrition, neverthaless, non (none), noticable/noticible.

occaisons, occassionly/ occationally, occoured, occurance (many, see Table 1)/ occurrance (several), occure (occur, 2%), occures, octrads (octads), omochrans (ommochromes), opaic (opaque), opposit, origine, origionally, outway (outweigh).

parachene (pachytene), paracicium/ paramecium (mistaking a Protozoan animal for a fungal reproductive structure) / parathecium (consistent, 3%)/ parathesium/ perathecium (many)/ perethecium/ perethecum/ perimecium/ perithesium (2%) (perithecium), parantal (parental, consistent), parentaly, pathy (pathway), pedominantly, penisilium (2%)/Penecillium/ penicilin(consistent) (Penicillium), perculiar (consistent), perental (parental), perl (pearl), perminimal (minimal), petry (3%)/petra (Petri dish), phenylketoneuria (phenlyketonuria), phsychological, piments (pigments), pocess, pocesses (possesses, 2%), poliploid/ polypliody/ ployploid (polyploid or polyploidy), polydactylity/ polydactylyty/ polyldactly/ polidactily/ polydactily (4%) (polydactyly), poored off (poured), pores (spores), porpouse (purpose), possses (possess), practicle (several), in practise (practice, noun), praticals (consistent), precedure (procedure), precence/ prescence (several)/ presense (presence), precotion (precaution), predominanently, pregent (pregnant), preperation, presant (2%), preveously, probarbility, proccede (proceed), prodgeny, prospice (propitious), protocole, purpel (purple).

randomn, recepient (2%)/recipiant (2%), recessif/ ressecive/ ressessive (recessive), recieve (several), reciprical (reciprocal, several), recombinate (recombine), recommised (recognised), relitively, remidied (remedied), repetative, reproducable, retardise (retardation), Rodatorula/ Rhodotorula/ Rhotodula/ Rhodoturula (several) (Rhodotorula), rist (wrist), rubia (rubra), rudementary/ rudamentary (rudimentary).

Saccaromyces (Saccharomyces, see Table 1), safter (safety), sam (same), Samonella (Salmonella, several), satalight (satellite), segragate (several), sence, sensitif/ sensative, sentenic (several)/ syntheic/ synthenic (3%)/ syntinic (syntenic), seperate (many, see Table 1), seringe (syringe), severn (seven), shaper (sharper), showes, silivary (salivary), similated (simulated, consistent), sinous (sinuous), som (sum, consistent), spontenous (spontaneous), stabalise, starchie, Straphyloccocus (3%) / Staphilococcus (3%) / Staphllococcus/ Stephlococcus (consistent) (Staphylococcus), sterelising (2%)/ steralizing, steralise(3%) (sterilise), summerise (summarise), suppliment (several), surbose (sorbose, 5%, consistent), surposed/ surporsed (supposed), syndrom (3%), synthetitize.

temparature, tendancy (several), theorically (theoretically), theses (these), threated (treated, consistent), thouroughly, thyamine (this could be an error for thymine in DNA or for the vitamin thiamine), thytosine (cytosine), transfere/ transphere (transfer), transforme, transmiss (transmit), tretening (threatening), trphimurium (typhimurium, species name; several), tryphtophan / tryptohain / tryplophane / triptophan (consistent) / tryptomain / tryptomine / trypsine/ tryptothane (tryptophan).

unables (enables), undergoe, uretus (uterus).

variaty, vegatative (vegetative), veiw, venteral (ventral), vigaress (vigorous), vigina (vagina), vice virsa, visable (several).

wales (Wales), Weenberg/ Weimberg (2%)/ Weinburg (many) (name, Weinberg, see Table 1), wheather/ wether/ weather (whether), wheras, whithout, wilde (wild).

yeild (many).

3.7 Latinate endings.
Where words likely to be new to the students have unusual plurals, I always mention it in lectures or practicals, writing them on the board, e.g. ascus, asci; conidium, conidia; fungus, fungi; locus, loci; perithecium, perithecia; pilus, pili. Some of these errors occur frequently in newspapers, e.g., a bacteria.

asca (asci, consistent), an asci, each asci, ascii, the ascus were; a bacteria (many), bacteria growths (bacterial), the bacteria was (many), bacterias (several); chimerases (chimeras); conidea, a conidia (several), the conidia was (several); a criteria (several); fungae, fungeal, a fungi (several), fungi colonies (fungal, several), fungii, fungis, the fungus are; the genitalia was (several); the larvae was (several); loccii, locii, a loci, locis, loci's (non-possessive plural, several); a media was (several), mediums (many; the plural of medium, as in a growth medium, is media, while the plural in the spiritualist sense is mediums), on all the medium's and..., per mitochondria; nucleuses (nuclei); a perithecia was (several), peritheciums; a phenomena, this phenomena has; one sex pili; a women.

