common errors in English

Tricks of the trade

Some English words are notoriously difficult to spell, even for native speakers. Often it’s because there are two very similar words and we get them muddled – affect or effect, practise or practice. Memory devices, or mnemonics like those used to remember things in the correct order – Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain for the colours of the rainbow, for example (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) or My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos for the planets of the solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune [Pluto was recently demoted, and is no longer considered a planet]) – can be very helpful.

Even those of us who write every day have our own bugbears, though, and mine has always been stationary versus stationery. I’m not above the odd typo(!), but with that one, when I get it wrong, it’s because I’m guessing. Someone told me a very simple device for getting it right the other day though – cars are stationary, paper is stationery; no more excuses. Is there one particular memory device that’s helped you or your students?

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Sharon Creese


  • I remember stationery vs stationary by thinking about shops that sell stationery as stationers.

    Also, definitely: definite has a *finite* centre

    Accommmodation can accommodate two doubles.

    I still struggle to get to grips with practise/practice though, and to spell separate.

  • Stationery includes envelopes.
    There’s ‘a rat’ in ‘separate’
    Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move
    There’s a lie in what you believe.
    A piece of pie
    Don’t forget to get vegetables
    I’ll be your friend till the end
    Big Elephants Can’t Always Understand Small Elephants
    Be careful though (this isn’t a mnemonic!), mnemonics should only be used as a last resort. They are a crutch and stop you really learning the spelling – ie writing it automatically without thinking.


  • My year 3 teacher taught us: you FRI (fry) the END of your FRIEND
    This one I think I made up when I was 9: when you say ‘necessary’ you can hear two ‘ess’ sounds so there are 2xs (ss), but only one c. That’s not quite concise but I still use it if I hesitate.
    One thing that works for me sometimes is understanding the etymology of a word; is a great resource if you can’t access OED. And I think a lot of students are interested in where a word comes from. For example, jaundiced always seemed a really obvious word to me because I knew it came from the French ‘jaune’ which meant yellow.

  • These are great, thanks everyone! Keep them coming.

    Jodie – I still remember ‘necessary’ as Never Eat Cake Eat Sandwiches Sometimes And Remain Young, which I learnt in Primary School.

    Don’t forget, Macmillan Dictionary has lots of spelling and word history information on offer.

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