Guest author: Neil Wright

The English language is stuffed with ‘foreign’ words that it has both absorbed and made its own (Anglicised) over the past centuries. But it is the everyday words that have us clicking to the dictionary website the most. At least, that’s according to a study that my team ran a couple of weeks back. 

By looking at data-set tools that measure search volume on the Internet, we were able to see how often people were Googling for set words in a typical month. We looked at five countries that were all native English language speakers: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. 

With all of the data combined, here’s what people had trouble spelling the most:

  • Grey/gray (7,700 monthly searches)
  • Cancelled/canceled (5,800 monthly searches)
  • Beautiful (4,000 monthly searches)

Now, keep in mind that these results are massively skewed by the fact that the American population is greater than all of the other countries’ populations combined. But that’s exactly the point. As a grand total, all over the English-speaking world, these three words cause the most trouble. 

The ‘Big Three’

Why these words? Well in the UK we are often teased for how many Americanisms (American English versions of British English words) have snuck into our collective vocabulary. But it isn’t all a one-way street, as Americans seem to be just as confused by British English words as we are by their Americanisms.

In British English, we use an ‘E’ when we spell the word “grey” in place of the American ‘A’. But, to be fair to Americans, there are plenty of confusing examples in everyday American life where proper nouns are spelled “gray” the British way. Cup of Earl Grey tea, anyone? 

The same goes for ‘canceled’ which has two ‘Ls’ in British English. It looks like this word and its two variants confuse English-speakers on both sides of the pond (and indeed the wider world). 

The third word, ‘beautiful’, could be regarded as the true most difficult word to spell, because it has no variant to stumble over.

The United States

The Big Three aside, the data revealed weird surprises in what it is Americans have trouble with. Including Hors d’oeuvres which, to be fair, is one of those absorbed words entirely of French origin. 

Other anomalies include trouble with the spelling of ‘forty’, which DID used to be spelled ‘fourty’, so perhaps the mix-up comes from the older generations. And the word ‘bougie’. I’d never heard of this word before, and I’m still not entirely sure what it means. But some research indicates that it is a slur towards the middle-class. 

So these spellings are in some respects, giving us an insight into the host cultures of which they are part. 

Another British English spelling that Americans fall prey to is ‘favorite’ which has a ‘U’ in the UK. 

The UK

The UK is definitely a casualty of America’s dominance over popular culture. As a whopping SIX of the most commonly misspelled words are Americanisms. 

‘Definitely’, ‘favourite’ and the noun ‘Michael’ all flummox Brits as well. 

Aside from that, the only anomalies were ‘assess’ (which presumably people undercount how many ‘S’ letters go into it) and ‘auntie’ (which CAN also be spelled ‘aunty’). 


There is a soft rule in English (“soft” because it isn’t always correct) known as the “I before C except after E” rule. And if there is one country whose inhabitants clearly don’t follow or know about this rule, then Canada would be it. 

These words include:

  • Niece 
  • Received 
  • Receipt

A big problem for Canadians is ‘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’.

‘Beautiful’ and ‘definitely’ also give Canadians trouble. 


Weirdly, the Australians seemed to suffer more Americanisms than the Canadians. As Americanisms counted for five of the words in the top ten. But curiously, it was ‘jewellery/jewelry’ that ranked in the top spot. 

There is of course the ever-formidable ‘definitely’ which has 350 Aussies scrambling to the Internet’s spell checker tools every month.  And Australians also seem to be just as perplexed as the British when it comes to ‘aunty/auntie’. 

A pleasant anomaly here is the appearance of “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. Which, to be fair, only a spelling champion could get right without help. 

New Zealand

By the time we got round to studying New Zealand in the data, surprises were running thin and clear patterns were emerging. Including spelling trouble with ‘favourite’, ‘diarrhoea’, ‘definitely’ ‘aunty/auntie’, and so on. 

There were a few anomalies, however. Including ‘vacuum’ and ‘believe’. But what’s hilarious is that ‘Australia’ made it onto the list. You would think given their rivalry, that the Kiwis would know how to spell the name of their arch-competitors. 


Ireland has one of the smallest population sizes in our sample. But it also had incredibly low search rates for word-spelling in general. Could that be indicative of a good educational system? Perhaps. 

Ireland’s search history is also one of the most anomalous, featuring plenty of “firsts” such as ‘programme’, ‘madam’, ‘throat’, ‘sympathy’ and ‘Aoife’ (an Irish name). 

But the real shocker is that ‘potato’ is the word that most commonly confuses the Irish. It seems a lot of people don’t know if it comes with an ‘E’ on the end or not. 

Why these words?

So there you have it. A breakdown of the hardest words to spell all over the English-speaking world. And in collating the data, my team often found ourselves asking, why these words? There are more than 100,000 words in current use in the English language, and the average person has a vocabulary of around 20-30,000. 

So why do the same words (or words with similar spelling patterns) keep popping up over and over again? The explanation is quite simple I think — and it’s down to popularity. We probably all use words like ‘favourite’ every single day. But how often does a person feel the urge to drop ‘sesquipedalian’ in conversation? 

About the Author

Neil Wright writes for UK-based transcription company McGowan Transcriptions