Spelling tips and guidelines

The main way to ensure that your spelling is accurate is to check it against a dictionary or style guide.

Reminder. Use only 1 dictionary while you work on a document – preferably a comprehensive, unabridged edition. Dictionaries may vary in the spelling and hyphenation of some words, even between editions. For example, the Australian Oxford English dictionary is not identical to the Macquarie dictionary, and the 6th edition of the Macquarie dictionary differs from Macquarie dictionary online.

It is easy to think that there is nothing to check. But a word may be wrong even when your word processor does not underline it. It may be wrong because it is misspelled as another word (eg The train was stationery/stationary) or because of regional variations (eg Australian versus British or American English). Finally, your publisher or organisation may have its own preferred spellings.

This section covers:

When to check spelling


  • when the word is underlined in Word
  • if you have noticed the word spelled differently elsewhere
  • when similar words vary across your content
  • if you are in any way unsure about the word.

Examples of spellings that commonly vary include:

  • using z or s – such as -ize vs -ise
  • using -re or -er – such as litre vs liter
  • omitting u – such as color vs colour
  • omitting a vowel from oe or ae – such as estrogen vs œstrogen vs oestrogen
  • doubling consonants when adding an ending – such as labeled vs labelled
  • dropping the last e when adding an ending – such as acknowledgement vs acknowledgment
  • using -ed or -t for past tenses – such as spelt vs spelled
  • using -ices or -ixes for plurals – such as appendices vs appendixes
  • using -ae or -s for plurals – such as formulae vs formulas
  • using -ic or -ical (in cases where the meaning is the same), such as botanic vs botanical.

Tip. Many lists of commonly misspelled words are available online (eg Commonly misspelled English words).

It is a good idea to keep your own list of words that you find tricky, and to set your computer’s autocorrect function to change your misspellings to the correct spelling.

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How to check spelling

The steps to check spelling are:

  1. Check for preferred spellings in any specified style information that you are using (style sheet, style guide, style manual). Some publishers provide a word list.
  2. If the word is not there, check the dictionary prescribed by the organisation you are working for (eg government department, university). If no dictionary is prescribed, choose one and stick with it. All standard and variable spellings are covered in comprehensive dictionaries such as the Macquarie dictionary. Where there is a choice of spellings, the one listed first in the Macquarie dictionary is the most commonly used in Australia.
  3. If you still cannot find a definitive spelling – perhaps because you are making up a word using a prefix or suffix – look at the rules below.
  4. Record your decision and use these decisions to ensure consistency throughout the text.
Reminder. The golden rule is to maintain consistency throughout the publication.
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