Common Spelling Rules

common spelling rules

Correct spelling in English can be a challenge. Even native English speakers have trouble. Here we’ll look at some common spelling rules to try to help make sense of it all. 

Why does it have to be so complicated?!

English has adopted words from many different languages, each with their own spelling structures and patterns and this accounts for the many variations in spelling for the same sound. Every year approximately 1,000 new words are added to the Oxford English dictionary. This is wonderful for allowing rich and creative communication, but not so great if you’re just beginning to try to get a grasp of it!  

The letters -a, -e, -i, -o, -u are known as vowels in English.
The other letters in the alphabet are called consonants.

Common sounds and spellings

-ie or -ei 

-i comes before e except after -c
receive, ceiling, receipt

-ie is pronounced i  /ɪ/
diet, height   
/dʌɪət/  /hʌɪt/

-ei is pronounced with a long a  /eɪ/
eight, weight, reign
/eɪt/  /weɪt/ /reɪn/

-le ending

long vowel sound coming before
-ble, -cle, -dle, -fle, -gle, -kle, -ple, -sle, -tle, -zle
table, treacle, title, Google

short vowel sound coming before
-bble, -ddle, -ffle, -ggle, -pple, -ssle, -ttle -zzle
middle, giggle, rattle, dazzle

-gh words

These have to be memorised as little in their pronunciation helps identify spelling

-augh is like –or in door
daughter, naughty
exception: laugh – pronounced larf

-eigh is like –a in say
eight, neigh, neighbour, weight

-igh is like –i  in hi
high, flight, sight, delight

-ough is pronounced in various ways:
off – cough
oh – although
oo – through
or – bought
ow – bough
uff – enough
uh – borough

Silent Letters

More than 60% of English words have silent letters. Here are some common spelling rules to look out for:

silent e

a common word ending pattern is:

vowel, consonant, -e

The –e is not pronounced but it causes the vowel before it to be sounded like its alphabet name not its sound, giving a long vowel sound:
not / note
her / here
writ / write

-h is sometimes silent:

at the beginning of words – hour, honest, heir
-ch – chemistry, choir, mechanic
-gh – ghost, ghoul
-rh – rhythm, rhyme
-wh – what, why, where, when

silent letter combinations

gn    the g is silent – gnaw, align, champagne
kn    the k is silent – knee, know
lk     the l is silent – walk, talk, yolk
lm    the l is silent – calm, balm, almond
mb   the b is silent – lamb, comb
mn   the n is silent – column, solemn
ps    the p is silent – psychology, psychic
stle  the t is silent – whistle, castle
wr    the w is silent – writer, wrong

Note – this is not the full list of silent letters in English. In fact almost every letter in the English alphabet is silent at one time or another, with the exception of the letters –q and –v

Prefixes & Suffixes

A prefix is a small string of letters added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning.

A suffix is a small group of letters added on the end of a word and modifies its meaning.

There are many prefixes and suffixes. We’ll look at some here and the common spelling rules for adding or using them.

Prefixes

Some common prefixes include:
a – meaning not – atypical, amoral
dis – meaning reverse or remove – dislike, disadvantage
ex – meaning out, indicates former – exile, ex-wife
il – meaning opposite of, not – illegal
inter – meaning between or among – international, interact
sub – meaning under or less – subterranean, subconscious
un – meaning not  – unnecessary, unacceptable

Prefixes rarely change the spelling of the word that they are added to.

Suffixes

There are two categories:
consonant suffixes begin with a consonant  -ful, -less, -ly, -ment, -tion, -ward, etc.
vowel suffixes begin with a vowel  -al, -ary, -ed, -er, -ing, -ise/ize, -ive, -or, -ous, etc.

