Does spelling in a written text matter? In my opinion, it does. Making a spelling error makes a person appear uneducated or lazy. Neither trait is desirable in a student, a research assistant, a collaborator or a fellow faculty. Having a spelling error on a web page -- or permanently compiled in a Windows text -- is like having a drunk in the lobby of your business 24 hours a day.


" How can you trust someone who doesn't bother to spell correctly or can't manage to lay out a simple declarative sentence?"
          Sue Grafton, N is for noose


"I'm a snob about grammar and I have trouble taking anyone seriously who
gets "there" possessives confused with "there" demonstratives."
(Kinsey Millhone, 1986)

During the fall semester of 2003 the e-mails from the general chemistry students became pervasive. With the influx of the mail I noticed that the students either cannot spell or perhaps they do, but they do not care. I find it personally offensive; it is lack of respect on the students' part, or it is lack of respect by the community, if it allows eighteen year old people enter a university without ability to spell. If you expect an e-mail answer from me, please, check your spelling, grammar, form and style.

Here are some useful links:

Spelling? An interesting tool (Wordsmyth).

Grammar Help

Common errors in English

Banished word list

E-mail etiquette

Language Fun (appears to call for a password these days)

mw1.gif (286 bytes) Merriam-Webster Dictionary (needs to run under java)

Grammar blog (though the word "blog" is yet another awful word)

An interesting article from the Manchester Guardian Weekly. Article.
When you get to the sentence:
     "I don't know if you're bored with the gag by now, but just how much trouble
      did you have reading the first two paragraphs? Very little, I would guess,"

answer to yourself how much trouble you really had understanding the text. The article was an eye-opener to me. I do not understand the text, that is, unless I would try to read it out loud, which I do not. You see, some of us, who learned written and spoken English at the same time, learned the sounds after we learned the written word and when we read a text, we do not sound the words. Hence, I will read "ovar8ed" [presumably overrated] as "ovar.quantity.8.ed, which means nothing to me. Or somebody with ovaries?  Even worse, "ovar" mean to me (in Czech) a boiled pig snout, a delicacy to some, but a horrible childhood memory to me. So if you close your letter by "Talk to u l8r," you might have saved a second of your time typing, but you cost me ten seconds to decipher this orthographic abomination. [I just like the word abomination. If you google it, the search engines find my writing in unexpected places.]

Spellchecker  - Great tool. Use it. But read also what you wrote. Once I accepted without thinking an alternative for "deionized water" as "demonized water" and passed it without knowing on to my supervisor. Also, some words may be spelled correctly but not meaning what you intended. Once I got from a student a request for letter of recommendation. In it it said: "Dear Prof. Vanysek, I want to follow up on my request for letter of recordation. I was hopping if you can mail it to following address." He did not get a good one.

Spellchecker will not catch common typing errors such as form-from.

The price of Nobel prize comes from the medal made from noble metal.

- - -


Here the author has progressive view about using "good" and " bad".  Some of us are not as tolerant. To say "I am good" is either an English language abomination or boasting, neither one very flattering.


The words or phrases that I will mark while copy editing and for which, in a class setting and when related to chemistry, I may subtract points:

it's - The discussion about this most frequent misuse does not bother me in particular. In scientific writing there is no need to use any apostrophe at all. First of all, one should not use contractions (I'm, etc.) in technical text, because this forces the readers to pronounce the sentence in a certain way perhaps alien to them. Second, the apostrophe and an s forming an adjective should be used only with living objects (brother's experiment, but not device's dimension),  and third, plurals of acronyms, if needed to be pluralized at all, do not need the apostrophe either (STMs). It's means "it is." If you write "at it's meeting the committee decided..." you must be prepared to write "my student did not prepare she's experiment."
In van der Walls the s is a part of the name, so the ideal gas equation is not named after van der Waal.  

Plural of acronyms - There is lot of explanation how this should be done, whether there should be an apostrophe or not. Adding the s to denote a plural works in English. Most of other languages do not have this simple approach and they deal with acronyms in very elegant way -- they leave them as they are, no plurals, no inflections. We can probably do it safely in English as well. Remember, an acronym is useful in writing. If you want to improve your spoken communication, do not spell out the acronym, say its meaning in words. Metric symbols also do not use the plural. For example five kilometers will be written 5 km, not 5 kms.

flourine (in case you wonder, this is wrong)

complementary and complimentary (the second is very rare in research) Radisson complimentary complementary 20030922_0001_0001.jpg (52130 bytes)
    (Proper spelling is perhaps not dead yet. The previous picture is from a tag on a bottle taken from Radisson Metrodome on September 22, 2003. A tag from 20 April 2005 has been obviously reprinted.)

