Mystery misspellings

May 18, 2015

A friend writes:

I thought “moreso” was always one word, and I looked it up in Garner’s and it says two words. I have always seen it more as one word and I see validation of that online–articles saying everyone does incorrectly use it.

Another writes:

I always thought the spelling of the word for a difficult choice was “dilemna.” My editor kept changing it to “dilemma,” and we got into an argument. Now I can’t find it in the dictionary. When did it change?

Both friends have been misled, one more so than the other.

On “moreso,” we don’t remember ever seeing it as one word, but it’s apparently common enough that it has more than 700 appearances in Nexis in just the past six months. The entry our friend referred to in Garner’s Modern American Usage says simply, “Two words, not one.”

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It goes deeper than that.

The Grammarist blog says that “the one-word moreso gained ground in the late 20th century and continues to appear despite the disapproval of usage authorities and of spell check.” Noting that the Oxford English Dictionary lists “moreso” as “chiefly U.S.,” Grammarist also sees a more defensible use when there is no antecedent for “so,” as in “[W]edding season can really be a buzzkill to your already busy summer. But moreso, it can be a burden to your wallet.”

Nonetheless, and despite its inclusion in the OED, “moreso” is not yet acceptable in any but the most casual writing. As Grammarist says, “Dictionaries will probably add it eventually, but that doesn’t mean your teacher or professor won’t lower your grade if you use it.” Or that your editor won’t correct it.

“Dilemna” is more mysterious. The misspelling has appeared for years, even in books, as this Google ngram shows.

Many people insist they were taught to spell it “dilemna,” but no one seems to have been able to pinpoint a dictionary or grammar book that spelled it that way, so no one seems to know why that (mis)spelling is so common. Even the usually helpful sources, such as the World Wide Words and Grammarphobia blogs, are stumped on this.

One interesting thing about that ngram is the sharp dropoff of the “dilemna” spelling in the early 1980s. It seems logical to speculate that the availability of spell-checkers, which arrived about then, had something to do with that. Imagine the legions of people suddenly discovering that their computers insisted they didn’t know how to spell that word. (“Moreso” is also flagged in Word’s spell-checker.)

As for the definition of dilemma, as we wrote in 2010, traditionalists have restricted its use to a choice between two equally undesirable outcomes. But enough people use it to mean simply a difficult choice that Garner’s now lists that usage at Stage 4 on the five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning only “die-hard snoots” object.

But Garner’s doesn’t mention “dilemna,” making the mystery moreso.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.