3.8 Apostrophes and plurals.
Omissions of the possessive apostrophe were many and are not given here. The possessive pronoun its was often written as it's (many) or its' (several). Apostrophes were wrongly put in some singular non-possessive nouns: genetic's, genetics' and Zea may's. They were also put in non-possessive plurals: albino's (several), embryo's (several), mosquito's (several), plateau's, ratio's (several), sufferer's of (several). Apostrophes have sometimes been put in adjectives, adverbs and verbs, e.g., "It add's a preset amount..." A plural was sometimes given instead of the singular possessive, e.g., "companies products" (company's); a viruses (virus's).

There were various words in which the plural ending was not given, or was given wrongly: two ovary; copys (several), flys (5%), ovarys; cattles, medias (several), offsprings (several), sexs, sheeps.

3.9 Unclear handwriting.
What counts as unclear handwriting is subjective, so has not been assessed quantitatively. Consistently difficult writing was a feature of less than 10% of the students, with many others having some unclear words. In several cases, I misinterpreted a word initially, before the context drove me to reinterpret it, e.g., the apposite sex (opposite), wine (urine) and unclear (nuclear).

4. Discussion.

4.1 Standards.
With such high error frequencies, e.g. 78-82% in the accurate selected word data (Table 1), and such a wide range of mistakes in sections 3.1 to 3.8, it is clear that even good undergraduates at a prestigious college have generally poor standards of spelling. They have had English lessons in primary and secondary schools, and have produced many items of returned written work in many subjects, including English. All teachers, if they are doing their job properly, should correct spelling errors in general and technical words, but many students tell me that their errors have generally not been corrected, so that they do not realise that they are errors. Many students also say that they have not been taught grammar, including punctuation, so do not understand apostrophes. If that is true, then important aspects of the National Curriculum in English are being ignored.

The one word / two word errors were almost never made by our undergraduates until 1992, when one student consistently wrote alot. Now several students a year make that particular mistake, and new errors occur each year. An emphasis on television rather than reading is a possible reason.

English language education in Britain must generally be poor because the overseas students, whose first language is often not English, were so much better at spelling than the equally intelligent British native-speakers of English. The overseas students have generally had more grammar teaching, more correction of errors, and more emphasis on correctness than have the British students, which suggests easy ways of improving British standards.

Some of the errors by overseas students consisted of using their own language spellings, such as color by Americans. The data are not extensive enough to analyse by nationality, but the worst spellers' nationalities (with the number of different errors by that student in brackets) were in first year: UK (31 errors by that student), UK (24), Israel (24), Japan (21), UK (19) and Yugoslavia (17). In third year, the worst spellers were from UK (28 errors), Sri Lanka (27), Singapore (19), UK (15) and Yugoslavia (14). Even some of the strangest errors were made by students of British nationality and ancestry.

Section 3.6 shows the appalling mess that many students made of scientific names such as Aspergillus, Drosophila melanogaster, Mendel's, Neurospora, Rhodotorula and Staphylococcus, of scientific terms such as amniocentesis, conidia, perithecium (10 different wrong ways of spelling it), and of chemicals such as lysine and tryptophan, as well as of many ordinary words. Such a range and frequency of errors show ignorance, carelessness, a poor attitude to accuracy, and a lack of effort to consult dictionaries, text books or lab schedules to get important words right.

Staff are also often poor at spelling, sometimes setting students a bad example with handouts containing a range of errors. I have to make a lot of corrections to staff submissions for departmental publications.

4.2 How errors can be reduced.
A large improvement is possible if students have their attitude to accuracy changed by showing them the great effects that these errors can have on their perceived intelligence, on the effectiveness of their writing, and on their marks. This can persuade them to make greater use of dictionaries and other aids for checking scientific and ordinary words.

The teaching in schools of rules of spelling and of the need for accuracy, and the application by students of a few simple rules of spelling, can greatly improve standards. I used to be poor at spelling, but severe criticism by a Sri Lankan research student made me learn some rules and use a dictionary more, resulting in a very useful improvement. A fuller account of helpful rules, using prefixes and suffixes and learning word origins, is given by Pechenik and Lamb, 1994. Some rules need not be memorised exactly if students can regenerate them from known examples.

The rule "i before e except after c if it rhymes with bee" takes care of common errors such as acheive, beleive, recieve and yeild. The few exceptions include protein.

Using the pronunciation of related words helps with unstressed vowels which may not be pronounced clearly. For example, doubts about definite/ definate are easily resolved by pronouncing the related word definition, where the third vowel is a clear i, not a.

Simply breaking a word into prefix + stem or stem + suffix helps with many single or double consonant errors, e.g., disappeared is dis + appeared, so cannot be dissappeared, while misspell is mis + spell.

In words like advice, licence and practice, where the nouns have c and the verbs have s, the difference is easily memorised from the clearly different pronunciations in "the advice" and "to advise".

Adverbs are usually formed from an adjective + ly, hence normal + ly gives normally, not normaly; anomaly is not an adverb, and has a single l.

Words of one syllable and a single final consonant after a single vowel have the final consonant doubled when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel: hop, hopped (not hoped); plan, planning (not planing). In words of one syllable ending in two consonants or having a doubled vowel before the final consonant, you do not double the final consonant when adding suffixes: harp, harping; cool, cooled.

