10 spelling rules for the English language

English spellings can often be confusing, especially when words change their form. You can often be left wondering how to spell the plural form of a noun. This article gives you a few tips that can help you get at least a few spellings right.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have encountered folks who term English as a funny language. They, of course, have the support of the numerous parodies and limericks that highlight the comical, although difficult part of spellings, of the English language, to support their reasons. It is true that spellings can be a bit of a problem for those who are new to the language but isn't that true of every language. Many people struggle with the spellings, probably because they do not know the basic rules that apply. Knowing how to spell words especially when they change form requires mastering of techniques.

Contrary to what is believed and with all its absurdities, English is quite a technical language. You can master spellings if you learn some smart tricks. Here is your guide to a few spelling rules, and also the exceptions to the rule. Master these and you will probably not have to struggle with spellings again.

Rule #1 - 'I' before 'E', except after 'c'

This is the earliest spelling rule that I can remember, being taught to me. I was still in school and Mrs Singha, my English teacher, infamous for her rap on the knuckles, taught this to us.
It is simple and easy to remember the rule.

How do you spell BELIEVE; is it with an IE or an EI? Since, the rule is 'I' before 'E', except after 'C' you spell it with an 'IE". Similarly, other words like relive, relief and others have the letter 'I' before the letter 'E'.

When the word has a 'C' in it the pattern reverses with the 'IE' changing to 'EI', as can be observed in the following words – receive and perceive.

The problem with the rule is that is incomplete and is not applicable in all situations. There are words in the English language with a 'C' in them where the letter is followed with an 'IE'. For example, the words EFFICIENT and SUFFICIENT are spelt with an 'IE'. There are also words without the letter 'C' where the words are spelt with an 'EI', such as the words WEIGH, NEIGHBOUR and LEISURE.

There are exceptions to the rule, which is that you follow the 'I' before 'E' except before 'C' rule when the letter 'C' is long and stretched, as in the word 'deceive'. However, when the letter 'C' gives the 'SH' sound, as in PROFICIENT and ANCIENT, the 'C' is followed by 'IE'.

In all other instances 'C' should be followed by 'EI'. However, there are a few words that are spelt with 'EI', but that do not have the letter 'C'. How to tell when else to use 'EI' in a spelling? Use 'EI' to spell words that give the 'A' sound. For example VEIN, EIGHT and FEIGN.

Let's go through the rule one more time:

'I' before 'E' (chief, relief, niece) except after 'C' (ceiling, deceit) but not when 'C' sounds like 'SH' (coefficient, deficient) and also when 'EI' sound like 'A' (rein, sleigh, freight).

These are the broad rules and exceptions, but there can always be exceptions to the exceptions, so be wary.

Rule#2 – When 'Y' changes to 'IES'

Not all words ending with a 'Y' take 'IES'. There are some words that end with the letter, but take on an 'S'. So, what's the rule?

All words that end with a vowel plus a 'Y' take on the 'S'. For example, day becomes days, trolley becomes trolleys, and relay becomes relays. Another way to remember this rule is to know that a word cannot have 3 vowels one after another.

When a word ends with a consonant followed by 'Y', then the 'Y' is removed and replaced by 'IES'. For examples pregnancy becomes pregnancies, nighty becomes nighties and company becomes companies.

Rule#3 – Add 'ES' to words ending with S, SS, CH, SH, X and Z

This is one of the simpler rules to remember. When you have a word that ends with any of the alphabet combinations given above, you need to add 'ES' when changing the form.

For example:
  • Canvas/canvases
  • Kiss/kisses
  • Latch/latches
  • Mix/mixes
  • Crash/crashes
  • Buzz/buzzes

Tip#4 – The doubling up rule

You'll find that some words take on 2 consonants when their form is changed. For instance:

  • Hit/hitting
  • Dig/digging
  • Whiz/whizzes
  • grin/grinning

Confused? You need not be. There is a rule that applies here too, often referred to as the 1:1:1 rule. When you have a word that has just 1 syllable, with a vowel and a consonant together then the consonant at the end is doubled and suffix a vowel.

Let me explain this through a few examples:
  • Fit/fitter/fittest
  • Tall/taller/tallest
  • Flap/Flapping
  • Glad/gladden

Note: A syllable is sound of a vowel in a word, by itself or in combination with the consonants. A syllable can form a whole word, or parts of a word. A word can have more than one syllable. These examples should make it clearer –

  • Bit – one syllable, the sound of the vowel 'I' combined with the consonant 'T'
  • Daughter – has two syllables. The first syllable is in 'daugh' the second in 'ter'
  • Incognito – has four syllables. In, cog, ni, to

Apart from the doubling rule explained above there are other instances too where the last consonant is doubled. Bigger words where the stress is on the final syllable take on double letters. Here are a few examples:

  • Defer (de FER) becomes deferring, deferred
  • Concur (con CUR) becomes concurring, concurred
  • Begin (be GIN) becomes beginning, beginner

Note that in all the word in the example the last syllable has the most stress.