Suffixes often change the spellings of words they are added to.

dropping the final –e

final –e, usually a silent -e, is often dropped with vowel suffixes

-ing
write + ing  – writing
excite + ing – exciting

-ed
love – loved (not loveed)
use – used

–ible and -able
response – responsible
desire – desirable

words ending –ate lose ‘te’ and add -cy
pirate – piracy
delicate – delicacy

Exception to dropping the final –e
words ending -ee, -oe, -ye
see – seeing
dye – dyeing

words ending -ge and –ce keep the final -e to maintain  the soft sound
knowledge – knowledgeable
advantage – advantageous

with suffixes -ful, -ly, -ment, -ness
excitement, lovely
exception – words ending –ue
due – duly, true – truly

doubling the final consonant

We double the final consonant when:

1/ one-syllable words ending vowel + consonant
put – putting
big – bigger
stop – stopping
hot – hotter

Notice:
hop – hopping (ending vowel + consonant, double final consonant)
hope – hoping  (drop silent –e)

2/ in longer words, when the stress falls on the final syllable we double the final consonant:
forget – forgetting
begin – beginner, beginning

Notice:
budget – budgeting  (the stress is on the BU at the front of the word)

3/ -j, -k, -v, -w, -x   are never doubled

Other
words ending -y, change to -i when adding suffixes
beauty  –  beautiful
happy – happiness, happier

words ending –ie, change to -y
die + ing = dying

-er or -or

-er for:

words ending in silent –e
give – giver
make – maker

words with one syllable
read – reader
eat – eater

words ending in two or more consonants
jump – jumper
help – helper

words ending with consonant clusters that form one sound -ch, -sh, -ph
photograph – photographer
teach – teacher

words ending in double consonants (not -ss)
mill – miller
buzz – buzzer

-or for:

words ending –it
credit – creditor
debit – debitor

words ending –ate (remove-e)
calculate – calculator
narrate – narrator

words ending –ct
act – actor
fact –factor

-ly, -lly, -all

-ly for:

words ending in -l, -ful, -cal
final – finally
formal – formally
beautiful – beautifully
faithful – faithfully
chemical – chemically
musical – musically

words ending -le
gentle – gently
terrible – terribly

words ending -e keep it, then add –ly
love  lovely
live – lively
exceptions: words ending -ue
true – truly
due – duly

words ending in y, change -y to –i, and add ly
easy – easily
funny – funnily

–y usually remains in one-syllable words
shy – shyly
sly – slyly
exception – day – daily

–ally for:

words ending –ic
dramatic – dramatically
automatic – automatically
Exception – public – publicly

Spellings when making plurals

Tricks to remembering spelling of specific words

necessary – has one c, two ss – like a shirt has one collar and two sleeves
stationery or stationary – the one with -e is the one for envelopes
embarrassed – how many r’s and s’s – when you’re 
piece or peace – you have a piece of pie
here or hear – you hear with your ear
rhythm – rhythm helps your two hips move
address – add the proper address on the envelope

There are many, many of these and you can make up your own too.

Oh and one final one for you…
when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking – this means when two vowels are next to each other you (usually) sound the first vowel but not the second

On top of everything else, it really doesn’t help that not all English speaking countries use the same spelling structure. Some common differences between British English and American English are listed below, and you can find more details of differences between, for example, Canadian, South African, Australian etc. spellings here

British English and American English common spelling differences

-ize or –ise
It is generally thought that –ise is correct English, and Americans are criticised for ‘getting it wrong’ when using –ize.  But actually  –ize is Old English, and it is British English which has changed through French influence to adopt –ise, and American English  has kept with tradition.

In British English we accept both –ise and ize, but American English only accepts –ize.
British / American
realise / realize
organise / organize
Note – some words only have the –ise form, for example
advertise
exercise
promise

-our or –or
Mainly, -our is British English, and –or is American English
British / American
colour /color
neighbour / neighbor
honour / honor
but note – honorable

-re or -er
British English favours -re whilst American English usually has -er
British / American
centre / center
theatre / theater

Greater differences
British English / American English  
aeroplane / airplane
aluminium / aluminum
cheque / check
mould / mold
moustache / mustache
tyre / tire

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