Spelling

Spelling

1) Why spelling is hard in English

Spelling words correctly in English is often difficult because we do not always spell words in the same way that they are pronounced. For example, we have:

Silent letters: e.g., ‘knight’ is pronounced the same as ‘night’, and we often don’t pronounce the ‘e’ as in ‘range’.

Vowel combination sounds: e.g., ‘bruise’ uses the ‘oo’ vowel combination sound to be pronounced ‘brooz’, and the ‘ough’ in ‘rough’ is pronounced ‘ruhf‘.

There are also words which are pronounced differently in America and the UK, such as ‘spelled’ and ‘spelt’ or ‘realize’ and ‘realise’.

2) Method using a spell checker to improve spelling

Unfortunately, there is some memorisation that needs to occur in order to get the spelling right. Luckily, nowadays, we have spell checkers on our computers to help us spell words correctly, and we can look up words in an online dictionary very quickly, and even find articles about any words whose spelling is contentious.

The only problem with the spell checker is it is very easy to rely on it, and therefore not learn the spelling of the words. This becomes a big problem if you are doing something where you don’t have access to a spell checker, such as an exam, or some other hand-written document.

My first bit of advice for anyone out there that needs to improve their English for an exam where they don’t have a spell checker, is to turn off the spell checker function in your word processor, and then practice writing whatever it is you have to do in the exam. Once you have finished, turn the spell checker back on, and then make a note of all the words you spelt incorrectly. The trick then is to drill the spelling of these particular words daily until you don’t get them wrong again.

I like this plan because it means you are also getting practice of the exam which you are studying for, meaning you are improving more than just your spelling. Moreover, it means you will be learning the words you spell wrong in the particular context of that exam, which means the words you learn to spell will be relevant to the exam.

So how should you drill them? I would say the best way to do it would be to take your list of mispelt words and record yourself saying them on your computer/phone. Then, to test yourself, play back the word to yourself and write it down. If the exam is written, it is probably best to do the writing down on paper with the sort of pen you will be using in the exam, to get your brain used to writing it in context.

The reason I say to record you saying the word is because when you are writing you will be saying the word to yourself in your head, and then have to figure out how it is spelt. However, you will obviously need to look at the words on the computer screen / paper as well sometimes, to help you learn them. I would do the following:

1) Practice answering exam questions in a word processor with the spell checker turned off, then turn it back on and make a note of the mispelt words both with an audio recording and in writing / on the computer. Do this regularly, continually adding to the list.

2) Drill the mispelt words by writing them down on paper repeatedly to get your hand used to spelling them right.

3) Drill the mispelt words by writing them down once, then covering them up and trying to write them again.

4) After doing 2 and 3 listen to your recordings of the mispelt words and try to write them down.

You can either record your words on your phone, or using a bit of free software on the computer such as Audacity.

As for turning the spell checker on and off, that will depend on what word processor you are using. I know how to do it in the current version of Libre Office:

Turn spell checker off in Libre Office

To turn off the spell checker in Libre Office go to

Tools >>> Options >>> Language Settings >>> Writing Aids >>> Uncheck the box ‘Check spelling as you type’

Simply check the same box to turn it back on once you have finished.

3) Reading to improve spelling

Another doubly productive way to improve spelling is simply to read a lot. Novels, non-fiction, articles, or anything well written, will  improve your spelling, vocabulary and natural instinct in writing, as well as entertaining you, making you think and teaching you something new.

4) Spelling Rules

There are some spelling ‘rules’ in English which can be useful to learn. However, from the start, it must be stressed that the rules have many exceptions which means memorising a word is much better than relying on a fallible rule. Nevertheless, if the rule is learnt, and then the common exceptions to the rule are learnt, this might help spelling in many situations.

Let’s have a look at a few of the ‘rules’ for English spelling, and also note some exceptions.

4.1 IE and EI

It is easy to get mixed up about whether to use IE or EI when spelling a lot of words. Here are some common uses that might help.

