Spelling Rules Help
In the English language, if you simply wrote words the way they sound, you'd come up with some very peculiar spellings. If you tried to sound out every word and pronounce it exactly the way it's written, you'd come up with some pretty odd pronunciations too.
Here are some general multisensory tips for studying spelling:
- Use your eyes.
- Look at words carefully. With a marker or pen, highlight the part of the word that is hard to remember.
- Visualize the word with your eyes closed.
- Use your ears.
- Listen for the sound of words you hear in conversation or on the radio or television.
- Listen to the sound of the spelling of words. Ask someone to dictate the words and their spelling, and listen as the word is spelled out.
- Use your hands.
- Write the word several times, spelling it in your head as you write.
There are two main stumbling blocks to spelling by sight and sound. One we have already identified—the fact that English is both phonetically inconsistent and visually confusing. Here are four strategies that can guide your way through a difficult system and give you some ways to make good spelling a part of your life.
- Learn the rules, but expect some exceptions. The lessons that follow point out both spelling rules and their exceptions.
- Use mnemonics (memory tricks) to help you remember how to spell unfamiliar or confusing words. The most common type of mnemonic is the acronym. An acronym is a word created from the first letters in a series of words. Another type of mnemonic is a silly sentence or phrase, known as an acrostic, which is made out of words that each begin with the letter or letters that start each item in a series that you want to remember.
- Write it down. This book provides you with helpful exercises that require you to write your vocabulary words in a blank space. This act will help your hand and eye remember how to spell the word. Make sure to spell the word correctly as you go along so you don't have to relearn the word's spelling later on. After you are done with this book, you can teach yourself to spell new words in the same way. The simple act of writing words down several times will help you cement their spellings in your mind.
- Referring to a pronunciation chart in any dictionary will help guide you through pronouncing the words in this book and also familiarize you with pronouncing other new words you encounter in everyday life. You can also access pronunciation charts online. The following is a list of a few online resources:
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: www.m-w.com/help/pronguide.htm
- The Newbury House Online Dictionary: nhd.heinle.com/pronunciation.aspx
- American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Online at Bartleby.com: www. bartleby.com/61/12.html
There are many other online dictionaries such as www.dictionary.com; or just type "online dictionary" into any search engine, and get ready to pronounce.
When to Use ie and ei
You probably learned this saying years ago in school:
- i before e except after c and when sounding like "ay" as in neighbor and weigh.
This saying should help you remember the basic principle of when to use ie and ei when spelling words. The following sections outline the specifics of when to spell a word with ie and when to spell a word with ei and their exceptions.
The ie Rule
Here are some examples of words that use ie to make the long e sound:
Sometimes, the ie combination has other sounds:
- It can sound like short e, as in friend
- It can sound like long i, as in piety, fiery, quiet, notoriety, society, science
- The only time the ie combination comes after c is when it sounds like sh, as in ancient, deficient, conscience.
The ei Rule
Here are some examples of words in which ei makes the long a sound:
Sometimes, you will simply have to memorize words that use the ei combination because they don't follow the rule.
- In some words, ei is used even though it sounds like ee: either, seize, weird, sheik, seizure, leisure
- Sometimes, ei sounds like long i: height, sleight, stein, seismology
- Sometimes, ei sounds like short e: heifer, their, foreign, forfeit
- As you learned in the previous saying, after c you use ei, even if it sounds like ee: ceiling, deceit, conceited, receive, receipt
It can become overwhelming to try to remember all the exceptions to all the rules. Try making flash cards for each rule to separate them visually.
More Vowel Combinations
When two vowels are together, the first one is usually long, or says its own name, and the second one is silent. For example, in the word reach, you hear the long e, but not the short a. Similarly, if you know how to pronounce the word caffeine and know it has either an ei or ie, you stand a chance at spelling it correctly because you hear that the e sound comes first. If you know what sound you hear, that sound is likely to be the first of two vowels working together.
Here are some examples of words using ai, ui, and ea combinations in which the vowel you hear is the one that comes first.
|Words with ai||Words with ea||Words with ui|
There are several exceptions to this rule, which you will simply have to recognize by sight rather than by sound.
In some cases, you still hear only the first of the two vowels, except the first vowel makes a different sound. For example, the word healthy is pronounced with a short e sound, but you still hear the e and not the a.
