Language Tips

Spelling tip of the week – despair

© Macmillan
Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. In this series of spelling tips we will be looking at some of the most commonly misspelled words in English and suggesting ways to improve your spelling.

People searching for the word despair in Macmillan Dictionary often misspell it as *dispair. Why should this be?

As with other misspellings that we have looked at, such as *persue for pursue, the answer seems to be twofold.

The first and most important reason is probably pronunciation. Like some other words that begin with the combination des- (destroy, despite) but unlike many others (desperate, destiny), the first vowel in despair is a short ‘i’ sound /ɪ/, not the /e/ that the spelling suggests. This is because the syllable is unstressed, unlike the ones that are pronounced /e/.

A second but probably less influential reason is that des- is a much less frequent beginning for an English word than dis-, with 95 entries in Macmillan Dictionary as opposed to nearly 400 that start with dis-. So, as with some other words we have looked at, if you are hazarding a guess at the spelling then it makes sense to go for the more frequent one.

A broader question, which is why so many people are looking up the word despair, is outside my remit.

You can find some information on why English spelling is so difficult, as well as helpful tips on mastering it here. You can search for other posts in this series using the tag ‘spelling tips’.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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