1) I before E when I and E combine to create the ‘ee’ sound

When the I and E combine to make an ‘ee’ sound, which is like the ‘e’ sound in ‘week’, or can be thought of like the ‘e’ when reciting the alphabet – we usually place the I before the E. For example:

chief

‘Chief’ is pronounced ‘cheef’, where the ‘ie’ together produce the ‘ee’ sound. Therefore, following the rule, we spell it ‘chief, rather than ‘cheif’. Some other examples are:

relieve

thieve

piece

atrocities

acquiesce

chunkier

siege

shriek

grief

belief

relief

retrieve

hygiene

niece

priest

An exception to this is:

either

Note how the I and E are combining to make the ‘ee’ sound so it is pronounced ‘eether’, but, in this exception, we have the E before the I. Some other exceptions are:

seize

sheik

neither

protein

caffeine

There are some other words which might seem like exceptions at first glance like:

deity

However, we must remember that the E and I must be forming a sound together. This isn’t the case in ‘deity’, as can be shown by breaking down its syllables:

deity: de-i-ty

Therefore, this is a word that is not considered as part of the ‘rule’.

2) I before E when I and E combine to create the ‘ee’ sound except after C

The aforementioned rule is often also taught as I before E when I and E combine to create the ‘ee’ sound, except after C. This would mean that if the I and E combination makes an ‘ee’ sound and comes after C, we use ‘ie’ rather than ‘ei’. For example,

ceiling

Note that ‘ei’ is still making the ‘ee’ sound, but, because it is after a ‘c’, we are spelling it ‘ceiling’ rather than ‘cieling’. Other examples are:

conceited

conceivable

deceit

perceivable

preconceive

receipt

receive

The problem is there seem to be a huge list of exceptions that perhaps make learning the ‘except after c’ bit not worthwhile.

Some exceptions are:

fancied

farcied

policied

unfancied

unmercied

Then there are a massive list of examples ending in ‘cies’, a few of which are:

species

vacancies

fallacies

agencies

candidacies

If you search for words ending in ‘cies’ on google you find massive lists. This one, for example, has 361 words.

Considering all these exceptions, it might be better to just remember ‘I before E when it makes the ‘ee’ sound’.

There are many other words which are sometimes considered as exceptions:

bouncier

bounciest

racier

raciest

acierate

hacienda

However, we have to remember that this rule only occurs when the letters I and E are linking together to form a sound, or digraph. If we break down the syllables of the following, we can see that the I and the E are being pronounced separately:

bouncier: bounc-i-er

bounciest: boun-ci-est

racier: rac-i-er

raciest: rac-i-est

acierate : ac-i-er-ate

hacienda: ha-ci-en-da

Therefore, these aren’t exceptions, they just aren’t even considered in the rule in the first place.

3) Use EI if the sound is the long vowel sound (ā) ‘ay’ as in ‘neighbour’

We also generally use ‘ei’ if the letters form together to make the long vowel ‘ay’ sound as in ‘neighbour’. This is denoted as ‘eɪ’ in the IPA – which a lot of online dictionaries use – and sometimes with ‘ā’, such as in this chart. For example:

weight

eight

freight

feint

veil

vein

I am not aware of any exceptions for this, but it is always worth being careful because most of these rules do have some.

4) Use EI if the sound is the short vowel ĭ sound as in ‘bit’

We also generally use ‘ei’ if the letters form together to make the short vowel ĭ sound as in ‘bit’. This is denoted ‘ɪ’ in the IPA, and ‘ĭ’ elsewhere, such as this chart. For example:

forfeit

surfeit

sovereign (British pronunciation)

Some exceptions are:

sieve

mischief

5) Use EI if the sound is the long ī vowel sound sound as in Ice

We also generally use ‘ei’ if the letters form together to make the long vowel ī sound as in ‘Ice’. This is denoted ‘aɪ’ in the IPA, and ‘ī’ elsewhere, such as this chart. For example,

height

sleight

eidos

eidetic

Einstein

Final comment

There is debate about the usefulness of this rule because of all the exceptions. Even if it isn’t something we can always fall back on, hopefully considering it has made us think a bit more about ‘ei’ and ‘ie’ in the English language, which should make us be extra vigilant to not spell words containing these letters wrong.