Words with ai or ia
When the vowel pair has one sound and says "uh" (e.g. captain), it uses ai. When the vowel pair has separate sounds (e.g. genial), it uses ia. However, there is an exception: When words combine t or c with ia, they make a "shuh" sound, for example, martial, beneficial, glacial. The following are some examples of words that follow the ai and ia rules:
|Words with ai||Words with ia|
Many English words include silent consonants, ones that are written but not pronounced. Unfortunately, there is no rule governing silent consonants; you simply have to learn the words by sight. The following list includes some common examples, with the silent consonants highlighted.
Use sound cues or sight cues, depending on which works better for you—or use both to reinforce your learning.
- Pronounce the silent consonants in your mind as you write them. Say subtle, often, and so on.
- Write the words on index cards and highlight the missing consonant sounds with a marker.
Most of the time, a final consonant is doubled when you add an ending. For example, drop becomes dropping, mop becomes mopping, stab becomes stabbing. But what about look/looking, rest/resting, counsel/counseled?
There are two sets of rules: one for when you're adding an ending that begins with a vowel (such as -ed, -ing, -ance, -ence, -ant) and another set for when the ending begins with a consonant (such as -ness or -ly).
- When the ending begins with a vowel:
- Double the last consonant in a one-syllable word that ends with one vowel and one consonant. For example, flip becomes flipper or flipping, quit becomes quitter or quitting, and clap becomes clapper or clapping.
- Double the final consonant when the last syllable is accented and there is only one consonant in the accented syllable. For example, acquit becomes acquitting, refer becomes referring, and commit becomes committing.
- When the ending begins with a consonant:
- Keep a final n when you add -ness. You end up with a double n: keenness, leanness.
- Keep a final l when you add -ly. You end up with a double l: formally, regally, legally.
In other cases, then, you don't double the consonant.
You can remember a shorter version of the rules about doubling before an ending that begins with a vowel: one syllable or accented last syllable doubles the single consonant.
There are exceptions to the rules, but not many. Here are a few of them:
- bus becomes buses
- chagrin becomes chagrined
- draw becomes drawing
The Special Challenges of c and g
The letters c and g can sound either soft or hard. When c is soft, it sounds like s; when it's hard, it sounds like k. When g is soft, it sounds like j; when it's hard, it sounds like g as in guess. But the difference isn't as confusing as it seems at first. The letters c and g are soft when followed by e, i, or y. Otherwise, they are hard. Thus, c sounds like s when it is followed by e, i, or y, as in central, circle, cycle. It sounds like k when followed by other vowels: case, cousin, current. The same rule also applies to the letter g: g sounds like j when followed by e, i, or y, as in genius, giant, gym. When followed by other vowels, g is hard: gamble, go, gun.
The following are examples of words in which e, i, or y makes a soft c or g.
One more thing to remember is that a k is added to a final c before an ending that begins with e, i, or y. If you didn't add the k, the c would become soft and sound like s. So in order to add -ing to panic, for example, you have to put a k first: panicking.
The following words are examples of words that have had a k added to c before an ending beginning with e, i, or y.
There are virtually no exceptions to the rules about using c and g. Listen to the words as you spell them and let the rule guide your choice: c, s, or k; g or j.
Homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Many of these words have just one change in the vowel or vowel combination. There's no rule about these words, so you'll simply have to memorize them. Here are some examples of word pairs that can be troublesome. Sometimes, it helps to learn each word in terms of the job it will do in a sentence. Often, the two words in a homophone pair are a different part of speech. Take a look at the following examples:
Since the meanings of these homonyms are different, context is probably the best way to differentiate between these words.
Examples in Context
- In the Middle Ages, many people used to shear (verb) sheep for a living.
- Since my curtains are sheer (adjective), I get a lot of light in the morning.
- We had to alter (verb) our plans because of the bad weather.
- The couple stood at the altar (noun) while they said their vows.
- I had to use coarse (adjective) sandpaper to strip the paint off of the wooden desk.
- When I was in college, drama was my favorite course (noun).
When to Drop a Final e
It's hard to remember when to drop letters and when to keep them. This lesson will nail down some simple rules to help you with those decisions.
Drop the final e when you add an ending that begins with a vowel.
- With -ing
- change + -ing = changing
- With -able
- argue + -able = arguable
- With -ous
- virtue + -ous = virtuous
- With -ity
- opportune + -ity = opportunity
- Keep the final e after soft c or soft g in order to keep the soft sound.
