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University Writing Center

Spelling

Why is spelling difficult?

The smallest single element in the English language is the letter. Each alphabet letter is a symbol called a “grapheme.”

There is a basic problem with the English spelling system. There are only twenty-six letters in English to represent about fifty sounds, or “phonemes.” A sound (phoneme) is not always spelled with the same letter of letters.

For example, look at the following words:

  • sail
  • scene
  • cent
  • psalm

Each of these words begin with the same sound, but we have four different ways of spelling that sound. English is full of such confusing examples - on reason why spellings can be such a problem.

Suggestions for improving your spelling

Sound out syllables carefully and individually.

  • ac-ci-dent-al-ly
  • ath-let-ics
  • cal-en-dar
  • en-vi-ron-ment
  • Feb-ru-a-ry
  • pre-tend
  • gov-ern-ment
  • lab-ra-to-ry
  • li-bra-ry
  • math-e-mat-ics
  • mus-cle
  • soph-o-more
  • Pronounce words carefully
  • affect - effect
  • Calvary - cavalry
  • carton - cartoon
  • celery - salary
  • diary - dairy
  • elicit - illicit
  • finally - finely
  • marrying = marring
  • shoulder - soldier
  • shudder -shutter

Fix each letter of a word in your mind’s eye

In each of the following pairs of words, notice the way the second word is different from the first

  • Accept - except
  • Advice - advise
  • Already - all ready
  • Altogether - all together
  • Beach - beech
  • lose - loose
  • past - passed
  • personal - personnel
  • precede - proceed
  • principal -principle
  • Breath - breathe
  • Council - Counsel
  • Desert - dessert
  • Envelop - envelope
  • Formally - formerly
  • Its - it’s
  • quiet - quite
  • stationery - stationary
  • than - then
  • there - their - they’re
  • to - two - too
  • want - wont - won’t

Methods To Improve Spelling

  1. Use the dictionary whenever in doubt.
  2. List and study words you most frequently misspell.
  3. Look for helpful books on spelling by checking the library’s card catalog.
  4. Learn five basic spelling rules.

Five Basic Spelling Rules

Rule 1: The IE _ EI Rule.

A. When the -ie or -ei combination has and “ee sound, write i before e except after c.

  • achieve
  • believe
  • cashier
  • chandelier
  • hygiene
  • handkerchief
  • reprieve
  • retrieve
  • ceiling
  • conceit
  • conceive
  • deceit
  • perceive
  • receive
  • receipt

B. When the -ei combination has a long “a” or long “i” sound, write e before I.

  • eight
  • feint
  • freight
  • neighbor
  • height
  • veil
  • reign
  • rein
  • sleigh
  • sleight
  • stein
  • weight

C. When the -ei combination is so slightly sounded as to be obscure (like the i in devil), write e before i.

  • forfeit
  • sovereignty
  • surfeit
  • counterfeit
  • foreign
  • sovereign

Some exceptions to the -ei, ie rule:

  • caffeine
  • codeine
  • either
  • financier
  • fiery
  • leisure
  • neither
  • seize
  • protein
  • weird

Rule 2: The Silent Final -E Rule.

A. Drop the silent final -e when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel.

  1. advise + ing = advising
  2. amuse + ing = amusing
  3. argue + ing = arguing
  4. arrive + al + arrival
  5. believe + able = believable*
  6. come + ing = coming
  7. ice + y = icy**
  8. imaging + ative = imaginative

* Possible exceptions for the suffix able: Some source claim that current practice ignores this rule when the suffix able is added to a word ending in a slient -e. These sources maintain that either spelling is correct. Some words, however, like noticeable, peaceable, and serviceable always retain the -e in order to retain the soft sound of c.

**In English, y is frequently considered a vowel.

B. Keep the final silent -e when adding a suffix beginning with a consonant.

  1. amuse + ment = amusement
  2. bare + ly = barely
  3. care + ful = careful
  4. safe + ty = safety
  5. whole + some = wholesome

Rule 3 : The Final -Y Rule

A. Words ending in -y preceded by a consonant (such as dignify) usually change y to i before any suffix except one beginning with i (such as dignifying).