4.2 Silent E

Some words end with an ‘e’ which is not pronounced, otherwise known as a ‘silent e’. When adding a suffix onto the end of a word (e.g., add ‘ly’ onto the end of ‘brave’ to make ‘bravely’), we sometimes keep the silent e, and we sometimes drop it. This usually follows certain rules.

1) If the suffix being added begins with a vowel, the silent ‘e’ is usually dropped.

Suffixes are the single letters, or groups of letters, which are added onto the end of a word to create a new word. If the suffix being added onto a word with a silent ‘e’ in begins with a vowel, the silent ‘e’ is usually dropped. For example, if we take the word ‘shame’ and want to add the suffix ‘ing’ it becomes ‘shaming’ not ‘shameing’; the silent ‘e’ has been dropped. This follows the rules because:

1) ‘Shame’ ends with a silent e.

2) The suffix, ‘ing’, begins with the vowel ‘i’.

Some other examples are:

paste: pasting (‘ing’ begins with vowel ‘i’)

lose: losable (‘able’ begins with vowel ‘a’)

debate: debatable (‘able’ begins with a vowel ‘a’)

guide: guidance (‘ance’ begins with a vowel ‘a’)

abdicate: abdication (‘ion’ begins with a vowel ‘I’)

force: forcible (‘ible’ begins with a vowel, ‘i’)

infinite: infinitive (‘ive’ begins with a vowel, ‘i’)

2) If the suffix being added begins with a consonant, the silent ‘e’ is usually kept

In contrast, if the suffix being added begins with a consonant, the silent ‘e’ is usually kept. For example, ‘manage’ becomes ‘management’ because the suffix ‘ment’ begins with a consonant, ‘m’. Some other examples are:

move: movement (‘ment’ begins with a consonant, ‘m’)

brave: bravely (‘ly’ begins with a consonant, ‘l’)

time: timeliness (‘liness’ begins with a consonant, ‘l’)

abrasive: abrasiveness (‘ness’ begins with a consonant, ‘n’)

noise: noiseless (‘less’ begins with a consonant, ‘l’)

care: careful (‘ful’ begins with a consonant, ‘f’)

Exceptions to these rules

There are a number of exceptions to these rules. Let’s look at them next.

1) If there is a soft ‘c’ or a soft ‘g’ before the silent ‘e’, and the suffix begins with ‘a’ or ‘o’, the final silent ‘e’ is kept

If there is a soft ‘c’ or a soft ‘g’ before the silent ‘e’, and the suffix begins with ‘a’ or ‘o’, the final silent ‘e’ is kept. So we have two conditions:

1) There is a soft ‘c’ or a soft ‘g’ before the silent ‘e’ in the word (e.g., ‘notice’ has a soft ‘c’ and ‘range’ has a soft ‘g’)

2) The suffix begins with ‘a’ or ‘o’ (e.g., ‘noticeable’ has the suffix ‘able’, which begins with an ‘a’)

So what is a soft ‘c’? A soft ‘c’ sound is a ‘suh’ like sound, which is often found before ‘e’, ‘i’ and ‘y’ as in ‘notice‘, ‘citrus’ and ‘fancy‘. In contrast, a hard ‘c’ sound is more a ‘kuh’ like sound, which is often found before ‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘u’ as in ‘cat’, cotton and ‘cut’.

How about a soft ‘g’? A soft ‘g’ is a ‘juh’ like sound, which is often found before ‘i’, ‘e’ and ‘y’ as in ‘giraffe’, ‘generous’ and ‘gym’. In contrast, a hard ‘g’ is a ‘guh’ like sound often found before ‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘u as in ‘gas’ ‘got’ and ‘gun’.

The important thing to note here is that ‘g’ and ‘c’ are often hard before ‘a’ and ‘o’. Keeping this in mind, if we then take a word like ‘notice’, then add the suffix ‘able’ – which begins with a vowel – then, by the earlier rules, we would get the incorrect spelling ‘noticable’. This is because we usually drop the silent ‘e’ when the suffix being added on the end begins with a vowel. But, seeing as the ‘c’ is usually hard before an ‘a’, and the ‘c’ is before an ‘a’ in ‘noticable’, this means we would lose the soft ‘c’ of the word ‘notice’: ‘noticable’ would have to be pronounced ‘notikuhble’. So, what we do instead is retain the ‘e’; this gives us ‘noticeable’, which retains the soft ‘c’ sound. The same is true for a soft ‘g’ word like ‘change’ becoming ‘changeable’ rather than ‘changable’, which would be pronounced with the hard ‘g’ ‘changuhable’.

