Spelling

Is it always necessary to spell words correctly? Of course not. When students send text messages, for example, they abbreviate words and simplify spellings; indeed, sometimes to do anything else could be silly. But when they’re giving a presentation and need to write on the whiteboard, spelling words incorrectly can be a real problem.

Separate and definitely are two of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language. We use them every day, but many people simply can’t remember how to spell them. And if students have difficulty with those two, imagine what happens when they get to entrepreneurial or idiosyncrasy.

English spelling has a reputation for being difficult. Some have even seen it as being quite chaotic, giving examples like the following (try sounding them out):

In each of these words, the same sequence of letters (ough) is pronounced in a different way. The trouble with spelling rules in English is that there are often exceptions.

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Spelling: A history

Most alphabets in the world’s living languages evolved from a single alphabet developed around 2000 BC in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A lot has changed since then. Even from the time of Old English, from about AD 500 to about AD 1100, much has changed. In fact, languages are always changing. Over the generations, grammar changes, words and their meanings change, accents and pronunciations change, and spelling changes.

If you had lived in the 14th century, you could have spelled most English words any way you pleased — as long as other readers could make sense of your spellings. Then, with the introduction of printing in England in 1476, printers started to settle on standard spellings. It took time for those spellings to stick, but within a couple of centuries, English spelling gradually became more and more standardised.

There was only one problem. While English spellings were becoming standardised, people’s accents and pronunciations of words continued to change.

By the late 17th century, pronunciations and spellings had become so disconnected that many people started to call for a complete revision of the spelling system.

In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift, among others, recommended the establishment of an English academy, like the recently founded academies in France and Italy, to maintain the English language and make decisions about spelling and grammar. Somehow, the idea of an English academy never took off.

Meanwhile, English spelling became even more standardised as dictionaries began to be published. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 was a major standardising force.

Perhaps the most successful attempt at reforming English spelling was Noah Webster’s, in the newly independent USA. Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 pinpointed a small but noteworthy set of reforms.

Thanks to Webster, British people think they’re the centre of the world, while Americans think they’re the center of the world. Brits have a unique sense of humour while Americans have a unique sense of humor.

Today, we are essentially living with English spellings that were decided long ago. And our pronunciations continue to change, sometimes becoming more like the spellings, but often moving further and further away.

People from all backgrounds continue to propose new systems for spelling English words the way they sound. But English has become the lingua franca for hundreds of millions of people, and there are far more English speakers outside of the US and the UK than inside the US and the UK. Many linguists now argue that the English language belongs to the world. How could any one person, one academy, or even one country control the English language now?

It seems that we’re stuck with the spellings we have, and the best we can do is to learn them well.

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Spelling: Alternative spelling

Just like humour and humor, and centre and center, a number of other words vary in their British and American spellings. How different are British and American spelling and how should you choose which spelling to learn?

The number of spelling differences between British and American English amount to less than 1% of the overall vocabulary of contemporary English. It’s not something that we need to be terribly worried about, but it is always something that we must bear in mind.

If you are living, studying, or working in the UK, and particularly if you are a teacher or student using the UK National Curriculum (NC), you should choose the British standard. If you are teaching English as a foreign language in a non-English-speaking country, the decision may not seem so easy. First, check with your school to find out which form is most suitable for you. Second, if your students are considering studying in the US or UK, consider helping them learn that country’s spelling norms now.

Rest assured, neither norm is ‘wrong’, and neither will get you into trouble. The most important thing is to be consistent.

Spellings in Englicious are based upon the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), long a definitive reference for acceptable usage.

Throughout this site, we comment on the content and nature of the UK National Curriculum. One issue is that the final NC documents do not spell some words consistently. One prominent example is the occurrence of both civilisation and civilization at different points in the curriculum. Which spelling are teachers to teach? The NC isn't clear, and the editors of the NC haven't been consistent themselves. The OED now accepts as standard British English the z in words ending with −ize or −ization, and this site follows suit. In this case, some writers continue to prefer an s, as in −ise or −isation. With this and other possible variants, we would simply point out that if you follow the rules here, you’ll be practising (or, in the US, practicing) a reliable and respectable system supported by a significant linguistic authority.

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Spelling: Rules

At some point, many of us learned some handy spelling rules that we’ve carried with us for years.

Most people probably remember the mnemonic:

That’s a very useful rule for remembering how to spell believe and receive. But what about seize and seizure? And what about leisure, either, or heifer?

English spelling is frequently inconsistent. Some rules can account for quite a few words, but few rules can account for all words.

When linguists draw up complete spelling rules for English, they tend to be so numerous and complex that they can be poor teaching tools. In Englicious, the lessons on morphological rules governing the joining of suffixes to root words, which is a known problem for students. If you see a novel word and you wish to add a suffix, how do you do it?

Some educational researchers question whether spelling rules are helpful learning tools at all. Others, including ourselves, argue that rules can be useful as long as we remember that there are many exceptions.

