Illiterates: The words English speakers struggle to spell the most
“Favourite” is the most difficult word to spell across the English-speaking world, according to our research of Google’s search data.
Runners-up include “definitely” and “diarrhoea” (which is spelled ‘diarrhea’ in the United States).
These results take into account common search trends across countries that speak English as a first-language. Including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.
The study revealed plenty of other familiar words that trip us up, too. Let’s look, country-by-country, at the words English-speakers struggle with most — and why.
The United Kingdom
Brits appear to be the victims of American cultural imperialism. As SIX of the top 10 commonly misspelled words are Americanisms. These words include:
Given the outcome of our research it is also no surprise to see ‘definitely’ high up the list. This universal word has no American or British variant to trip up users, which makes it only the more formidable.
Of the remaining words the only real surprise is ‘assess’. We would not have guessed it would rank in the top 10.
We’ve all had trouble with ‘Michael’. And of course there is no wrong way to spell auntie (aunty is just fine) even if people do think they’re spelling it wrong.
The United States
It isn’t all a one-way street, as Americans seem to be just as confused by British English word variants as we are by their Americanisms.
The one being “grey” which Americans spell with an ‘A’. To make matters worse, there are still plenty of instances in everyday American life which use proper nouns that spell “gray” the British way.
“Cancelled” also seems to confuse Americans, who need to drop the second L to be precise. And “favourite” which in American English should drop the U.
The American results also threw up some surprises. Namely:
- Who would’ve thought Americans found it so difficult to spell “forty”?. (Answer: because “fourty” used to be correct — but this spelling has fallen out of use.)
- Why is “bougie” such a commonly (and erroneously) used word in the States?
There is a “soft rule” in English (soft because it isn’t always correct) known as the “I before C except after E” rule. If there is one country whose inhabitants clearly don’t follow and/or know about this rule, then Canada would be it.
Common words that they misspelled in this way include:
A major headache for the Canadians is the word “license” which has two spellings in British (and Canadian) English depending on the context, but not in America — where they stick to the one variation “licence with the C”.
Other American/British entanglements include “neighbour”, and “counsellor”.
And then there are some of the trickiest universal English words to spell, such as “definitely” and “beautiful”.
The biggest surprise is the fact that Canadians cannot spell “lose” or ”loose”, which is just weird.
At the top of the land-down-under’s list is “jewellery” which is often confused with the American variant with the one ‘L’.
In fact, it seems the Australians are more troubled by Americanisms than the Canadians. Which is weird, given how far away they are. With five of their top 10 consisting of American/British English entanglements, compared to Canada’s three.
Those entanglements include:
- The aforementioned “jewellery”
Although to be fair, while it is standard practise to use the suffix “-ise” in British English, it is not improper to use “-ize”. In fact, the Oxford University Press prefers the use of the “-ize” suffix and by no means considers it an Americanism. So we can let the Aussies off the hook with “apologise”.
There is of course the ever-formidable “definitely” which has 350 Aussies scrambling to the Internet’s spell checker tools every month. And of course “aunt” which is not far away from one of the most head-scrambling words in all of the English-speaking world.
The biggest surprise here is the appearance of “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. The appearance of this word reveals two things about the nature of Australians. Their good humour and their love of Mary Poppins.
After examining New Zealand’s most queried words, it definitely seems fair to say that a pattern is emerging. The formidable familiars are all present. Including:
Along with those ever-troublesome Americanisms of “colour” and neighbour”. New Zealanders also are flummoxed by the “aunty/auntie” situation, too.
But our favourite is the surprise inclusion of “Australia” on the list. It must be tough to hold a dignified rivalry with the Aussies in football and cricket if you have to frequently Google how to spell their island-continent.
There are two more unique New Zealand searches that came up. “Believe” — which frankly we’re surprised wasn’t on Canada’s top 10 given their track record. And “vacuum”. We don’t think anyone expected that word to be there, no matter how tricky it is to spell.
Ireland had by far the fewest absolute search volume for either of the terms and — judging by the similar population sizes between New Zealand and Ireland — does that make the Irish more astute than most at spelling the words of the English language? Maybe.
The top result, if you can believe it, was potato. Now granted, in Ireland’s case, almost all of the search results had the same volume. So we just listed them in order of appearance. Still, it seems a lot of Irish people still spell “potato” with an E on the end. Which would be incorrect.
There are some similarities and many differences with the words that Irish people have trouble spelling. The words that we have seen before include:
But there are plenty of “firsts” here too. In order of appearance (and “potato” aside), they are:
All of which are reasonable words to find tricky. Especially as “programme” has an American variant but also a version that is applicable in an IT context. Plenty of people spell “madam” with an E on the end. “Anniversary” with only one N, and sympathy can be misspelled many ways.
The highlight in Ireland’s case is the misspelling of “Aoife” — an Irish-Gaelic word. It’s ironic that the Irish are so good at spelling English words, and yet a name that derives from Ireland itself would have so many people reaching for their Google search bars.
The overall toughest words to spell
There are words in the English language that trouble a greater total number of people when you take into account the absolute number of English-speakers across all of the countries here. Basically, America’s sheer size and massive population skews the results. In fact, America’s population is bigger than all the other countries combined (328 million people compared to the second-biggest population, the United Kingdom at 67 million). So in absolute terms, the most troublesome include:
- Trouble over spelling variations of gray/grey (7,700 monthly searches)
- Using the British English version of “cancelled” with the two Ls (5,800 monthly searches)
- The word “beautiful” (4,000 monthly searches)
We used a tool called Ahrefs that examines Google search traffic to get the data for this study. We filtered results by each of the countries examined here, and typed in two search terms:
- “How do you spell”
- “How to spell”
This presented us with a list of the most popular searches by country, sorted by volume. For example: “How to spell colour”.
We then made a list of the most common words people were looking to spell check, and sorted the top 10 by volume. When it wasn’t immediately clear to figure out what it was people were actually trying to spell (for example, for some words, such as “dessert” — which if people are having trouble misspelling could refer to either “dessert” or “desert”) we checked Google’s search results to see what the intent was behind the search. This helped clear up ambiguities in this area.