No matter how many books you’ve read or how strong your writing skills are, there are certain words that are just hard to spell, hard to keep straight, hard to pronounce or all of the above. In a word, they are tricky.
Usually, the trickiest words tend to strike not when you say them out loud but when you go to write them down. (Anyone who has ever tried to write the word discombobulated or mischievous will know the confused feeling these words inspire.)
In this guide, we’ll break down why certain words are inherently tricky and share tips for remembering them so you’ll never be deceived again!
What are tricky words?
What makes a word tricky? Grammarians claim that most tricky words are defined by unusual spellings, contain new graphemes or sounds, or are inconsistent with ordinary phonemic rules.
Take the word quay, for example. It’s a simple, four-letter word, yet most people would pronounce it incorrectly as KWAY. That’s because, phonemically, q and u together result in a hard KWA sound, as in quest or quench, so we expect quay to sound the same. However, the correct pronunciation of quay is, confusingly, KEE. You’d never know it from the way it’s spelled, but quay and key are actually homonyms!
Tricky words are sometimes called irregular words, common exception words, or sight words. However you refer to them, the main factor that unites tricky words is that they do not follow typical English spelling patterns or rules.
English language tricky words
Much to the chagrin of early readers or English language learners, tricky words are an important part of the English language and show up in everyday communication.
For example, one of the most common tricky words that you’ll use nearly every time you sit down to eat is knife. Of course, you won’t need to spell the word out loud when you’re asking someone to bring a knife to the table. But it’s important to know that the word knife is irregular because it is spelled with a k instead of the expected n.
There are also many tricky words that are more specialized and show up less frequently in your daily life. Words like onomatopoeia or diphthong might appear on your English literature exam, but you probably won’t use them outside of an academic setting.
High-frequency words vs. tricky words
High-frequency words are words that frequently occur in writing and speaking, and they can often be sounded out using phonics rules. They are essential words that children come across as soon as they start learning to read. Some examples of high-frequency words are: the, and, is, of, in, it, to, that, you, and was.
In contrast, tricky words are difficult to spell or pronounce, or they have multiple meanings that can lead to confusion. Their irregular spellings tend to differ from the usual patterns of language. Some examples of tricky words are: colonel, rhythm, queue, choir, and accommodate.
Although some high-frequency words are tricky words, most are not. Follow the basic alphabetic code exactly, making those words the opposite of tricky or irregular.
21 tricky words to know
1 Accommodate: uh-kaa-muh-dayt (verb)
To provide lodging for; to fit in with the needs or wishes of.
2 Aisle: ile (noun)
A passage between rows of seats in a building such as a church or theater, an airplane, or a train.
3 Buoy: boo-ee (noun)
An anchored float serving as a navigation mark to show reefs or other hazards in the water or for mooring.
4 Ceiling: see-lihng (noun)
The upper interior surface of a room or other similar compartment.
5 Choir: kwai-ur (noun)
An organized group of singers, typically one that performs in public.
6 Ennui: on-WEE (noun)
A pervasive feeling of boredom, unhappiness, or dissatisfaction.
7 Gnome: nowm (noun)
A mythical dwarfish creature who guards the earth’s treasures underground.
8 Kaleidoscope: kuh-lai-duh-skowp (noun)
A toy consisting of a tube containing mirrors and pieces of colored glass, plastic, or paper whose reflections produce changing patterns that are visible through an eyehole when the tube is rotated.
9 Laughter: laf-tr (noun)
The action or sound of laughing.
10 Maestro: my-stroh (noun)
A distinguished musician, especially a conductor of classical music.
11 Maneuver: muh-noo-vr (verb)
To move skillfully or carefully.
12 Patience: pay-shns (noun)
The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.
13 Recipe: reh-suh-pee (noun)
A set of instructions for preparing a particular dish, including a list of the ingredients required.
14 Rendezvous: raan-day-voo (noun)
A meeting at an agreed time and place, usually between two people.
15 Sauce: saas (noun)
Thick liquid served with food, usually savory dishes, to add moistness or flavor.
16 Science: sai-uhns (noun)
The study of the structure or behavior of the physical and natural world through observation, experimentation, and the testing of theories.
17 Unique: yoo-neek (adjective)
Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.
18 Vacuum: va-kyoom (noun)
A space entirely devoid of matter; a vacuum cleaner.
19 Vengeance: ven-jns (noun)
Punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrongdoing.
20 Weight: wayt (noun)
The heaviness of a person or thing.
21 Yacht: yaat (noun)
A medium or large-size boat equipped for cruising.