In my first official post here, back in June, I talked about the real magic involved in communication. I trust you were sufficiently convinced that a growing mastery of language is essential for success as a leader. In my second post, I made this statement: “Becoming an effective communicator is a lifelong process that requires continual investment.” And that is absolutely true.
But it occurred to me that not everyone has a great memory, and less so for academic information since the days of classrooms and teachers and report cards ended. Maybe you’ve just given up on becoming a better speller, relying on spell-check to cover for you in your adult life. Maybe you’ve tried in the past to increase your vocabulary; but you just never seemed to remember the new words after a day or so, so you threw in the towel.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you can improve your memory. In fact, I have spent decades teaching students – even the cynical ones – this very thing: how to remember stuff. If you’ll give me a chance, I’ll prove that even you can learn how to remember things without hurting your brain or spending hours drilling boring lists and the like. Imagine finally being able to remember those tricky words you’re always spelling incorrectly, or looking at any new word and remembering its meaning forever.
It can be done.
The way you were most likely taught how to remember information didn’t work. It’s not you – it’s the methods used. Unfortunately, most teachers teach by writing on boards and requiring rote memorization. I don’t. But here’s the thing – you need to be willing to take yourself a little less seriously in order for my crazy methods to work. So you can be a stick in the mud, and hem and haw, and refuse to play along – and keep your rusty memory. Or you can make the choice to think like a kid again, enjoy the next few minutes, and learn new skills on how to remember things that will last a lifetime. So are you with me?Be willing to take yourself a little less seriously. Click To Tweet
Obviously, in one post, I can’t teach you how to remember everything in the world. So for today, we’ll wade into the water by settling the score on some tricky spelling traps that trip up an awful lot of people. And the truth is, spell-check won’t flag or correct many words that have multiple variations in spelling.
My goal is twofold. In the short term, you’ll (finally) learn, once and for all, the difference between some sound-alikes that you’ve likely struggled with. But pay attention to the strategies I’ll present; that is where the long-term magic lies, since the principles apply to any words you’d like to remember how to spell.
they’re, their, there
Let’s start with the perennial nuisance of they’re, their and there. I’ve seen dozens of charts and papers explaining the difference. But that’s just more words that get lost over time. The trick for how to remember anything lies in cutting out the words and moving things over to images and sensations. (I’ll bet you never heard that strategy before!) So how do you learn words – without words?
The first step is to identify the “trouble area.” Most words you’ll stumble over when spelling have just one, or at most two “trouble areas,” and the rest of the word will be a piece of cake. So we want to start by identifying which part of the word is difficult and then isolating it.
I notice with they’re, their and there that the first three letters are the same. So that part is a given. It’s the endings, then, that we need to focus on: they’re, their and there. This is key. We are only going to focus on the “trouble spots” of these words.
From there, I want to actually turn part of each word into a picture. I’m going to do this for you visually; but as you get the hang of this technique, a clear and vivid mental image will be just as effective as a drawing.
I want to tie the “trouble spot” in with the picture, and then attach both to the meaning of the word.
The meaning of they’re is “they are” (ex: “They’re out fishing.”). I can see that this is a contraction, where the “a” from “are” has been replaced with an apostrophe. So here’s how I make a picture from the trouble spot that ties in with the meaning (there is no “right way”; this is just my suggestion on the fly):
Do you see how I’ve actually written “they are” but turned the “a” into a modified apostrophe? That’s your mental picture for how to remember this one. From now on, whenever you are unsure about which spelling of the word to use, ask yourself first, “Does it mean ‘they are’?” If so, you’ll know that the apostrophe took the place of “a” in “are.”
The meaning of their is “belonging to them” (ex: “Have you seen their new house?”). This word always shows possession by two or more people, animals or objects. So think of the meaning as “something that belongs to two or more.” Here’s a picture that isolates the trouble spot, all tied in with the meaning:
Notice that the letter “i” has been replaced with a generic “person marker,” where the long part of the “i” is a body and the dot is the head. Also notice that I’ve got TWO of them close together. So, if you’ve already figured out that the word doesn’t mean “they are,” you’d next ask yourself, “Does it mean something belongs to two or more people or things?” If so, include the “person marker” (the letter “i”) in your word.
Really, that’s it. Since there is only one more spelling of the word, if the meaning didn’t fit either of the above, then it’s “there.” But, in general, this word can most often be replaced with “here”:
“Don’t leave your shoes there.”
“Don’t leave your shoes here.”
You can see that the word “here” is also hiding inside the word “there,” so that’s your picture clue:
But again, all uses that don’t mean “they are” or “something belonging to two or more” would be the default spelling: there. This is helpful in vague sentences like this: “There wasn’t enough time to finish the project today.” You can easily rule out “they are,” which doesn’t fit. Nothing “belongs to two or more.” So we’d default to “there,” even though it can’t quite be replaced with “here.”
Here’s another for you:
compliment -or- complement
I see “compliment” and “complement” misused a lot in business and professional writing. You can see that most of the two words is the same. So what is the “trouble spot”? You can easily see that it’s the middle “i” or “e.” Great – we’ve located the spelling problem.
To “compl i ment” means to say something nice to a person (ex: “My compliments to the chef.”). Can you see how easy it is now to turn that “i” into a picture that helps us remember the spelling for this meaning? Here is my picture:
So if you’d say it to a PERSON, include the “generic person” letter (“i”) in the word.
To “compl e ment” means to match or to go together with (ex: “That shirt complements your eyes.”). I want to think of a picture that means “goes together” and that looks like that middle “e.” I came up with a ying and yang:
So whenever the meaning is that two things go together well, I think “ying and yang,” which looks like the shape of the lowercase “e” … and I know how to spell it. No problem.
One more for good measure.
This one gets lots of people! What do we do first? (Right – we isolate the trouble area.) I’ve found that most people mess up the middle letters “i n i” while spelling the rest right. So let’s concentrate our attentions there.
The meaning of the word is “absolutely sure” (ex: “I will definitely give you a call this evening.”) Since my brain is getting used to the lowercase “i” being a person marker, I’ll keep going with that theme and try to think of a picture that includes TWO person markers (“i i”), and which ties in with the meaning. I thought of twins. They look so much alike, I know they are def i n i tely twins:
From now on, whenever I have to spell this word, I’ll think “def i n i tely twins” based on the picture I made, and I’ll be sure to include the two identical person markers (“i i”) in the middle.
1. Isolate the “trouble spot” in the word you need to know how to remember.
2. Make a picture or clear mental image (e.g., a person, object, animal) that looks like that letter or section of the word (like the lowercase “i” resembles a generic person).
3. Tie your image of the trouble area in with the meaning of the word.
Remember, the point here isn’t just about spelling. It’s about communication. Having your message clearly understood relies on choosing the right words. Credibility takes a hit when spelling errors exist in our writing, and we often only get one first impression. So keep the big picture in mind: learning strategies for how to remember correct spelling is a small but important part of continuing to invest in becoming a stronger communicator.
See even MORE visual examples in the Comments section below!
In future posts, we’ll tackle brain boosters for how to remember other things, from new vocabulary to presentation points; but the basic strategies will be the same ones you just learned above. Is there a word or group of sound-alikes that you find you always have trouble spelling? Need a few more tips or pictures to aid in how to remember them, while you’re practicing your newfound skills? Feel free to ask in the Comments section below. I’m happy to help!