For dealing with many of the students' single/double consonant errors, there is a very useful but little-taught rule. In words of two or more syllables ending in a single consonant preceded by a short vowel, you do not double the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix if the final syllable is unstressed, but you double it if the final syllable is stressed. Hence al-ter, altered; of-fer, offered; but be-gin, beginning; oc-cur, occurred; re-fer; referred. If the stress pattern changes on adding the suffix, go by the stress pattern in the final word, e.g., re-fer but reference. A final l does not usually follow these patterns, usually being doubled in Britain but not in the USA: tra-vel, travelled (UK), traveled (USA); x is never doubled.

Learning common word origins is an enormous help with spelling and meaning, even if the students know no Greek or Latin. Most of the dreadful misspellings in section 3.6 of perithecium, a fungal fruit body of spores surrounded by a flask-like case or wall, could have been avoided if the students had taken note of the origin which I gave them, from peri (around) + theke (a case or enclosing wall). The prefix peri is very common in ordinary and scientific words, e.g. perimeter, periscope, periderm, so learning one word's origin helps with the spelling and meaning of many other words.

4.3 How the mistakes affect the effectiveness of the written work.
The many errors which change the meaning, such as most of the word confusions, greatly reduce the efficient communication of the intended sense. A biologist who does not know the difference between matting and mating, or ovary and ovum, or patents and patients, is not a good biologist; neither is one who writes thyamine, which could be an error for either thymine or thiamine, two very different biochemical compounds. Failing to distinguish between parts of speech, such as analyse and analysis shows a basic ignorance of language and meaning, as does making alot from two separate words.

Of British students writing up a practical on the fruit fly Drosophila, 17% did not copy the name correctly from the schedule into their practical books, coming up instead with Drasophila (consistent) / drosophilla/ Drophila/ Drosophia/ Drosophial (3%) / Drosophilia (many) / Drosophyla/ Drosophilla /Drosiphila/Drosphila (consistent). This shows a very low regard for accuracy. In science, accuracy is often vital, as writing the wrong organism or the wrong chemical or drug could have literally lethal practical consequences. It is particularly disappointing that the students were so poor even on words I had several times told them about, such as effect/affect (error rate, 82%, Table 1) and complimentary/complementary, where the errors seriously affect the meaning, as in "Poor diet effects a woman's pregnancy."

When marking genetics, I penalise errors which affect the science or understandability, such as word confusions and wrong scientific terms or names, but occured would be disapproved of and corrected without loss of marks.

4.4 Would simplified spelling help?
A change to a simplified spelling system (sss) would induce its own chaos during the change, and people brought up with the existing spelling system would tend to go on using that, or use a mixture of new and old spellings. An undergraduate brought up on an sss would have to consult older articles and books using traditional spellings, and might misinterpret some of the old spellings, getting the meanings wrong.

Even the Simplified Spelling Society (see Upward 1998) has not agreed on an ideal sss, as any proposal has faults as well as merits. For example, reducing doubled consonants to single ones produces undesirable homographs, e.g., changing polled to poled or pold causes confusion with the existing word poled. One would really need a way to distinguish long from short vowels if single versus doubled consonants were not available to fulfil that function, if spelling is to be a guide to pronunciation. Reducing read (past tense) to red gives a homograph to the colour red. An sss would also remove the benefits of etymology as a guide to spelling and meaning. I believe that simplified spelling could help with certain difficulties, but without a change in attitude by the students and in the time devoted to teaching spelling rules, I would not expect them to cope with simplified spelling much better than they cope with traditional spelling.

5. Conclusions.

The very high error frequencies on all kinds of words - names of humans and of organisms, chemicals, special biological terms and ordinary English words - show poor standards of teaching spelling in schools, and a woeful lack of correction of errors in primary and secondary schools. If a student has never been told that a particular spelling is wrong and that it gives a bad impression or the wrong meaning, one cannot expect the student ever to get it right. Many of the errors affect the meaning and understandability of the work.

I therefore strongly advocate the teaching of spelling rules, prefixes and suffixes, and of word origins, in schools, and the consistent correction of errors by all teachers of all subjects. That would really bring home to students that errors are noticed and do matter. Once the students start finding and correcting their errors, it greatly reduces the time taken for teachers to make corrections. Many teachers of English in schools support these views, although some are prevented from implementing them by subject heads, head teachers and inspectors (see Lamb, 1997).

Although the overseas students did not have very high standards of spelling, their much better performance than that of the British students shows that better standards are achievable from better teaching, more correction, and by taking more care.


Lamb, B. C. (1992a). A National Survey of UK Undergraduates' Standards of English. The Queen's English Society, London.

Lamb, B. C. (1992b). Spelling standards amongst undergraduates. 14, 6-14. In: Conference '92: Reading, Spelling and Sex Education. Ed. by N. Seaton. Campaign For Real Education, York.

Lamb, B. C. (1997). The Opinions and Practices of Teachers of English. The Queen's English Society, London.

Pechenik, J. A. and Lamb, B. C. (1994). How to Write about Biology. HarperCollins, London (now published by Longman).

Upward, C. (1998). From the Simplified Spelling Society: a response to Langscape 1. English Today 55, 7-11.

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