Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Five Spelling Errors that Damage Your Credibility

When you send an academic paper or grant proposal out for review, the selection process is very competitive. In 2010, for example, the National Endowment for the Humanities received 1,405 applications, and made 99 awards: only seven percent of all submissions were funded. Many top disciplinary journals have even lower acceptance rates. These low rates of acceptance mean that reviewers are looking for any reason they can find to disqualify your paper or proposal. For this reason, you always want to put your best foot forward.


Some of the most common mistakes academics make are also the easiest to fix. One example involves spelling errors that spell-check will not find. Most academics know well enough that they need to run spell-check before submitting a paper. And, they also know that even though jargon such as neoliberalization or mestizaje might not pass muster in spell check, they are acceptable words in academic writing. Instead, the mistakes I see time and time again in academic writing are those that spell-check will not pick up because they are legitimate words; they just are not being used in the proper way.

Here are five of the most common mistakes I see in academic writing.

Mistake #1: Lead/led

Proper usage: Some people may be led to believe that pencils are made of lead.
“Led” is the past tense of the verb “to lead.” “Lead” is the substance we used to put in pencils.

Mistake #2: Pour/pore or Pouring/poring

Proper usage: While I was poring over my book, my daughter began to pour coffee on it.
“To pour” means to spill a liquid on something. “To pore” means to read intensively.

Mistake #3: Lose/loose

Proper usage: You might lose your pants if they are too loose.
“To lose” is a verb that refers to something that you no longer can find. “Loose” means something is not tight.

Mistake #4: Eek/eke

Proper usage: Having to eke out a living as a farm worker might make me scream “eek!”
“To eke” is a verb usually used to refer to stretching out scant resources. “Eek” is something you scream.

Mistake #5: Compliment/complement

Proper usage: She complimented me on how well my pants complemented my shirt.
“To compliment” means to give praise. “To complement” refers to something matching something else.

These are the five mistakes I see most frequently. Avoiding them will enhance your credibility. What are some mistakes you see?


  1. "Baited breath" is painful--not just a misspelling but an unnecessary cliché!

  2. Yes. And, unfortunate imagery as well...

  3. Maybe it's because I teach high school, but I often see much simpler homonym confusion. I see your and you're, there and their, and to and too confused regularly.

  4. Ian: I see that too, especially in my students' papers. I am at a coffee shop and just saw one I am always tempted to point out: Columbia for Colombia.

  5. My Colombian friends who go to Columbia actually pronounce the difference, which is nice.

  6. One spelling mistake that drives me crazy is writing "then" when one should be writing "than".

  7. Of course their, there & they're... and your & you're are common mistakes, but how did you miss > it's (it is) & its (possessive) < Gotta be a major part of the English population that believes you can make ITS possessive by adding an apostrophe! YOU CAN'T :)

  8. affect versus effect....argh!

  9. I have been on the Editorial Boards of several international, scientific journals. I have also been on the Technical Program Committees of a large number of international scientific conferences, a job that requires reading and editing numerous papers. And I've also been on multiple proposal review committees for the National Scientific Foundation. Neither I nor any other editor/reviewer would have gotten away with rejecting a paper or proposal due to spelling errors -- unless, of course, there were so many that reading the paper/proposal was nearly impossible due to those errors. We do *not* look for just any reason to reject a paper or proposal. Usually, we have the opposite problem -- finding a sufficient number of reasons to accept the thing! Furthermore, all our accept/reject decisions have to be justified to the other board/committee members; I can assure you that rejecting a paper due to spelling errors would result in a hearty guffaw from the others.

    But your point about small acceptance rates is definitely true, but I've never, ever seen spelling errors be a cause for rejection.


    I want to mention that I thoroughly agree with your stand on the importance of spelling, and most of the examples cited above seriously grieve me as well.