  1. angry + ly = angrily
  2. beauty + ful = beautiful
  3. carry +es = ies
  4. carry + ing = carrying
  5. lovely + er = lovelier
  6. marry + ed = married
  7. dignify + ed = dignified
  8. dignify + ing + dignifying
  9. happy + er = happier
  10. happy + ness = happiness
  11. lucky + er = luckier
  12. luck + ly = luckily

B. Words ending in y preceded by a vowel (such as annoy) usually change y to i before other endings that might added to them.

  1. annoy + ance = annoyance
  2. annoy + ed = annoyed
  3. annoy + s = annoys
  4. betray + al = betrayal
  5. employ + er = employer
  6. buy +er = buyer
  7. buy + ing = buying
  8. buy + s = buys
  9. pay + able = payable
  10. stay + ed = stayed

Exceptions to the Final -Y Rule:

  1. baby + hood = babyhood
  2. busy + ness = business
  3. day + ly = daily
  4. gay + ly + gaily
  5. lay + ed = laid
  6. pay + ed = paid
  7. say + ed = said

Rule 4: Doubling the Final Consonant Rule

IF a word

  • ends in a single consonant,
  • preceded by a single vowel,
  • and is accented on the final syllable,

double this consonant when adding a suffix that starts with a vowel.

SO LONG AS the accent remains on what the final syllable of the original word.

  • compél
  • compélling
  • compélled
  • refér
  • reférring
  • reférred
  • commít
  • commítting
  • commítted

If you go back and re-read Rule 4, you’ll notice that it still (even after these examples) does not make a great deal of sense.  Let’s break the rule down into five conditions that a word must satisfy before you can apply the rule.

Condition 1: IF a word ends in a single consonant;

(refer, but not resist)

Condition 2: Preceded by a single vowel;

(refer, but not appear)

Condition 3: And is accented on the last syllable;

(refér , but not prófit)

Condition 4: Double this consonant when adding a suffix that begins with a vowel;

allot + ed = allotted, but
allot + ment = allotment because the ment suffix begins with a consonant

Condition 5: So long as the accent remains on what was the final syllable of the original word.

  1. occur + ence = occúrrence, but
  2. prefér + ence = reférence
  3. occur + ed = occurred
  4. confer + ed = conferred
  5. annul + ed = annulled
  6. expel + ed = expelled
  7. commit + ed = committed
  8. regret + ed = regretted
  9. compel + ed = compelled

In qu combinations, the u is pronounced as a w.  therefore, only the i functions as a true vowel:

  1. acquit + ed = acquitted
  2. equip + ed = equipped

Also note:

a. All one-syllable words ending in a single consonant always double the consonant when a suffix beginning in a vowel is added.

  1. beg > beggar                                                                bug > buggy
  2. bid > bidding                                                                get > getting
  3. hop > hopping                                                              plan > planning
  4. quiz > quizzes                                                              sob > sobbed

b. Words with more than one syllable that do not have the accent on the last syllable do not double the final consonant.

  1. Cáncel > cánceled                                                cóunsel > cóunseled
  2. Envélop > envéloped                                            márvel > márveled
  3. Prohíbit > prohíbited                                             prófit > prófited

c. The final consonant is never doubled if a suffix beginning with a consonant is added.

  1. annul > annulment                                                commit > commitment
  2. defer > deferment                                                  equip > equipment

Rule 5:  The “One-Plus-One” Rule

A. Include both letters when adding a prefix that ends in the same letter with which the word begins.

  1. un + necessary = unnecessary                                dis + satisfied = dissatisfied
  2. ir = responsible = irresponsible                               mis + spell = misspell

B. Include both letters when adding a suffix that begins with the same consonant as that with which the word ends.

  1. accidental + ly = accidentally                                mean + ness = meanness
  2. drunken + ness = drunkenness                              sudden + ness = suddenness

C. Include both letters when two words are combined, the first of which ends in the same letter as that with which the second word begins.

  1. bath + house = bathhouse                                      news + stand = newsstand
  2. book + keeping = bookkeeping                                over + ride = override
  3. room + mate = roommate                                      with + hold = withhold
Updated 11.11.2009