Have you ever wondered why words are spelled the way they are? And what is the connection between the way a word is spelled and the way it sounds? If you’re like most people, you’ve probably asked yourself these questions. The answer is different for every language. Here are some rules that will help you make sense of how and why words are spelled in English. Keep reading to find ways to help you improve your spelling! 

1. The basics of a word

First, it’s helpful to understand that every English word contains syllables. Each syllable includes one vowel sound and sometimes at least one consonant. Here are some examples:

Vowels make up syllables. Some syllables, like the -i- in an-i-mal, have a vowel and nothing else. Other syllables, like the -stress- in stressful, can have as many as five consonants! But there is still just one vowel sound.

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Knowing how each vowel sounds will sometimes give you clues about how to spell the word. In English, vowels can be long or short, like this:

VowelLong soundsShort sounds
aAYdon-a-tion; am-a-zingAHpan-ic; Can-a-da
eEEfeel-ing; leaseEHtell-er; better
iEYEli-ner; nightIHpic-nic; min-i-golf
oOHrose; po-seyOnot; bo-ther
uYOUu-niv-erse; cubeUHpuppy; butt

Now that you know all about syllables and vowel sounds, you’re ready to discover the tips and tricks to becoming a pro at English spelling.

2. Prefixes and suffixes

Another trick of the English language is that you can slightly change the meaning of a word by adding a prefix or adding a suffix. Recognizing if a word has a prefix or a suffix can help you figure out how you’re supposed to spell it. 

So what are prefixes and suffixes? They might sound fancy, but you’ll probably recognize them right away. 

A prefix is a piece of a word you add to the beginning to change its meaning. Pre-, under-, mis-, and over- are all prefixes. Here are some examples of words with prefixes:

A suffix is what you add to the end of a whole word to change its meaning (usually by changing its part of speech). Some suffixes include -ing, -tion, and -ment. Here are some examples of words with suffixes:

None of these words is unusual, but you might never have thought of them as having prefixes or suffixes. 

Spelling words with suffixes can sometimes be a challenge because the root word will sometimes change. That’s why it’s important to identify and recognize them. Here are rules to help you figure it out:

For a quick reference on spelling with suffixes, refer to this table:

Type of root wordRuleExamples
Ends in consonant + y-y changes to -i(unless you end up with two i’s)MerrilyHappierSilliestbutPartyingFlyingTrying
Ends in vowel + y-y staysBuoyantBuyerStaying
Ends in silent -eRemove the final -e (unless your suffix is -ly, then keep the final -e)AgingLovableReliablybutComelyLikelyLovely
Ends in -ge or -ceKeep the final -eVengefulEnhancementchangeable
Ends in a single consonant other than w, or xDouble the consonant at the endCarefullyBiggestFatterbutSnowyVexed

3. Compound words

English is a language with a special superpower: it can make new words by combining two existing words. Not many languages can do that! It’s a cool trick, but it does mean that some words won’t behave as you would expect. 

Some compound nouns are one word (like teacup), some have a hyphen (like snow-blower), and others still are two separate words (like bus stop). Except for a few specific cases, no hard-and-fast rules exist for which compound nouns are one word, hyphenated, or separate. For example, lawnmower, lawn-mower, and lawn mower are all correct.

Here are some guidelines to help you make your way:

4. Follow the floss rule

This rule is pretty simple and easy to follow. If you have a one-syllable word or a word with just one vowel, and it ends in f, l, or s (like floss), then you need to double the consonants, like this:

Of course, there are exceptions. Here are the most common words that don’t follow the floss rule:

You also need to be careful about not applying the floss rule to plural words.

5. Know the silent e

Sometimes the e at the end of the word is there, not because you need to say it, but because it’s giving you a hint about how to pronounce the word. Pay attention if you see a word that ends with the following pattern: 

Vowel – consonant – e

This pattern usually means that the first vowel will be long and the final e will be silent, like this:

If you’re working on your spelling, it can sometimes be challenging to remember words ending in a silent e

6. ‘K’ or ‘ck’?

There are three common ways to write out the /k/ sound in English: with a c (more on that later), with a k, and with a ck. It may not be obvious whether you need to use k or ck. For example, why is it fake and not facke? Why is lucky spelled that way and not luky? This explanation should clear things up for you:

You’ll usually see k after long vowels and ck after short vowels. Here are some examples:

If there is a consonant after the vowel sound and before the /k/ sound, then only use k, like this:

These two simple rules should help you figure out whether to write ck or k when you hear a /k/ sound.

7. The kid’s club rule

There are two individual letters that can produce the sound /k/ in English: the letter c and the letter k. It can sometimes be hard to remember which letter to use. Is it coffee or koffee? Castle or kastle? Cindergarten or kindergarten? If you’re not sure, just follow the kid’s club rule.

The kid’s club rule is actually three rules:

  1. C sounds like /s/ before the vowels e, i, or y (as in nice, icy, or face).
  2. C sounds like /k/ before any other letter (as in court, cane, or scum).
  3. When a word includes a /k/ sound, try spelling it with c first; if c doesn’t work because of rule number one, then use k. For example, if you’re not sure about the spelling for the word lake, try it with a c: lace. Because of the ‘e,’ the c sounds like /s/. That doesn’t work! So you know that it’s a k.

Of course, you’ll probably know whether to use a c or a k for most of the words you come across. This rule is good to have in your toolbox when you come across an unusual or uncommon word.

8. ‘i’ before ‘e,’ except… huh?

If you attended an English-language school anytime in the last century, you probably heard the following rule: ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c.’ Sound familiar? Well, it turns out that that rule is wrong! Following that rule produces incorrect results more than half the time. 

Unfortunately, there is no good alternative. The problem is that English likes to borrow words from other languages. Knowing where a word comes from and how it’s structured can give you clues about how to spell it. Knowing if your word has a prefix, a suffix, or if it’s a compound word will also help you make sense of the rule.

9. Making words plural

In most cases, it’s simple to make a word plural: just add an s! This is true for books, papers, apples, dogs, printers, and really most common words.

However, for some words, just adding an s doesn’t work. Words like cherry, marsh, strawberry, and knife need a little extra care. Here are the rules:

The table below includes the same information in a handy format:

Type of wordWhat to doExamples
Most wordsAdd an -sSmartphone – smartphonesHome – homesBed – beds
Ends in ‘sh’ soundAdd an -esHutch – hutchesBelch – belchesFish -fishes
Ends in consonant + yChange -y to -iesBerry – berriesCubby – cubbiesParty- parties
Ends in vowel + yAdd an -sToy – toysBay – baysGuy – guys
Ends in a consonant + oAdd an -esPotato – potatoesTomato – tomatoesGrotto – grottoes
Ends in a vowel + oAdd an -sPistachio – pistachiosKangaroo – kangaroosMayo – mayos
Ends in -f or -feChange -f or -fe to -ves (many exceptions)Knife – knivesLoaf – loavesButChef – chefsOaf – oafs

Some words have irregular plurals, while others stay the same regardless of whether they’re singular or plural. Here is a list of some of the most common irregular plural words in English:

These rules include most of the words you’re likely to come across in your daily life. Keep this guide handy as a quick reference if you’re not sure about how to make a word plural.

Most commonly misspelled words

Here is a list of words that are commonly misspelled. Avoid misspelling them by learning them!

Figuring out how to spell words in English can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. If you have trouble with spelling, remember that you’re not the only one. Refer to this guide often, and in time you’ll find that some of the trickier rules come naturally. You got this! If you’re interested in learning more, check out this article on prepositions.

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