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Spelling: Spelling and word structure

Many common spelling errors occur with double consonants or vowel combinations, as in the following words:

Sometimes these patterns are difficult to predict. But many letter pairs are predictable if you know how words are constructed out of their ‘building blocks’. These building blocks are called morphemes, and the study of these building blocks is called morphology. We add morphemes to root words (also sometimes called base forms) to create new forms. A morpheme added to the beginning of a word is called a prefix; a morpheme added to the end of a word is called a suffix.

In English, we often use suffixes to show

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Spelling: Suffixes

Suffixes cause many of our common spelling mistakes. One challenge is simply to know which is correct: for example, legible or legable? In fact, −ible and −able serve the same function, and sound the same. As a matter of history, -ible entered English from Latin, while −able entered English from French, but there’s no easy rule for knowing when to use which suffix. Each word with each suffix just requires practice.

Adding an English prefix to a word is often straightforward. For example, we can add super− to reliable and get superreliable. The same is not always true of suffixes.

When we add suffixes to existing words, the new combination can affect spelling in various ways. The result may be a doubled consonant, or a combination of vowels. As a consequence, we may be required to remove a vowel or consonant from the original word or to replace one letter with another. If you know the general guidelines for adding suffixes to existing words, you will be more confident in your own spelling. The next section will help you review some of the key rules related to suffixes.

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Spelling: Suffixes and 'y'

When a word ends in y, adding a suffix will sometimes require that we change the y to an i or to an ie. How do you know when to change the y?

Look through the examples below and the rules that follow.

Rules

  1. The final y of a root word usually changes:
    1. if the suffix is −s, y becomes ie (try + −s → tries),
    2. otherwise y → i (try + −ed → tried).
  2. However, the final y does not change:
    1. if the suffix begins with an (try + −ing → trying), or
    2. if the base form has a vowel before the y, (pray + −ed → prayed).

There are a handful of words that don’t follow these rules, and such exceptions need to be practised individually.

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Spelling: Suffixes and 'e'

If an original word ends in a final e, as in manage,adding a suffix will sometimes require that you drop the final e in the root word.

How do you know when to drop the final e?

First, consider the following examples, which either drop or keep the final e.

Now take a look at the rules.

Rules

  1. Keep the e:
    1. if the suffix starts with a consonant;
    2. if the root word ends in −ge or −ce (e.g. courage) and the suffix starts with an o or an a (courage + −ouscourageous); or
    3. if the base form ends in −oe or −ee, unless the suffix begins with an e (to avoid a triple eee!).
  2. Otherwise, drop the final e.

Do the examples below follow the rules we’ve laid out?

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Spelling: Double consonants

If a root word ends in a consonant, adding a suffix will sometimes require that you double the base word’s final consonant. How do you know when to double the consonant?

Consider the following examples, where doubled consonants are underlined.

Now take a look at some larger words, whose base forms have more than one syllable.

Below are the rules for doubling consonants when adding a suffix.

Rules

  1. Only double the final consonant of the root word if:
    1. the base form ends in the sequence consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) and
    2. the suffix begins with a vowel and
    3. the stress is placed on the final (or only) syllable.
  2. Otherwise don’t double the consonant.

British English Note: Treat a final r as a consonant, even if you don’t pronounce it.

Let us consider some examples to see if these rules work.

Consider suffixes starting with a vowel (e.g. -ed, -ing, -er, -est, and in this case -y).

  • ship
  • The last three letters of ship are consonant-vowel-consonant: double the final p.
    • ship + −edshipped
    • ship + −ingshipping
  • green
  • Green ends in vowel-vowel-consonant: don’t double the final n.
    • green + −ergreener
    • green + −estgreenest

    Here are some more examples. Do they match the rules we just stated?

    Spot the root word in each case.

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    Spelling: Resources

    The most important resource for English spelling is a good dictionary. Which dictionary should you use? A variety of dictionaries is available, suitable for various skill levels and specializations, for both British and American English.

    For both British and American English, the Oxford English Dictionary is an excellent standard. For any word in contemporary English, it provides both British and American spellings. It is accessible online at www.oed.com (subscription required). Many schools, libraries, and universities have a subscription to the OED, and most state libraries will offer a free subscription via your library card - ask at your local library for more information. If you’d like a smaller, more introductory dictionary, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is an excellent choice for British English, and the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary is a great choice for American English.

    For a more theoretical take on the inner mechanics of English spelling, Edward Carney’s A Survey of English Spelling is the classic tome on the subject. For a shorter take on the same material, consider Carney’s condensed version, English Spelling.

    If you’d like to learn more about the history of English spelling, the Oxford English Dictionary is, again, an extraordinary resource. Alternatively, you could try a book on the history of the English language: there are many good options, but one recommended title is Brinton and Arnovick’s The English Language: A Linguistic History.

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