Let’s look at some more examples:

entice: enticeable ( ‘entice’ has a soft ‘c’ sound, and the suffix ‘able’ ends in ‘a’)

police: policeable (‘police’ has a soft ‘c’ sound, and the suffix ‘able’ ends in ‘a’)

arrange: arrangeable (‘arrange’ has a soft ‘g’ sound and the suffix ‘able’ ends in ‘a’)

exchange: exchangeable (‘exchange’ has a soft ‘g’ sound and the suffix ‘able’ ends in ‘a’)

2) Some words ending in the suffix ‘ing’ keep the silent ‘e’ to prevent mispronunciation or ambiguity

Some words ending in the suffix ‘ing’ keep the silent ‘e’ to prevent mispronunciation or ambiguity. For example, ‘singe’ becomes ‘singeing’ even though it ends in the suffix ‘ing’, which has a vowel at the beginning. The reason for this is that there could be a mix up with ‘singing’ if the silent ‘e’ was dropped. This prevents mispronunciation because we might not realise it should be pronounced ‘singeing’ rather than ‘singing’, and it prevents mixing up the meaning between ‘singeing’ (burning something) and ‘singing’ (making music with the voice).

Two examples easy to get wrong are:

dye: dyeing (meaning to colour something)

die: dying (meaning cessation of life)

While we are on this, I might as well mention that ‘dieing’ doesn’t relate to death. See the following:

die: dieing (meaning ‘cutting, stamping or forging something with a ‘die’ machine’)

3) If the suffix ‘ing’ has ‘ee’, ‘oe’ or ‘ye’ before it, then we keep the silent ‘e’

If the suffix ‘ing’ has ‘ee’, ‘oe’ or ‘ye’ before it, then we usually keep the silent ‘e’. For example:

flee: fleeing (‘ee’ before suffix ‘ing’)

canoe: canoeing (‘oe’ before suffix ‘ing’)

dye: dyeing (‘ye’ before suffix ‘ing’)

4.3 Final Y

There are a number of examples where the final ‘y’ in a word is either retained, or changed to an ‘I’, when a suffix is added. Let’s look at the rules.

1) The final ‘y’ becomes an ‘i’ if it has a consonant before it and is followed by a suffix (unless that suffix begins with ‘i’)

If we have a word which ends in a ‘y’, like ‘mercy’, and we want to add a suffix to it, we change the final ‘y’ to an ‘i’ on two conditions:

1) The suffix doesn’t begin with an ‘i’.

2) If the final ‘y’ has a consonant before it.

So, using the example of ‘mercy’, which has the consonant ‘c’ before the ‘y’, and the suffix ‘ful’, which doesn’t begin with an ‘i’, we turn the final ‘y’ in ‘mercy’ into an ‘i’ giving us ‘merciful’.

Some examples are:

plenty: plentiful ( consonant ‘t’ before final ‘y’ in ‘plenty’ and suffix ‘ful’)

easy: easily (consonant ‘s’ before final ‘y’ in ‘easy’ and suffix ‘ly’)

wavy: wavily (consonant ‘v’ before final ‘y’ in ‘wavy’ and suffix ‘ly’)

felony: felonious (consonant ‘n’ before final ‘y’ in ‘felony’ and suffix ‘ous’)

defy: defiance (consonant ‘f’ before final ‘y’ in ‘defy’ and suffix ‘ance’)

carry: carriage (consonant ‘r’ before final ‘y’ in ‘carry’ and suffix ‘age’)

