Some Rules and Suggestions about Spelling that will help you and your child.
Everyone who has difficulty with spelling words correctly can derive some comfort from knowing that some very good writers have been notoriously bad spellers. It’s also comforting to bad spellers to know that this business of spelling seems to have little to do with intelligence. It has more to do with how we remember things. Some people, once they’ve seen a word spelled correctly, will never misspell that word again. Those are the people who, if you ask them how to spell a word, will first say, “Wait a second. Let me write it down.” If you are not a strong visual learner, but learn in other ways, you will have to learn some other tricks to become a strong speller.
The following suggestions about spelling are only that—suggestions. Spelling, like vocabulary building, is ultimately a personal matter, and only a planned and sustained effort to improve spelling will have the desired results.
Using A Spell-Checker
Writing with modern word-processors has changed the game of spelling somewhat, but not entirely. Spell-checkers are capable of discovering misspelled words for us — sometimes even as we write them — and most of them will suggest alternative spellings. Very good spell-checkers are even capable of asking whether we’ve confused a correctly spelled word with another word (e.g., we’ve used the word “they’re,” but do we really mean “their”?). Studies show, however, that papers written with the help of a spell-checker are only slightly better than papers written without a word-processor. The reason seems to be that a word-processor makes our text look so professional that we’re apt to overlook misspelled words. Never blame a spell-checker for failing to catch a misspelled word in your paper. That is your responsibility! Perhaps the best we can say about spell-checkers is that they’ve taken away another excuse for bad spelling.
Using The Dictionary
For online use, we recommend the Merriam-Webster’s WWWebster Dictionary. For the purposes of checking your spelling, however, a small pocket dictionary will probably suffice. In fact, bookstores will often sell dictionaries that have nothing but spelling, and those can be very efficient, indeed, for this purpose. Small but powerful (and rather expensive) digital dictionaries are also available, and if they make looking up words more fun and if you have the money lying around to buy one, they can be a good investment. The important thing about owning any kind of dictionary, though, is that you must have it immediately at hand when you are writing. Putting the dictionary on a shelf in the den when you do your writing at the kitchen table doesn’t do much good.
Mnemonics (Now there’s a toughie to spell! It’s pronounced as if that initial m didn’t exist.) are little memory devices you can use to remember how to spell words. Geography students will remember that George Eliot’s Old Grandfather Rode APig Home Yesterday. Some mnemonics seem more difficult to remember than the spelling they’re supposed to serve. Mindy McAdams remembers the three e‘s in cemetery as three tombstones in a row. When you think of stationery, think of the e in envelope. Does it help to think of the r in separate as separating two like letters?
Coming up with mnemonics to help you remember things is a device you probably use in other studies all the time. Extend the habit into your personal mission to improve spelling. Be as inventive as you wish and have fun with the idea. It will pay off in the long run.
Homonyms and Plurals
Homonyms are words that sound alike or nearly alike but have different meanings and different spellings: affect-effect, they’re-their-there, the list goes on and on. Our section on NOTORIOUS CONFUSABLES contains over 400 words that people find confusing. The words are used correctly in full sentences and brief definitions are provided in the status line of the browser window. Sometimes, if you have a properly configured browser, you can even hear the sentence being spoken.
Creating plurals in English is usually quite simple: just add s to the end of the word. Sometimes, however, it isn’t that easy and the rules can be a bit perplexing. There is a section of this Guide devoted to the formation and spelling of PLURALS that should prove helpful.
Sounding It Out
Writers who try to rely too completely on the sound of English words for hints on how to spell often have trouble with some of the peculiar sound-spell combinations in the language. One apocryphal (apokrifil?) story tells about a girl who, when asked to spell “fish,” wrote GHOT on the chalkboard. It makes perfect sense, of course, if it’s the same “gh” we see in cough, the same “o” we hear in women, and the same “t” we hear in nation. (See NOTE on this story below.) A thorough acquaintance with prefixes and endings and roots (see elsewhere in this section) will help some, and studying the way words are broken down into sound units will help also.
It also helps to pronounce words correctly in the first place. It’s hard to spell strictly unless we hear that “t” in the word; and the words February and library must retain their first “r.” If we try to change the noun accident into an adverb, we’ll end up with accidently, which is a really bad accident but is how many people say the word. Try, instead, to change the adjective accidental into an adverb: accidentally. (The same goes for incidentally and coincidentally.)
The ability to sound things out correctly doesn’t help us much with Wednesday, though, especially with the inexplicable American pronunciation which puts an “nz” sound before the “d.” And words like often and handsome, in which the “t” and “d” sounds have disappeared (at least in the U.S.), continue to defy phonetic spellers (fonetik spelurz). American author Mark Twain was keenly interested in the simplification of English spelling and his little essay called “A Plan for the Simplification of English Spelling” is included here.
Writers who grow up in England, Canada, the Barbados, or any place where spelling habits conform to British preferences will be perplexed when the word colour comes back from an American instructor with a slash mark through the u. When Noah Webster started putting his dictionary together, he thought it would be a good idea to simplify some English spelling and that -our was one ending he thought we Americans could do without. Standard American spelling, ever since then, has been sometimes different from British, and it extends to other words as well. A good dictionary, even a good American dictionary, should account for these differences. Instructors should also be equipped to account for them, if not to allow for them.
canceled cancelled center centre check cheque color colour criticize criticise gray grey humor humour judgment judgement labor labour license licence realize realise theater theatre tire tyre valor valour
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 word.
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: submitting, submitted.
- 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: relented, relenting.
- 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, despaired.
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
Working on Your Spelling
Improving your spelling skills is largely a matter of personal commitment: looking up a word you’re not sure of, keeping the dictionary at hand, keeping a list of words you know you have trouble with.
One site on the World Wide Web is particularly helpful in spelling: the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee Home-Page. A section on that page, called “Carolyn’s Corner” is especially helpful in terms of discovering and understanding the rather obscure rules and patterns that govern spelling. (“Carolyn’s Corner” takes the summer months off.)