- peace + -able = peaceable
- courage + -ous = courageous
- Keep the final e in other cases when you need to protect pronunciation.
- shoe + -ing = shoeing (not shoing)
- guarantee + -ing = guaranteeing (not guaranteing)
Keep the final e before endings that begin with consonants. Here are some examples of words that use this rule:
- With -ment
- advertise + -ment = advertisement
- With -ness
- appropriate + -ness = appropriateness
- With -less
- care + -less = careless
- With -ful
- grace + -ful = graceful
There's one important exception to the rule about keeping the final e when you add an ending that begins with a consonant:
- Drop the final e when it occurs after the letters u or w.
- argue + -ment = argument
- awe + -ful = awful
- true + -ly = truly
When to Keep a Final y or Change It to i
When you add a suffix to a word ending in y, keep the y if it follows a vowel. This time it doesn't matter whether the suffix begins with a vowel or a consonant. Always keep the y if it comes immediately after a vowel. The following are some examples.
- With -s
- attorney + -s = attorneys
- With -ed
- play + -ed = played
- With -ing
- relay + -ing = relaying
- With -ance
- annoy + -ance = annoyance
- With -able
- enjoy + -able = enjoyable
Some words break this rule and change the y to i.
- day becomes daily
- pay becomes paid
- say becomes said
When you add a suffix to a word ending in y, change the y to i if it follows a consonant. Again, it doesn't matter whether the suffix begins with a vowel or a consonant. Here are some examples:
- With -ful
- beauty + -ful = beautiful
- With -ness
- lonely + -ness = loneliness
- With -ly
- angry + -ly = angrily
- With -es
- salary + -es = salaries
There's one group of exceptions to the previous rule:
- When you add -ing, keep the final y.
- study + -ing = studying
One of the difficulties of spelling in English is the making of plurals. Unfortunately, you can't always simply add the letter -s to the end of the word to signal more than one.
When to Use -s or -es to Form Plurals
There are two simple rules that govern most plurals.
- Most nouns add -s to make plurals.
- If a noun ends in a sibilant sound (s, ss, z, ch, x, sh), add -es.
The following are some examples of plurals:
Remember from the last lesson that when a word ends in a y preceded by a consonant, the y changes to i when you add -es.
Plurals for Words That End in o
There's just one quick rule that governs a few words ending in o.
- If a final o follows another vowel, it takes -s.
- Here are some examples:
When the final o follows a consonant rather than a vowel, there's no rule to guide you in choosing -s or -es. You just have to learn the individual words.
The following words form a plural with -s alone.
The following words take -es.
When in doubt about whether to add -s or -es, look it up in the dictionary.
Plurals for Words That End in f
Some words that end in f or fe just take -s to form the plural. Others change the f to v and add -es or -s. Unfortunately, there are no rules that can apply to this category of plurals; you simply have to memorize them.
The following are some of the words that keep the final f and add -s:
Here are some of the words that change the final f to v and take -es:
Plurals That Don't Use -s or -es
There are many words that don't use -s or -es to form plurals. These are usually words that still observe the rules of the languages from which they were adopted. Most of these plurals are part of your reading, speaking, and listening vocabularies. You can see that there are patterns that will help you. For instance, in Latin words, -um becomes -a, -us becomes -i, and, in Greek words, -sis becomes -ses. A good way to remember these plurals is by saying the words aloud, because for the most part, they do change form and you may remember them more easily if you listen to the sound of the spelling.
Have you ever written a word and then thought, That looks like it's spelled wrong? Trust your instincts. Take the time to look up the word to make sure you know how to spell it correctly. Plus, the act of looking it up will help you remember that word in the future!
Putting Words Together
Generally, when you add a prefix to a root word, neither the root nor the prefix changes spelling:
- un- + prepared = unprepared
- mal- + nutrition = malnutrition
- sub- + traction = subtraction
- mis- + informed = misinformed
This rule applies even when the root word begins with the same letter as the prefix. Generally, you use both consonants, but let your eye be your guide. If it looks odd, it's probably not spelled correctly. The following are some examples:
When you put words and word parts together, it's difficult to know when to leave the words separate, when to hyphenate, and when to put the words or word parts together into one new word. Do you write co- dependent or codependent? Do you have a son in law or a son-inlaw? There are several rules for using hyphens to join words. Often, these words are joined so they can perform a new function in the sentence.