Some examples where there is a consonant before the final ‘y’, but the suffix begins with ‘i’ – and therefore the final ‘y’ is kept, are:

defy: defying (consonant ‘f’ before final ‘y’ in ‘defy’, but suffix ‘ing’ begins with an ‘i’)

bury: burying (consonant ‘r’ before final ‘y’ in ‘bury’, but suffix ‘ing’ begins with an ‘i’)

baby: babyish (consonant ‘b’ before final ‘y’ in ‘baby’, but suffix ‘ish’ begins with an ‘i’)

hobby: hobbyist (consonant ‘b’ before final ‘y’ in ‘hobby’, but suffix ‘ist’ begins with an ‘i’)

lobby: lobbyist (consonant ‘b’ before final ‘y’ in ‘lobby’, but suffix ‘ist’ begins with an ‘i’)

2) If there is a vowel before the final ‘y’, then the final ‘y’ is usually kept

If there is a vowel before the final ‘y’, then the final ‘y is usually kept. For example:

parkway: parkways (vowel ‘a’ before final ‘y’ in ‘parkway’ means we keep ‘y’ in ‘parkways’)

donkey: donkeys (vowel ‘e’ before final ‘y’ in ‘donkey’ means we keep ‘y’ in ‘donkeys’)

enjoy: enjoys (vowel ‘o’ before final ‘y’ in ‘enjoy’ means we keep ‘y’ in ‘enjoys’)

joy: joyous (vowel ‘o’ before final ‘y’ in ‘joy’ means we keep ‘y’ in ‘joyous’)

buy: buys (vowel ‘u’ before final ‘y’ in ‘buy’ means we keep ‘y’ in ‘buys’)

boy: boyish (vowel ‘o’ before final ‘y’ in ‘boy’ means we keep ‘y’ in ‘boyish’ + the suffix ‘ish’ begins with an ‘i’, which also means we usually keep the ‘y’)

essay: essayist (vowel ‘a’ before final ‘y’ in ‘essay’ means we keep ‘y’ in ‘essayist’ + the suffix ‘ist’ begins with an ‘i’, which also means we usually keep the ‘y’)

However, there are some exceptions to to this, including:

day: daily (vowel ‘a’ before final ‘y’ in ‘day’; however, ‘y’ has been replaced with an ‘i’ in ‘daily’)

gay: gaily (vowel ‘a’ before final ‘y’ in ‘gay’; however, ‘y’ has been replaced with an ‘i’ in ‘gaily’)

say: said (vowel ‘a’ before final ‘y’ in ‘say’; however, ‘y’ has been replaced with an ‘i’ in ‘said’)

pay: paid (vowel ‘a’ before final ‘y’ in ‘pay’; however, ‘y’ has been replaced with an ‘i’ in ‘paid’)

slay: slain (vowel ‘a’ before final ‘y’ in ‘slay’; however, ‘y’ has been replaced with an ‘i’ in ‘slain’)

soliloquy: soliloquies (vowel ‘u’ before final ‘y’ in ‘soliloquy’; however, ‘y’ has been replaced with an ‘i’ in ‘soliloquies’)

4.4 Doubling the final consonants

The final consonant of a word is usually doubled if the following three conditions are met:

1) A single vowel comes before the final consonant (e.g., ‘mat’, where vowel ‘a’ is before final consonant ‘t’)

2) The final consonant is followed by a suffix which begins with a vowel (e.g., suffix ‘ed’ ends in vowel ‘e’, so ‘mat’ is ‘matted‘)

Then it can be one of the following two:

3) The final consonant is within a monosyllabic word (e.g., ‘mat’)

or

3) The final consonant appears in a word accented (stressed) on the last syllable (e.g., ‘com-MIT’ is accented on the last syllable, ‘mit’)

Let’s look at an example of a monosyllabic words that meets the criteria first:

fit: fitted

1) ‘Fit’ has a single vowel, ‘i’, before the final consonant, ‘t’.

2) In ‘fitted’ the suffix, ‘ed’ begins with a vowel, ‘e’.

3) In ‘fit’ the final consonant is within a monosyllabic word, ‘fit’.

Some other examples are:

mat: matted

hit: hitting

sit: sitting

fit: fitting

spot: spotting

flop: flopping

pop: popping

drop: dropper

gas: gasser

A monosyllabic word which doesn’t fit this is:

wait: waiting

This is because ‘wait’ has two vowels, ‘a’ and’ ‘i’, behind the final consonant, ‘t’. Therefore, it doesn’t fit condition 1.