Fisher Scientific, supplier of laboratory equipment and material to universities, does help to educate young minds when it mislabels "Coarse" filter paper.

phosphorus and phosphorous - the second is an adjective (challenge: find a noun that ends -ous).

there - It took me long time to even realize that some people write there and mean their.  Perhaps I pronounce the words incorrectly, but to me the two are different. (After hearing  Rush Limbaugh pronouncing the two the same way, I looked in the dictionary and they appear to have the same pronunciation. Thus, no way out, memorize the spelling.)  Peter Raymond corresponded to me stating that this may well be a typing error. Well, perhaps so, but only if it is a typed text. I see quite a bit of this in hand-written texts, including "thier" presumably for their.

were, where - it may "sound" the same but it does not look the same and it is hard to decipher the text if you meant the other word (Note: Like many people who learned to read, write and speak English, I do not sound words when I read them. Hence, the similarity of were and where is lost on me). "Why is capacitive dispersion or a constant phase element said to be a power law function of frequency if it where not true?"

your - it does not mean "you are," which could be written as you're

you - There is nothing wrong with you, but personification in technical writing is wrong. To say that "photoeffect is when you shine photons on a metal surface" implies that I have to shine the photons. What if somebody else shines the photons? Is it not going to be a photoeffect anyway? Does anyone need to shine a photon? If a photon shines in a forest on a piece of a metal, electron is ejected, and nobody is there to see it, is it still a photoeffect? If something happens without human intervention, say it that way. Do not involve the readers, who may not have any intention to mix some stinking chemicals together themselves. Also, avoid anthropomorphism. "An enzyme thinks it has encountered a protein...." Well, it does not.

protein - not protien,

sulpher, or sulfer are wrong, sulfur is the US way, sulphur elsewhere - if you write "sulphur" you need to write "colour"

molybdenum - the pronunciation tends to be hard, there is a b followed by d, just like in lambda

etc. - it stands for et cetera, and it is pronounced etcetera. There is no k in the word as in ekcetera.

affect vs. effect

"sound alike words" - grading, grating, sine wave, sign wave, site, sight,

adsorption vs. absorption; also recall that the verb is to absorb, not to absorp

podiatry - branch of medicine dealing with the disease of the foot. Pediatry - branch of medicine dealing with the disease of a child. Pediatry as a noun is rarely used in English, but it is common as pediatric medicine. However, to write pediatry and mean podiatry is a foot in a mouth.

busy slide - busy implies activity. Although an overcrowded design can be called busy, a slide with too much information should not. For that matter, such a slide should not be even shown.

"if there is time left, I will show..." - a phrase in introduction of a presentation that should not be uttered. If the presentation, with slides, PowerPoint and all, is prepared, then the author knows how long the talk will take. This phrase is admission of lack of practice. In class lectures it may not be possible to make the timing right. Still, there is no point to promise something that may not happen.

this past - frequently used, but has a flaw in it. This usually relates to something at hand, the present, not the past. This past summer may well mean the summer that has just passed, but "last summer" will say it more elegantly. There is a gem: "When it was introduced, I asked the City Attorney to refer the matter to the consultant who wrote the telecommunications ordinance this past last year." (Council proceedings of the City of Shreveport, LA, January 13, 1998)

voltammetry has double m - it comes from volt-amperometry where ampere-meter was shortened to ammeter. Voltametry would be measurement of the Volta potential.

two aspirins - like two dogs, aspirins, pairs, Mercedeses and Tylenols should take plural. Perhaps even two dozens? Anybody knows why "Two Gray Hill" Navajo rug design does not have the plural s?
Here is a hint on a dozen as I received it from Gerard Dalgish   "When you have a number or other word indicating plural BEFORE dozen, you don't use the plural of dozen: 2 dozen eggs, 300 dozen eggs, etc. several dozen members walked out.... Without a number in front, you can have a plural with "dozen", but you also have to add "of" after it: I saw dozens of birds at the beach.... With agreement: it is probably standard: 3 dozen people are here to see you,  A dozen people are here to see you BUT: a quantity of eggs, thought of as a unit, could go either way: "A dozen eggs is/are probably not enough.." , but I'd imagine singular is best. (The singular as a quantitative unit is sometimes heard and contrasted with a plural in this situation: "Forty acres is a lot to plow in one day." means the tract of land 40 acres in area is a lot to do, whereas "Forty acres are a lot to plow in one day" emphasizes each acre, one after the other, so the forty are a lot...)"

historic/historical A historic book is one which has had an important effect upon the course of history. A historical book, however, is merely about history. (The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995).