Rule#5 Forget the 'E'

When I say forget the 'E', I quite literally mean drop it from the spelling. When a word ends with an 'E', but the vowel is not pronounced, it gets dropped when the word changes its form. That is just half the rule. The rule applies only if a vowel suffix is ended to the word.

This can be explained best through examples:
  • Mine – The word ends with an 'N' sound and the 'E' is silent. When you add 'ING' to the word, the 'E' is dropped and you write the word as MINING
  • Sense – Ends with the 'S' sound, add 'IBLE' to make SENSIBLE
  • Dope – Ends with the 'P' sound, you add 'ED' to make HOPED
  • Excite – Once again the word end with the sound of 'T', add 'ABLE' to it to make EXCITABLE
  • Poke – plus 'ER' becomes POKER
  • Realize + 'ATION' makes REALIZATION
  • Large + 'ISH' gets you LARGISH
  • Composite + 'ION' makes COMPOSITION

Now, again there are exceptions to the rule, and the exception is that words that end with 'CE' or 'GE' retain the 'E' when 'ABLE' or 'OUS' are suffixed.

  • Advantage becomes ADVANTAGEOUS when 'OUS' is added to it
  • Notice changes to NOTICEABLE when 'ABLE' is added to it

Rule#6 – 'Y' changes to 'I' when a suffix is applied

Yes, that is the rule, you replace 'Y' with an 'I' in words where the last two letters are a consonant and a 'Y'.

  • Ready changes to readiness/readily
  • Plenty becomes plentiful
  • Happy loses the 'Y' to become happily, happier, happiest, happiness
  • Angry can become angrily or angrier or even angriest
  • Pretty changes to prettiest and prettier

Note that there is a rule within the above rule. Words that end with the letter 'Y' retain the consonant when suffixes starting with an 'I', such as 'ING' and 'ISH' are applied. Here are a few examples:

  • Fry changes to fried, but changes to FRYING
  • Dry becomes dried, but changes to DRYISH or DRYING
  • Similarly, Pretty becomes PRETTIER and PRETTIEST, but PRETTYISH
  • Defy and Apply become defies and applies, defied and applied, but DEFYING and APPLYING

Tip#7 - The 'F' rule

What do you with words that end with an 'F"? Most words that end with an 'F' or 'FE' change to 'VES' in their plural form.

Here are a few examples:
  • Wolf – wolves
  • Elf – elves
  • Loaf – loaves
  • Self – selves

There are a few words plurals of which can end with 'VES' or 'S'.

  • Hoof – hooves or hoofs
  • Staff – staves or staffs

Words that end with 'FF' or 'FFE' and a few with 'F' change to plural when you suffix them with an 'S'

  • Surf – surfs
  • Scuff – scuffs
  • Cliff – cliffs
  • Sniff – sniffs

Nouns that end with an 'F' preceeded by two consecutive vowels end with an 'S'.

  • Spoof – spoofs
  • Chief – chiefs
  • Roof – roofs
  • Oaf – oafs

There are some exceptions to the rule, and thief and leaf, take 'VES'.

Tip#8 - Single 'L' for 'FUL'

When a word is suffixed with 'FUL' only a single 'L' is used.

  • Help – helful
  • Need – Needful
  • Care – careful

Tip#9 – The rule for adding 'LY'

When adding 'LY' to words that end with 'FUL', there is no change to the original word.

  • Grateful – gratefully
  • Hopeful –hopefully
  • Shameful –shamefully

'LY' can also be added to words ending with 'E'.

  • Live – lively
  • Love – lovely
  • definite –definitely

However, there are a few exceptions to the rule.

  • TRUE is not spelt as truely, but as TRULY
  • In a few words ending with 'LE' the 'E' is dropped when 'Y' is suffixed. Idle becomes idly, subtle becomes subtly and gentle becomes gently

Tip#10 – When prefixing 'ALL' to words

When 'ALL' is prefixed to a word to make a new word then one 'L' is dropped.

  • All + most = almost
  • All + ways = always
  • All + ready = Already
  • All + though = although

Note: Though 'alright' is often deemed to be correct, it is in fact informal English. The right phrase is actually 'All Right'. Yes, two words, instead of one.

'Altogether' and 'All together' mean different things, so don't confuse one for the other. Altogether means overall. As in, there were 10 people at the party altogether (in total). All together can among other things, mean 'as one'. For example, it was fun to have the family home all together.

These, of course, are a broad set of rules that I have written off. If you have any query that you need answers to, please leave it in the comments section and I'll post my response at the earliest.

Article by Juana
Juana is a freelance writer, with years of experience, creating content for varied online portals. She holds a degree in English Literature and has worked as a teacher and as a soft skill trainer. An avid reader, she writes on a variety of topics ranging from health, travel, education and personality development.

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