ENGLISH SPELLING RULES
Short and Long Vowels
1. To spell a short vowel sound, only one letter is needed:
at red it hot up
2. To spell a long sound you must add a second vowel. The second may be next to the first, in
the VVC pattern (boat, maid, cue, etc.) or it may be separated from the first one by a consonant
in the VCV pattern (made, ride, tide, etc.). If the second vowel is separated from the first by two
spaces, it does not affect the first one. This is the VCCV pattern in which the first vowel remains
short. Thus, doubling a consonant can be called "protecting" a short vowel because it prevents an
incoming vowel from getting close enough to the first one to change its sound from short to long:
maid, made, but madder; dine, diner, but dinner.
Spelling the Sound /k/
This sound can be spelled in any one of four ways:
1. c 2. cc 3. k 4. ck
1. The single letter, c , is the most common spelling. It may be used anywhere in a word:
cat corn actor victim direct mica
scat bacon public cactus inflict pecan
2. Sometimes the letter c must be doubled to cc to protect the sound of a short vowel:
stucco baccalaureate hiccups
Mecca tobacco buccaneer
occupy raccoon succulent
3. The letter k is substituted for c if /k/ is followed by an e, i, or y.
kin make sketch poker kind risky
skin token skill keep liking flaky
(Boring examples? How about kyphosis, kylix, keratosis, and dyskinesia?)
4. Similarly, the spelling ck, is substituted for cc if the following letter is an e, i, or y:
lucky picking rocking finicky
blackest mackintosh frolicked ducking
Kentucky picnicking stocking Quebecker
5. The letters, k and ck are more than substitutes for c and cc. They are used to spell /k/ at the
end of a monosyllable. The digraph, ck, ALWAYS follows a short vowel:
sack duck lick stick wreck clock
(Forget about yak. Your student will never need it.)
The letter, k, follows any other sound:
milk soak make bark
tank peek bike cork
tusk hawk duke perk
The Sound, /j/
The sound, /j/ is spelled in three ways: j ge and dge.
1. The letter j is usually used if the sound if followed by an a, o, or u.
just jam jungle injure major adjacent
jog jar Japan jury job Benjamin
adjust jacket jolly jaguar jump jalousie
2. Since the letter g has the soft sound of /j/ when it is followed by an e, i, or y, it is usually used
in this situation:
gentle ginger aging algebra
Egyptologist gem origin gym
2. If /j/ follows a short vowel sound, it is usually spelled with dge. This is because the letter j, is
never doubled in English.
badge ridge dodge partridge gadget
judge edge smudge judgement budget
The Sound, /ch/
The sound /ch/ has two spellings: tch after a short vowel, ch anywhere else:
witch sketch botch satchel
catch hatchet kitchen escutcheon
Which, rich, much, such, touch, bachelor, attach, sandwich, and ostrich.
The Sound, /kw/
This sound is ALWAYS spelled with the letters, qu, never anything else.
Words ending in -le, such as little, require care. If the vowel sound is short, there must be two
consonants between the vowel and the -le. Otherwise, one consonant is enough.
li tt le ha nd le ti ck le a mp le
bo tt le pu zz le cru mb le a ng le
bugle able poodle dawdle needle idle people
Odds and Ends
1. The consonants, v, j, k, w, and x are never doubled.
2. No normal English words ends with the letter v. A final /v/ is always spelled with ve, no matter
what the preceding vowel sound may be:
have give sleeve cove
receive love connive brave
There are two kinds of suffixes, those that begin with a vowel and those that begin with a
consonant. As usual, the spelling problems occur with the vowels:
Vowel Suffixes Consonant Suffixes
- - - age - - -ist - - - ness - - - cess
- - - ant - - - ish - - -less - - -ment
- - -ance - - -ing - - -ly - - -ty
- - - al - - -ar - - -ful - - -ry
- - -ism - - -o - - -hood - - -ward
- - -able - - -on - - -wise
- - -an - - -ous
---a - - -or
- - -es - - -ual
- - -ed - - -unt
- - -er - - -um
- - -est - - -us
- - -y - - -ive
1. Words that end in the letter y must have the y changed to i before adding any suffix:
body - bodily marry - marriage
many - manifold family - familiar
happy - happiness puppy - puppies
beauty - beautiful vary - various
company - companion fury - furious
plenty - plentiful merry - merriment
2. In words that end in a silent e you must drop it before you add a vowel suffix. The silent e is no
longer needed to make the preceding vowel long as the incoming vowel will do the trick:
ride - riding cure - curable use - usual age - aging
fame - refuse -
force - forcing slice - slicing
pure - purity ice - icicle nose - nosy
globe - global race - racist pole - polar offense - offensive
3. Words that end in an accented short or modified vowel sound must have the final consonant
doubled to protect that sound when you add a vowel suffix:
Quebec - Quebecker remit - remittance confer - conferring refer - referred
upset - upsetting shellac - shellacking occur - occurred concur- concurrent
Note that this doubling is not done if the accent is not on the last syllable. If the word ends in a
schwa, there is no need to "protect" it.
open - opening organ - organize
focus - focused refer - referee
4. Normally you drop a silent e before adding a vowel suffix. However, if the word ends in -ce or -
ge and the incoming vowel is an a, o, or u, you cannot cavalierly toss out that silent e. It is not
useless: it is keeping its left-hand letter soft, and your a, o, or u will not do that. Thus:
manage - manageable peace - peaceable
courage - courageous revenge - vengeance
surge - surgeon change - changeable
notice - noticeable outrage - outrageous
Gorgeous George bludgeoned a pigeon noticeably! Tsk.
