The problem with the English is that we’ve invaded (and been invaded by) so many countries that our language has ended up with a mish-mash of spelling rules.
English is among the easiest languages to learn but among the most difficult to master. One of the problems is spelling. We have so many loan words from so many different languages that we’ve been left with a huge number of spelling rules – and all of them have exceptions!
Contrast that with Spanish, for example, where what you see is generally what you get. The problem for students of English, then, is that it’s very difficult to find shortcuts to improve your spelling, and an awful lot of words just have to be learned off-by-heart. Considering that there are over a million words in English, that’s a big ask!
There are lots of lists of spelling rules on the web, but I thought I’d put down what I think are the most useful ones.
- I before E except after C when the sound is /ee/.
This is the most famous rule of English spelling, but there are still exceptions! Hence, we write achieve with -ie- in the middle but also ceiling, with -ei- in the middle, as the /ee/ sound comes after the letter c. The most common exceptions are weird and seize.
- If you want to know whether to double the consonant, ask yourself if the word is like dinner or diner.
One of the most common problems in spelling is knowing when to double a consonant. A simple rule that helps with a lot of words is to ask yourself whether the word is more like dinner or diner. Diner has a long vowel sound before a consonant and then another vowel (ie vowel-consonant-vowel, or VCV). Words with this long vowel sound only need one consonant before the second vowel, eg shiner, fiver and whiner. However, dinner has a short first vowel and needs two consonants to ‘protect’ it (ie vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel, or VCCV). If the word is like dinner, you need to double the consonant, eg winner, bitter or glimmer. Just bear in mind that this rule doesn’t work with words that start with a prefix (or a group of letters added to the front of a word), so it’s disappoint and not dissapoint.
- If the word has more than one syllable and has the stress on the first syllable, don’t double any final consonant, eg focusing, not focussing.
This rule sounds a bit complicated, but it’s still very useful—as long as you know how to pronounce the word! Which syllable is stressed often changes if the word is used differently. Progress, for instance, has the stress on the first syllable if it’s a noun but on the second if it’s a verb!
We generally double the final consonant when we add a suffix starting with a vowel, such as -ing, but this rule means we shouldn’t do that as long as a) the word has more than one syllable and b) the stress is on the first syllable, eg focusing and targeted, but progressing and regretting. The main exceptions to this are words ending in -l and -y, hence barrelling and disobeying.
- When adding a suffix starting with a consonant, you don’t need to change the root word unless it ends in -y. This is among the easiest and most useful rules. There are loads of words ending in suffixes like -less, -ment or -ness, but spelling them should be easy as long as you know how to spell the root word, eg shoe becomes shoeless, contain becomes containment and green becomes greenness. However, words ending in -y need the y changing to an i, so happy becomes happiness.
- When adding a suffix starting with a vowel to a word ending in a silent -e, the e must be dropped unless it softens a c or a g.
An e at the end of a word is often called a ‘Magic E’, as it lengthens the vowel before the final consonant, eg fat becomes fate. However, that job is done by the vowel at the start of the suffix when it is added to the word, so it needs to be dropped, eg race becomes racing and code becomes coded. The main exceptions come when the word ends with a soft c or g, which need to be followed by an -e, an -i or a -y to sound like /j/ and /s/ rather than /g/ and /k/. If the suffix doesn’t begin with an e- or an i-, we still need the –e to make sure the word sounds right, eg managing is fine without the -e, as the i in -ing keeps the g soft, but manageable needs to keep the -e to avoid a hard /g/ sound that wouldn’t sound right.
- The only word ending in -full is full!
There are lots of words ending in what sounds like -full, but the only one that has two ls at the end is full. All the other words – and there are thankfully no exceptions! – end in -ful, eg skilful, beautiful and wonderful.
- Words ending in -f or -fe always change the f to a v in the plural, eg leaf becomes leaves, and knife becomes knives. The only exceptions are chief, dwarf and roof. You can remember them all by memorising this sentence: “The chief dwarf sat on the roof.”
PS I know Tolkien writes about ‘dwarves’ rather than ‘dwarfs’ in The Lord of the Rings, but that’s just because he thought ‘dwarves’ sounded better!