Now let’s look at an example of a word with the accent on the last syllable that fits the criteria:

admit: admitted

1) ‘Admit’ has a single vowel, ‘i’, before the last consonant.

2) In ‘admitted’ the suffix, ‘ed’, begins with a vowel, ‘e’.

3) ‘Admit’ is pronounced with an accent/stress on the last syllable: ‘ad-MIT’

Some other examples are:

commit: committed

compel: compelling

begin: beginner

occur: occurred

An example of a polysyllabic word that doesn’t fit is:

respect: respectful

This doesn’t fit conditions 1 and 2.

1) ‘Respect’ has a consonant, ‘c’, before the final consonant ‘t’.

2) The suffix ‘ful’ doesn’t begin with a vowel.

We can see that even if we do pick a suffix that ends with a vowel, there is still no doubling of the consonant because it still doesn’t meet condition 1, as in:

respect: respecting

An interesting example where the final consonant is not doubled is when the suffix means the accent on the new word gets shifted backwards. For example:

refer: reference

1) ‘Refer’ has a single vowel, ‘e’, before the final consonant ‘r’.

2) The suffix, ‘ence’, begins with a vowel, ‘e’.

3) ‘Refer’ is accented/stressed on the last syllable: ‘re-FER’

However, the accented syllable in ‘reference’ has been moved back, so it is ‘REF-er-ence. If this weren’t the case, we would double the ‘r’, as in:

refer: referring (it is re-FERR-ing)

Another interesting example is when the final consonant is ‘x’. ‘X’ is actually considered a ‘ks’ sound at the end of words, which means that words like ‘tax’ actually are counted as ending with ‘ks’, as in ‘taks’; this means there is a consonant (‘k’) before the final ‘s’ sound, not a single vowel. This is why we don’t double the consonant, as in:

tax: taxing

relax: relaxing

fax: faxing

wax: waxing

One final thing to note is that the doubling that occurs keeps the vowel short. This allows us to have:

mop: mopping (short ‘o’ as in ‘cop’)

but we can also have:

mope: moping (long ‘o’ as in ‘open’)

4.5 Adding K to words ending in C

If a word ends in ‘c’ and we are adding a suffix beginning with ‘e’, ‘i’ or ‘y’, we add a ‘k’. For example:

mimic: mimicked (‘mimic’ ends in ‘c’, and we are adding the suffix ‘ed’, which begins with ‘e’)

This reason for this is to preserve the hard ‘c’ sound. If we remember back to earlier, the soft c is the ‘suh’ sound in ‘notice’, and the hard ‘c’ is the ‘kuh’ sound in ‘cop’. So, the incorrect ‘mimiced’ would give us the soft ‘c’ sound, like ‘mimisuhed’, whereas ‘mimicked’ gives the hard ‘c’ sound ‘mimikuhed’. Some others are:

garlic: garlicked

panic: panicked

traffic: trafficked

frolic: frolicked

4.6 Words ending ‘cede’, ‘ceed’ and ‘sede’

There can be some confusion around whether a word ends in ‘cede’, ‘ceed’ or ‘sede’. We can clear this up by looking at each.

Words ending in ‘sede’

The only word I can find that ends with ‘sede’ is ‘supersede’.

Words ending in ‘ceed’

The only five words i can find that end with ‘ceed’ are:

exceed

proceed

succeed

emceed

glacéed

Most places will just give the first three. This is probably because ’emceed’ is a past tense form of ’emcee’, and ‘glacéed’ has an accent over an ‘e’.

Words ending in ‘cede’

Any other word with this sound ends in ‘cede’, as in:

concede

recede

secede

precede

intercede

5) Homophones

Homophones are words which are pronounced, and sometimes spelt, the same, but which have different meanings. This can lead to spelling errors.

There is a list of homophones here. It is worth going through these and making sure you know the difference in meaning between the words, because it is very easy to get them mixed up.

6) Common spelling errors

There is a list of common spelling errors here. It is worth having a look through and seeing if you are making any of these mistakes.