Anyone who has ever had to memorize a tough-to-spell English word (It’s fuchsia, right? Or is it fuschia? Fushia?) has noticed that the spelling of some words is wildly different from the way we pronounce them. To make matters worse, some words are spelled differently in American English and British English. If it makes you feel any better, the eccentricities of English spelling weren’t invented just to make life difficult for writers.
Around Shakespeare’s time, when spelling was first becoming standardized, the spelling of most English words was mostly phonetic—or at least more phonetic than it is today. For example, English speakers did once pronounce the k at the beginning of words like knife and knee. But even though no one has pronounced knee as “kuh-nee” in centuries, we still hang on to the old spelling.
Fortunately, there are a few rules of thumb that can help when you’re faced with a word you’re not sure how to spell.
I Before E, Except After C
The rule goes like this:
I before E, Except after C, unless it sounds like A, as in neighbor or weigh
There are many exceptions to this rule—maybe it’s better to think of it as a guideline—but it can be helpful with words like the ones below.
I before E
Except before C
Unless it sounds like A
seize, either, weird, height, foreign, leisure, conscience, counterfeit, forfeit, neither, science, species, sufficient
Adding Suffixes to Words that End in Y
When you add a suffix that starts with E (such as -ed, -er, or -est) to a word that ends in Y, the Y usually changes to an I.
- Cry – cried – crier
- Dry – dried – drier
- Lay – laid (note the irregular spelling: no E)
- Baby – babies
- Family – families
- Ugly – ugliest
The Y doesn’t change for the suffix -ing.
If the word in question has two consonants before the Y, change the Y to I before adding the suffix ‑ly.
- Sloppy – sloppily
- Happy – happily
- Scary – scarily
Of course, there are always exceptions:
The Silent E
Typically, an E after a consonant at the end of a word is silent, but it does affect the way you pronounce the vowel that comes before the consonant. The E makes the vowel sound of the word (or syllable) long (like the I sound in kite) instead of short (like the I sound in kitten). It’s important to get the silent E right, because its presence or absence can change the meaning of a word.
When adding a suffix like -ed, -er or -est, the silent E is usually dropped from the end of the root word.
Watch out for double consonants. It can be difficult to hear them when a word is said aloud—especially if the word has only one syllable. Double consonants are frequently found in words that have suffixes added to them:
Some words can be pronounced as either one or two syllables, but the spelling remains the same:
Be particularly careful with words where a double consonant can change the pronunciation and the meaning of the word.
When do you add ‑s and when do you add ‑es to make a plural? It’s not quite as arbitrary as it may seem. The rule is this: if a word ends in ‑s, ‑sh, ‑ch, ‑x, or ‑z, you add ‑es.
For all other endings, add ‑s.
Be careful of words that don’t change when they’re pluralized (e.g., fish, sheep, moose). If you’re unsure, check the dictionary.
Be sure to also check out this list of commonly confused words to help you choose the right spelling of words with similar meanings and pronunciations.