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Basic Spelling Rules
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Although English has 42 sounds, there are 400 ways to spell them. No wonder It can be a challenging language! First the happy news: It is estimated that 85% of the words in English follow predictable spelling patterns. That is, most words follow the rules. Only 15% of the words violate the rules. Now for the unfortunate part: it's that annoying 15% that we use 80% of the time when we write! Another way to say it is that the very words we use most are the ones that cause spelling headaches. In a minute we'll talk about how to deal with them, but first, let's talk about a handful of general rules that can help you spell thousands of words correctly. There are exceptions to all of them, but they're still well worth knowing.

Some rules will probably sound familiar to you. You may even remember some of them from elementary school. If you didn't pay attention to them then, you'll want to now. As an adult you will often be judged not only by how you speak, but by your writing. Correct spelling is one part of effective written communication.

Four of the five rules have to do with adding suffixes and endings to make words plural (students), to change verb forms (such as smiles, smiled), to make words into adverbs (quickly), or to make comparative adjectives (smarter and smartest). Relax! The basic rule for most words is simply "Add the suffix or ending" to the base word without making any other changes. It will help you understand and remember the rules if you think of examples of familiar words. You will then understand how to apply them to other words.

  1. Use i before e. Remember the old rhyme? Believe me, it's very useful to know! Here are the lines of the verse with examples or other information at the end of each line.

Use i before e (friend, view, believe, niece, retrieve)
Except after c,
Or when sounded like "a,"
(receive, ceiling, deceive)
As in neighbor and weigh;
But leisure and seize
(eight, vein, freight, sleigh, reign)
Do as they please. (Other exceptions are either, science, weird, height, foreign.)
  1. Add –s to form the plurals of most nouns (books, desks, iPods).

  • Add –es to singular nouns that end in –s , –sh, –ch, or –x (kiss es, wish es, watch es, box es).
  • For nouns that end in a single consonant + o, add es (hero es, potato es ). If the final –o is preceded by another vowel, as –s (studios, videos). (Note that the plural of zero, tornado , and volcano can be formed by adding either –s or –es. Both spellings are acceptable.)
  • For most words that end in –f or –fe , change the –f or –fe to –v and add –es (life, lives ; wolf, wolves).

(Two other things that are good to know, but don't worry about them: First, for plurals of hyphenated compound words, pluralize the first word: mother s -to-be, brother s -in-law, ladi es -in-waiting. Second, some words from other languages maintain the plural spelling of that language: for example, criteria , syllabi , phenomena , and chateaux .)

  1. For words that end in a consonant + y, change the y to ibefore adding –s, –es, –ed, or a suffix that does not begin with i (try,tries,tried; library, libraries; marry, marries, married, busy,busily, business)

  • If the word ends in a vowel + y, simply add the –s or -ed (relay, relay s, relayed; key, key s). Exceptions: pay , paid; lay , laid. (Proper names are an exception: the Murphys, the O'Reillys).

There's a funny joke that has to do with this rule:
The public school started a sex-education program, and one day a third-grader came home from school and told her mother, "Today we learned how to make babies." The mother was shocked because her daughter was eight years old. She asked her little girl, "What exactly did the teacher say?" The little girl replied, "You drop the 'y' and add 'i-e-s'''.

  1. When a word ends in silent e , drop the final e before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel (write, writing; dine, dining; move, movable; use, usage; weary , wearily; beauty, beautiful). One reminder of this rule is a verse that goes, "When –ing­ comes to stay, final e runs away!"
  • Keep the e if the suffix begins with a consonant (nine, ninety, nineteen; hope, hopefully; place, placement). Exceptions: judgment, truly, argument.
  • When you add the suffix –ous or –able, keep a silent e that is preceded by a c or a g (notice, noticeable; peace, peaceable; courage, courageous).

The next rule may seem complicated, but just take it piece by piece. It applies to several thousand words, so it's worth the effort to learn it. You can do it!

  1. When you add a suffix that begins with a vowel, double the final single consonant if

  • the consonant ends a one-syllable word or ends a stressed (accented) syllable and
  • the consonant is also preceded by a single vowel (get , getting ; drop , dropped ; regret , regrettable ; refer , refe rred ; occur , occurred; permit, permittng ).

This rule also explains why the final consonant is not doubled in words such as benefited, pardoned, worshiped, and focused : The accent is not on the last syllable.

In English, spelling can be frustrating, so let's end with a couple of jokes!

  • Frick: "How do you spell Mississippi '?"

  • Frack: "Do you mean the river or the state?
  • What did the meteorologist say to his daughter when he saw she had mistakenly written "whether" instead of "weather" in her essay?
  • "Looks like a bad spell of weather
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For additional information on spelling, see, Catalyst>Editing>Spelling.

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