Spooky Spelling – 5 Tricky Halloween Words

It’s almost Halloween! This scary, fun holiday takes place on October 31st in many countries. Many teachers will be doing Halloween activities with their classes, and this means that Halloween vocabulary will be featured a lot. Now is a good time to review some of the trickier words that scare English learners and native speakers alike!

1. COSTUME / CUSTOM

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen students get these two words mixed up. They’re tricky! Point out to your students that they have different pronunciations and different meanings. A costume, pronounced /ˈkɑs tjum/, is an outfit that people wear on Halloween in order to appear as someone/something else.

  • I bought a cat costume for Halloween this year. My friend is dressing up in a zombie costume.

A custom, pronounced /ˈkʌs təm/, is a tradition or habitual action that people do.

  • Taking off your shoes when you enter someone’s house is a well-known Japanese custom.

2. JACK-O’-LANTERN

This might be the strangest spelling of all. Who knew that putting an apostrophe before a hyphen would be correct? But jack-o’-lantern (a pumpkin that it has something, usually a scary face, carved into it) is indeed the correct spelling, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and the Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English, among others.

  • We spent all day carving pumpkins, and now we have five jack-o’-lanterns on our front porch.

3. TRICK OR TREAT (noun) / TRICK-OR-TREAT (verb)

This term changes its spelling slightly depending on the part of speech. The verb uses hyphens (trick-or-treat), while the noun does not (trick or treat). This may be confusing for students because it’s the opposite of most phrasal verbs, which use a hyphen for the noun (e.g., warm-up) but not for the verb (e.g., warm up).

  • When the children got to the front door, they yelled, “Trick or treat!”

  • The children trick-or-treated for hours last night, so they’re very tired today.

4. WITCH / WHICH

These two words can be tricky for students because they sound exactly alike! Which indicates a choice and is often used in questions.

  • Which costume are you going to wear for Halloween, the ghost or the pirate?

Witch is a common Halloween term for a magic-using sorceress. Witches usually wear black, pointed hats, have warts on their noses, and fly around on brooms.

  • My sister is dressing up as a witch for Halloween. She has a long, black dress, a pointed hat, and a broom.

You might want to point out to your students that the “-wich” syllable in sandwich also sounds the same as which and witch, but has yet another different spelling!

5. ZOMBIE / ZOMBIES

If students see the plural word zombies, they might assume that the singular should be “zomby” based on other, similar spellings such as candies / candy. Point out that the correct singular form is zombie, and that “zomby” is not a word in English.

  • I just saw a girl dressed like a zombie. How many zombies did you see on Halloween?

For other Halloween materials, check out the following:

     

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Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.

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