Wouldn’t life be nice if all words were spelled the way they sounded like they should be spelled? When I was younger, my grandfather would always surprise me with a word that I had to spell on the spot. I’d usually get them all right, until ‘phlegm’ came around. Come on, phlegm!? What sounds like a simple ‘flem’ had to be something significantly more complicated. While the correct spelling has stuck with me since that day, it can be hard to wrap your head around the strange spellings of many English words. Luckily, there are a handful of spelling rules that most words abide by. There will always be an anomaly or two, but you can rest easy knowing that these rules will help you out in most situations.
Know your consonants and your vowels
The English language has two types of letters: consonants and vowels. While other languages may have words with long strings of consonants before a vowel is added in (the Czech word for ice cream is ‘zmrzlina’), English tends to have a vowel every two or three letters. The vowels are A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y. Everything else is a consonant.
I before E except after C
This was ingrained in every elementary school child’s brain until they ran into words like weird, height, foreign… the list goes on and on.
“Wait a second teacher, I though you told me I always came after E! Why isn’t weird spelled ‘wierd’?”
“Sorry Billy, that word is an exception.”
“Wait teacher, why isn’t height spelled ‘hieght’?”
“Sorry Billy, that word is an exception.”
Thus confusing young minds forever. In many cases, you will find that the letter I is commonly found before the letter E, except after C or if the E and the I together make an ‘A’ sound. Common examples of these letters combining to sound like an A are ‘weigh’ and ‘neighbor’.
The letter U always follows the letter Q
Think about it for a second. Without a U after a Q, how would you even pronounce the Q?! There are a couple of strange exceptions to this rule, such as Qi (pronounced ‘chi’), although that is a word that stems from traditional Chinese culture and not American English.
Common examples of words that follow this rule are question, quail, and quarantine. Try saying ‘question’ without a U three times fast. (I just tried to, and I’m pretty sure it’s impossible).
OI or OY?
The combination of OI and OY can sound eerily similar. So similar, in fact, that they often don’t sound any different from each other. The trick to knowing when to use which is to remember that ‘oi’ tends to go in the middle of a word, while ‘oy’ tends to go at the end of a word.
Consider these words as examples: Toy, boy, coy, soil, toil, and boil.
That pesky “ch” sound
You know what I’m talking about – that sound you make when you say the words ‘watch’ or ‘chard’. Why isn’t watch spelled ‘wach’? Because when the “ch” sound comes at the beginning of the word, it is spelled ‘ch’. Yet when it comes at the end of the word, it is spelled ‘tch’.
Some common examples of this rule are choose, chocolate, chancellor, catch, pitch, and match.
To drop or not to drop the final E?
When changing the ending of a word that ends in an E, such as changing ‘advance’ to ‘advancing’, there are a couple of rules you’ll need to remember.
- When you’re adding an ending to a word that ends in a silent E, keep the E if the ending begins with a consonant. For example, changing ‘advance’ to ‘advancement’.
- When you’re adding an ending to a word that ends in a silent E, drop the E if the ending begins with a vowel. For example, changing ‘fluctuate’ to ‘fluctuating’.
- When you’re adding an ending to a word that ends in a silent E, but that E is preceded by another vowel, always drop the E. For example, changing ‘argue’ to ‘argument’ or ‘arguing’.
Dropping the final Y
Changing the ending of a word that ends in a Y also has a handful of different rules that must be followed.
- When you’re adding an ending to a word that ends in a Y, and the Y is preceded by a consonant, change the Y to an I. For example, changing ‘hurry’ to ‘hurried’.
- When you’re adding an ending to a word that ends in a Y, and the Y is preceded by a vowel, the Y stays the same. For example, changing ‘play’ to ‘played’ or ‘playing’.
- When the ending of the word is ‘ing’, the rule of changing the Y to an I does not apply. For example, changing ‘hurry’ to ‘hurrying’.
What every student dreads. Homonyms are words that sound exactly alike but are spelled completely different.
Affect and Effect
They’re, Their and There
Two, Too and To
Aisle and Isle
Carat and Carrot
Cents, Sense, and Scents
Cited and Sighted
Dew, Do and Due
Flew, Flu and Flue (even Floo if you’re a Harry Potter fan!)
The list seems to drag on and on and on. The problem with homonyms is that there is no true rule you can memorize; you just need to continue to practice spelling each word correctly. Knowing the definition behind homonyms helps you determine which one is appropriate to use at any given time.
The more you read and the more you write, the more you will expose yourself to the proper spelling of words and the better you’ll get. The trick is exposure and practice. While these simple rules will certainly help you out with the spelling of many difficult words, know that there are always exceptions to the rule. The more you recognize these exceptions, the more you’ll commit them to your long-term memory!
If you’re struggling with proper spelling and need some extra help, Udemy has a great course that will help you boost your spelling skills in no time!