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English spelling rules

Posted on March 3, 2011 | Comments Off on English spelling rules

Speakers of English—especially young children—often complain about how difficult and unpredictable the spelling of English words often is. The pronunciations of various words ending in -ough (such as “cough,” “rough,” “through,” and so forth) are a well-known example. And indeed, our writing system is handicapped compared to those of many other languages, which often have more individual letters or combinations thereof.

However, it must be acknowledged that there are indeed certain rules which can be quickly learned and applied, and which have relatively few exceptions. One of these involves silent e. This letter is dropped (1) before an ending beginning with a vowel (hope > hoping), and (2) after u before a suffix beginning in a vowel (continue > continuous). It is retained if the ending begins in a consonant (sure > surely), or to avoid confusion with a word that would otherwise be spelled identically (singeing vs. singing).

Another spelling rule involves final y. This letter is changed to i before an ending that begins with a consonant (plenty > plentiful), or before the past tense (cry > cried) and plural endings (lady > ladies). Conversely, final -ie is regularly changed to y before adding -ing (die > dying).

Final consonants are doubled before endings beginning in vowels (run > running, runner, runny). Note that this rule also avoids confusion between pairs (hop > hopping vs. hope > hoping). (Historically, a double consonant was used to indicate a preceding short vowel; this is still the case in German, e.g. Zimmer).

We have also been taught to minimize confusion between “ei” and “ie” by means of the rhyme “i before e except after c or when sounded like ay as in neighbor and weigh.” This rule does hold true for the most part (achieve vs. receive); exceptions include “either” (which can be pronounced two ways), “seize,” and “ancient.”

In English, words borrowed from Greek and Latin (often through French) tend to follow consistent orthographic patterns. Native words—those of Germanic origin—are often much harder to predict (“rather” vs. “father,” “paddle” vs. “waddle”). But English has also borrowed words from other languages around the world, and their spellings sometimes differ from those of the languages mentioned above. For example, “unique” (silent ue) is a French word, but “pulque” (with a final vowel) is a Spanish loan.

You can use your computer to check your spelling. This can be done offline—with Microsoft Word’s spellcheck software—or with a free spell checker provided online, such as spellchecker.net. You may find that the latter method is more reliable insofar as, like with all websites, updating is constantly being done.

So… when in doubt, perform a spellcheck using your computer or with an online free spell checker.

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