The noun suffix ic forms the noun static: stat + ic, the adjective suffix cal forms the adjective optical: opti + cal.

1 - if you grew up outside the US and come to America, write the number one as a vertical line ( | ) not with the hook (1). If you do, it will be invariably interpreted as 7.

12 PM, 12AM - AM and PM is used in North America to tell time. A stands for "before,"  P stands for "after" and M stands for "noon." Thus, 12PM or AM make no sense and in fact, the time should be given as 12 noon, or 12 midnight. In the state of California a court decision invalidated parking tickets based on signs "no parking 12AM-12PM" as meaningless.  Apparently, though, 12 PM means customarily noon.

billion - to those who grew up outside the US: A billion is 109, not 1012. There is no "milliard" in American English.

site, sight, cite, ... oh...sigh: A site is a place for building or camping, a location, thus a web site.  Sight is the gift of seeing or understanding. Of course, some web sites can be a sight to behold.  To cite is to quote or to refer to someone else's words, also to issue a violation ticket. 

friday, wednesday, july, i,   - Capitalization in writing still matters.

Daylight saving time - note it is not savings just saving. No plural or adjective. When does it happen and when does it end can be found e.g. here. Notice that in Europe DST started usually a week earlier, until 2007, when in the US the start was moved 3 weeks earlier and end delayed by a week.

Indeterminate gender - this is how "gender-neutral" should be called. Neutral gender is, after all, "it." In fact, in British English a young child is referred to as "it" and perhaps one could avoid the issue of he/she by switching to it. "A student came to my office with its book. It opened it at the problems page, pointed to it and asked me if I could explain it to it." Rare, but precise word for indeterminate gender is "epicene."

Many will agree that to use in English language third person singular he as a default pronoun, when the sex is unknown, is gender biased. The easiest way to go around the problem is to rephrase the sentence and if possible, switch to plural. However, I am a strong believer that "they" goes with a plural and should not be used in singular. A teaching assistant reported to me that on particular test "they had difficulty solving problem number three." I worried that my wording might have been incorrect and that most of the class has had a difficulty with this particular problem. It turned out, it was a one particular person. Perhaps the teaching assistant was right in not disclosing the gender of the student - no point to be biased one way or another. But more effective way would be to say - "This particular student could not solve problem number three."

I also believe that it is not appropriate, in fact, that it is wrong, to conceal the gender when it is known and could be useful. A colleague mentioned to me "Someone was waiting for you and they just left this very second." I could run out, look down the stairs and see who might be there. I might even call out. But for whom? Was it the group of people there on the left? Or was it the young man with the back pack? Or was it perhaps Jennifer, the librarian, who might have needed something from me? Oh no, this is the late nineties. I would not want to embarrass anymany let alone itself by calling out after they down the stairwell. If they need me, they will come again. 

Generic pronouns. Something interesting for thought: In parallel with he/him/his and
she/her/hers the following was suggested: ze/zeh/zes or hi/hir/hin. To pronounce the first set, the "e" in "ze" is long, the other two are short. To pronounce the second set, the "i" in "hi" is long, the "i" in "hir" is pronounced as a long "e", and the "i" in "hin" is short. They look and sound odd, but most new things are awkward at first. Another suggestions: thon, co, E, tey, hesh, hir. See interesting history in the link  here  and there. And a list of more pronouns suggested at some point:  ae, ar, co, cos, E's, E, e, eir, eirs, eirself, Em, em, ems, en, es, et, ets, etself, ey, fm, h'orsh'it, ha, hann, he'er, heesh, heir, heirs, hem, her'n, herim, heris, herm, hermself, herorhis, hes, hesh, heshe, hey, hez, hi, him'er, him/er, him/herself, himer, himmer, himorher, Hir, hir, hirem, hires, hirm, hirs, hirself, his'er's, his'er, his'n, his-or-her, hiser, hisers, hiserself, hisher, hisorher, hizer, hizzer, ho, hom, homself, hos, hs, hse, hymer, hyser, im, ip, ips, Ir, ir, iro, jhe, le, lem, les, na, nan, naself, ne, ner, nim, nis, on, ons, per, pers, po, rim, ris, s/he, sap, se, sem, ser, ses, (s)he, she, SHe, sheehy, sheesh, sheir, sheirs, sheirself, shem, sheme, shey, shim, shims, shimself, shis, sie, sim, simself, sis, smrtz, ta, tem, term, tey, thim, thir, thiro, thon, thons, uh, ve, vim, vir, vis, xe, z, ze, zees, zeeself, zie, zim, zir, zirs, zirself.