- Combine words with a hyphen to form an adjective when the adjective appears before a noun.
- a well-heeled man
- a first-rate hotel
- a well-known actor
- When the combination of words that makes an adjective appears after the noun, the combination is not hyphenated.
- It's a job ill suited to his talents.
- She is well regarded in the community.
- The hotel is first rate.
- Combine words with a hyphen when the words are used together as one part of speech. This includes family relationships.
- Use a hyphen before elect and after vice, ex, or self (except in the case of "vice president").
- Use a hyphen when joining a prefix to a capitalized word.
- post-Civil War
- Use a hyphen to make compound numbers or fractions.
- thirty-nine years
- one and two-thirds cups of broth
- one-half of the country
- three-fourths of the electorate
- Also, use a hyphen when you combine numbers with nouns.
- a class of six-year-olds
- a two-year term
- a twenty-five-cent fare
- Use a hyphen to form ethnic designations.
- an African-American woman
- the Sino-Russian War
- the Austro-Hungarian Railroad
Except for the cases you just reviewed, prefixes are also joined directly to root words. The best rule of thumb is this: If the phrase acts like an adjective, it probably needs a hyphen. If you want to put two words together and they don't seem to fit into any of these rules, the best strategy is to consult a dictionary.
Apostrophes and Abbreviations
Apostrophes are often misused, and knowing when and when not to use them can be confusing. Of all the punctuation marks, the apostrophe is the one most likely to be misused. Fortunately, there are a few simple rules; if you follow them, you won't go wrong with apostrophes.
- Use an apostrophe to show possession: Jack's book.
- Use an apostrophe to make a contraction: We don't like broccoli.
- Do not use an apostrophe to make a plural: I have two apples (not apple's).
- Do not use an apostrophe to make a number plural: the 1960s, ten 5s (five-dollar bills).
The following rules show you how to use apostrophes to show possession.
- Singular noun: add 's
- the child's cap
- Singular noun ending in ss: add 's
- the hostess's home
- Plural noun ending in s: add '
- the lawyers' bills
- Plural noun not ending in s: add 's
- The Children's Museum, the men's clothes
- Proper noun (name): add 's
- Jenny's watch, Chris's car, the Jones's house
- Singular indefinite pronoun: add 's
- one's only hope
- Plural indefinite pronoun: add '
- all the others' votes
- Compound noun: add ' or 's after the final word
- the men-at-arms' task, my mother-in-law's house
- Joint possession: add 's to the final name
- Jim and Fred's coffee house
- Separate possession: add 's after both names
- Betty's and Ching's menus
A contraction is formed by putting two words together and omitting one or more letters. The idea is that you add an apostrophe to show that letters have been left out. For example, "We have decided to move to Alaska" becomes, "We've decided to move to Alaska."
- Here's a list of some of the most common contractions:
- he will = he'll
- I will = I'll
- we will = we'll
- it is = it's
- she is = she's
- you are = you're
- they are = they're
- we are = we're
- cannot = can't
- 1960 = '60
- do not = don't
- does not = doesn't
- have not = haven't
- should not = shouldn't
- will not = won't
There are other ways in which an apostrophe can represent missing letters:
- In dialect: "I'm goin' down to the swimmin' hole," said the boy.
- When the letter o represents of: "Top o' the morning to you."
Many words and expressions in English are shortened by means of abbreviations. Though certain abbreviations are not usually used in formal writing, such as abbreviations for days of the week, they can be useful in less formal situations. Abbreviations are usually followed by periods.
- Don't use periods with the two-letter postal code abbreviations for states: CA, FL, IL, NJ, NY, TX, and so on.
- Don't use periods for initials representing a company or agency: FBI, CBS, NFL.
- Don't use periods after the letters in acronyms.
|Names of days||Sun., Mon., Tues., Wed., etc.|
|Names of months||Jan., Feb., Mar., Apr., etc.|
|Titles and degrees||Mr., Mrs., Ms., Esq., Dr., Hon.,M.D., Ph.D., Ed.D.|
|Rank||Sgt., Capt., Maj., Col., Gen.|
|Business terms||C.O.D. (collect on delivery), Mfg.(Manufacturing), Inc. (Incorporated), Assn. (Association), Ltd. (Limited)|
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