Spelling Rules Help (page 3)

Updated on Sep 8, 2011

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.

Singular Plural
alumnus alumni
analysis analyses
axis axes
basis bases
child children
curriculum curricula
datum data
deer deer
fungus fungi
goose geese
man men
medium media
mouse mice
oasis oases
ox oxen
parenthesis parentheses
stratum strata
thesis theses
woman women


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:

dissatisfied irreverent
disservice misspelled
illegible misstep
irrational unnatural


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.

The Rules

  1. Use an apostrophe to show possession: Jack's book.
  2. Use an apostrophe to make a contraction: We don't like broccoli.
  3. Do not use an apostrophe to make a plural: I have two apples (not apple's).
  4. 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
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