Gender neutrality gone wild: (Northern Star, April 9, 2009) "DeKalb. An NIU student was robbed at gunpoint in his or her room at Neptune East Monday afternoon."

Valley girl accent  - a curious pattern of speech, not an issue of spelling. But as speech goes, it is to its user potentially as damaging as is bad spelling. The hallmark of this patter is that a normal declaratory sentence ends as if with a question mark. So, the sentence sounds as if it were a question. Using it makes you appear weak, uncertain. Each your answer sounds as if you are fishing for the answer. "What is the capitol of Canada?" I ask. The valley girl answer will sound: "Ottawa?" And I will wonder if it was a lucky guess or actual knowledge. Of course, the true valley girl would answer: "Montreal?"

Not really spelling, rather a choice of words. The following is an example of e-mail addresses some people picked (perhaps changed slightly) to communicate. Fine, if you write to your friends. But what if you are trying to make a business contact? Do you think the names like these inspire respect? More likely, with ever increasing volume of spam, they will not be even read.

RSVP Respectfully Requested.jpg (257782 bytes)
Please RSVP. RSVP stands for the French phrase "Répondez s'il vous plaît" ("reply, please"), so it doesn't need an added "please."

Barack Obama (the senator of Illinois, Barack Hussein Obama[added 31 Dec. 2012: And soon to be a second-term president]) - The name, as commonly spoken, consists of two words. If you do not pronounce them separately, with a space, you will end up with what sounds like Baraco Bama or even worse, and not very flattering, a hyphenated adjective barako-bama, as in The Barako-Bamean Doctrine. (In Hungarian, barack means apricot, but this is probably just an idle observation.) Of course, there are other names that sound different than what they are. Take Dr. Deena Dell, ABC syndicated radio host. Actually, it is Dean Edell.

Dangling modifier.
"As a member of the faculty and staff, the Northern Star newspaper is asking for
your input and opinions. Through your participation in a brief on-line survey,
the information you provide will allow the Northern Star to better serve your
needs." [Office of Public Opinion, 21 April 2005.] What the first sentence really says is that the Northern Star newspaper is a member of the faculty and staff. It really should have been written something like:  Because you are a member of the faculty and staff, the Northern Star newspaper is asking for your input ...  What hurts is that such an example of an inadequate grasp of language comes from a university office. A new on-line journal of analytical chemistry is not much better: "As an Open Access Journal, you will have full access to all articles published online and be able to download them without any subscription fees."
Even the Chicago Art Institute: "As one of our loyal members, I wanted you to be among the first to hear about recent changes at the museum."

Writing a ransom note is no excuse for slipshod grammar or spelling. (Found at

Wikipedia - Why not use it in learning:
     What shows up after a quick search is very useful and very often quite relevant. There is no reason to stay away from web search. But everything there, if used for some serious work, should be scrutinized, checked and re-checked. Some of the information could have been written in haste, some has errors or misleading statements, some might have gotten mangled by some other means.
    Take for example an interesting entry about an alcoholometer, retrieved from on January 16, 2013. Here is what it says:
"An alcoholometer is a hydrometer which is used for determining the alcoholic strength of liquids. It is also known as a proof and Tralles hydrometer [...] Certain assumptions are made to estimate the amount of alcohol present in the fluid. Alcoholometers have scales marked with volume percents of "potential alcohol", based on a pre-calculated specific gravity. A higher "potential alcohol" reading on this scale is caused by a greater specific gravity, assumed to be caused by the introduction of dissolved sugars."
    The problem with this statement is, that two different concepts are put together and represented as one. The "plain" Tralles hydrometer show alcohol contents, in water/alcohol mixture and the less dense [not "greater specific gravity, as stated] the solution the more alcohol is in it. On the other hand, the alcoholometers for "potential alcohol" are quite a different breed. They measure sugar contents of what will be in the future fermented into alcohol, thus, the more dense the solution, more potential alcohol is in it. P1030214 (Small).JPG (68749 bytes)
The image is for the Tralles hygrometer, showing curiously the sometime-encountered misspelling TRALLE, presumably from the assumption that the "s" ending was just a possessive 's. In fact, it is named after its inventor, Johann Georg Tralles, a German physicist. It is interesting to see the error, since the founders of the company Eimer & Amend  were both German. The alcoholometer depicted could be from before 1942, when Eimer & Amend company was acquired by Fisher Scientific Company. However, it can be newer, dated ca. 1950, when Fisher Scientific Co. still used also the name Eimer and Amend.






Inception: 23 September 1998 
Last revised: 14 June 2015 07:54

© Petr Vanýsek

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