5. Adding consonant suffixes is easy. You just add them. (Of course you must change a final y to
i before you add any suffix.)
peace - peaceful harm - harmless age - ageless
pity - pitiful child - childhood rifle - riflery
When this sound occurs before a vowel suffix, it is spelled ti, si, or ci.
partial cautious patient vacation
special deficient suspicion suction
inertia delicious ratio pension
musician physician optician quotient
electrician nutrition statistician expulsion
/ee/ before a vowel suffix
When /ee/ precedes a vowel suffix, it is usually spelled with the letter i:
Indian obvious medium
ingredient zodiac material
Spelling Determined by Word Meaning
1. Mist and missed sound alike, as do band and banned. To determine the spelling, remember
that -ed is a past-tense tending.
a. The mist drifted into the harbor.
b. I nearly missed my bus.
c. The movie was banned in Boston.
d. The band played on.
2. The endings of dentist and finest sound alike. Deciding which one to use can be tricky. One
rule helps but doesn't cover all cases:
a. --ist is a suffix meaning someone who does something:
artist - machinist - druggist
b. --est is the ending used on superlative adjectives:
finest - sweetest - longest
3. The sounds at the end of musician and condition sound alike. but....
a. cian always means a person, where...
b. tion or sion are never used for people.
4. How do you tell whether to use tion or sion?
a. If the root word ends in /t/, use -tion: complete, completion
b. If the root word ends in /s/ or /d/, use sion: extend, extension
c. If the sound of the last syllable is the "heavy" sound of /zhun/ rather than the light sound,
/shun/, use s: confusion, vision, adhesion
Exception: The ending, --mit becomes -mission:
permit - permission omit - omission
submit - submission commit - commission
1. The letter s between vowels sounds like a z:
nose result noise
present partisan tease
preside resound reserve
2. The light "hissy" sound is spelled with either ss or ce. Predictably, ss, like any proper doubled
consonant, follows accented short vowels. Soft c is used anywhere else. (A soft c is one that is
followed by e, i, or y).
notice reticent massive bicycle
recent gossip russet rejoice
essence vessel discuss pass
3. The plural ending is always spelled with a single letter s unless you can hear a new syllable on
the plural word. In that case, use -es:
loss, losses bank, banks twitch, twitches tree, trees
box, boxes list, lists judge, judges
No compendium of spelling rules would be complete with the most important rule of all:
WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK (or look it up)
Rule #1: “I before E except after C”;
This rule, designed to help us remember how to spell words such as receive and
chief, seems so promising in its simplicity at first.
achieve, believe, bier, brief, hygiene, grief, thief, friend, grieve, chief, fiend,
patience, pierce, priest
ceiling, conceive, deceive, perceive, receipt, receive, deceit, conceit
But then things get complicated: it doesn't work with words pronounced "ay" as in
neighbor, freight, beige, sleigh, weight, vein, and weigh and there are many exceptions to
the rule: either, neither, feint, foreign, forfeit, height, leisure, weird, seize, and seizure.
Still, the rule is relatively simple and worth remembering.
Rule #2: “Dropping Final E”
When adding an ending to a word that ends with a silent e, drop the final e if the
ending begins with a vowel:
However, if the ending begins with a consonant, keep the final e:
(However, if the silent e is preceded by another vowel, drop the e when adding any
ending: argument, argued, truly.)
Exceptions: to avoid confusion and mispronunciation, the final e is kept in words
such as mileage and words where the final e is preceded by a soft g or c: changeable,
courageous, manageable, management, noticeable. (The word management, for example,
without that e after the g, would be pronounced with a hard g sound.)
Rule #3: “Dropping Final Y”
When adding an ending to a word that ends with y, change the y to i when it is
preceded by a consonant.
supply becomes supplies
worry becomes worried
merry becomes merrier
This does not apply to the ending -ing, however.
Nor does it apply when the final y is preceded by a vowel.
Rule #4: “Doubling Final Consonants”
When adding an ending to a word that ends in a consonant, we double that
consonant in many situations. First, we have to determine the number of syllables in the
Double the final consonant before adding an ending that begins with a vowel when
the last syllable of the word is accented and that syllable ends in a single vowel followed
by a single consonant.
submit is accented on the last syllable and the final consonant is preceded
by a vowel, so we double the t before adding, for instance, an -ing or -ed:
flap contains only one syllable which means that it is always accented.
Again, the last consonant is preceded by a vowel, so we double it before
adding, for instance, an -ing or -ed: flapping, flapped. This rule does not
apply to verbs that end with "x," "w," "v," and "y," consonants that cannot
be doubled (such as "box" [boxing] and "snow" [snowing]).
open contains two syllables and the last syllable is preceded by a single
vowel, but the accent falls on the first syllable, not the last syllable, so we
don't double the n before adding an ending: opening, opened.
refer contains two syllables and the accent falls on the last syllable and a
single vowel precedes the final consonant, so we will double the r before
adding an ending, as in referring, referral. The same would apply to begin,
as in beginner, beginning.
relent contains two syllables, but the final consonant is preceded by another
consonant, not a vowel, so we do not double the t before adding an ending:
deal looks like flap (above), but the syllable ends in a consonant preceded
not by a single vowel, but by two vowels, so we do not double the final l as
in dealer and dealing. The same would apply, then, to despair: despairing,
Rule #5: “Adding Prefixes”
Generally, adding a prefix to a word does not change its spelling. For some reason,
the word misspelling is one of the most often misspelled words in English. See the
material on adding prefixes in the section on Vocabulary. See, also, the section on the
creation and spelling of Compound Nouns and Modifiers.
unnecessary, dissatisfied, disinterested, misinform