In some languages, spelling is simple and regular, and creates no confusion.
This is not the case in English.
Yes, there are English spelling rules. But many English words don’t obey these rules and the same sounds may be represented differently on the page.
For example, the word “eight” rhymes with “wait”.
Weird, isn’t it?
It might seem illogical to you and you might find yourself scratching your head when writing words and sentences in English.
But this blog post will help you make more sense of English spelling.
You’ll learn why English spelling is irregular, English spelling rules and exceptions, and differences in spelling between American and British English.
This is a complete English spelling guide that you can keep coming back to at any time.
So, are you ready? Let’s go!
Why English Spelling Is Irregular
You might see English spelling as an enemy that wants to confuse you and slow you down every time you write.
But if you understand why English spelling is the way it is, you’ll start getting along with it more and, hopefully, find it less complicated.
And to understand the nature of English spelling, we need to know its story.
What’s the story of English spelling rules?
Here’s a little bit of history of English for you that can help you turn English spelling into a friend.
In the past, Britain was invaded several times by different populations.
First the Romans came. Then Germanic peoples, then the Vikings, the Normans, the French, and the Dutch.
This was not just an invasion of people.
It was a language invasion too!
Each of these populations brought their own language with them, so English was influenced by many languages throughout its history.
The Romans brought Latin. That’s why many English words – like “alien” – come from Latin. The Vikings brought Norse words – like “cake” and “ugly”.
Other words such as “romance” and “castles” come from French, the language spoken by invaders from Normandy.
And guess what? Each of these languages has its own unique spelling patterns and rules.
Some of these rules have merged together to create the complex and sometimes contradictory spelling system that you see today.
Has this short history lesson made you more tolerant of English spelling rules? I hope so.
Let’s now have a look at some of the most common English spelling rules and exceptions.
English Spelling Rules And Exceptions
Here’s an English spelling guide that includes:
- Capital letters
- Adjective and adverbs ending in -ly
- -ise or -ize?
- Words ending in -e
- Y and I
- Doubling final consonants
- Tricky sound-spelling relationships
- Silent letters
- American vs British spelling
- A famous spelling rule
- Add -s to the end of the noun: This is the most common way of forming plurals, and applies to most nouns.
For example: dog – dogs, book – books, table – tables.
- Add -es to the end of the noun in words that end in -ch, -sh, -x, -s, or -z. For example: box – boxes, church – churches, bus – buses.
- Change -y to -ies in words that end in a consonant plus -y. The -y changes to -ies. For example: baby – babies, party – parties, fly – flies.
- Add -ves to the end of the nouns that end in -f or -fe. The -f or -fe changes to -ves. For example: knife – knives, leaf – leaves, wolfe – wolves
- cliff – cliffs
- chief – chiefs
- roof – roofs
- If a word ends in -o add -s to the end of the word. For example: taco – tacos, photo – photos, piano – pianos.
But add -es to the end of the word if the “o” is preceded by a vowel (a, e, i, o, u). For example: radio – radios, portfolio – portfolios, potato – potatoes.
- Some words have irregular plurals that don't follow any of the above rules. For example: child – children, mouse – mice, tooth – teeth.
2. Capital Letters
Capital letters are used for:
- the names of days, months, and public holidays (e.g. Monday, April, Easter, Boxing Day).
- the names of people, institutions, places, stars, and planets (e.g. Mary, the United States, Mars, Jupiter, the Pole Star, Cambridge University)
- People’s titles (e.g. Mr Sloan, Professor Ferris, Dr Jones, Queen Elizabeth)
- Nouns and adjectives for nationalities (e.g. He’s Italian, Japanese trains, the French).
- Titles of books and films (e.g. The Godfather, Pride and Prejudice).
3. Adjectives And Adverbs Ending In -ly
- Normally, an adjective becomes an adverb by adding -ly. For example,
- late – lately
- real – really
- beautiful – beautifully
- usual – usually
There are some exceptions:
- true – truly
- whole – wholly
- due – duly
- full – fully
What if the adjective ends in -y? Easy! You change -y to -i.
- happy – happily
- easy – easily
- funny – funnily
- When an adjective ends in -ic, you form the adverb by adding -ically.
- tragic – tragically
- comic – comically
- logic – logically
Exception: public – publicly
4. -Ise Or -Ize?
Is the verb “realise” spelled “realise” or “realized”? Which one is correct?
The “-ise” form is normally used in British English while the “-ize” form is often used in American English.
- categorise / categorize
- organise / organize
- baptise / baptize
So, can you write “surprize” too? No, that’s wrong.
Most words made up of two syllables are spelled with “-ise” in both American and British English. Here are some examples:
5. Words Ending In -E
- If you need to add -ing, the -e disappears.
- hope – hoping
- make – making
- take – taking
Some exceptions to this rule:
- If the word ends in double –e (-ee), you keep them both.
- agree – agreeing
- see – seeing
- If a verb ends in -e, add -d to make the past simple form (for regular verbs only – check out my irregular verbs in English to learn how they are formed).
- hope – hoped
- decide – decided
- smile – smiled
- dance – danced
- confuse – confusing
Adjectives And Adverbs
- If an adjective ends in -e, add -r and -st to make the comparative and superlative forms.
- wide – wider – widest
- late – later – latest
- large – larger – largest
- If an adjective ends in -e, keep e before -ly when forming the adverb:
- polite – politely
- extreme – extremely
- absolute – absolutely
- If an adjective ends in -le, the adverb ending is -ply, -bly.
- simple – simply
- terrible – terribly
- possible – possibly
6. Y And I
- Some words in English end in a consonant letter + y (-by / -ry / – sy / -vy etc.).
In this case:
- y changes to ie before the ending -s
- baby – babies
- story – stories
- country – countries
- try – tries
- -y changes to i before the ending -ed
- hurry – hurried
- study – studied
- try – tried
- apply – applied
- -y changes to i before the ending -er and -est.
- easy – easier – easiest
- heavy – heavier – heaviest
- lucky – luckier – luckiest
- If the letter before -y is a vowel, you don’t change -y to -i.
- play – plays – played
- buy – buys
- enjoy – enjoys – enjoyed
- donkey – donkeys
- say – said
- pay – paid
- lay – laid
- day – daily
- You don’t change -y to -i if you add -ing
- try – trying
- study – studying
- apply – applying
- You change -ie to -y before -ing.
- die – dying
- lie – lying
- tie – tying
7. Doubling Final Consonants
In English you can double the following final letters:
- b: rub – rubbing
- n: win winnable
- d: sad – sadder
- p: stop – stopped
- g: big – bigger
- r: prefer – preferred
- I: travel – travelling
- t: sit – sitting
- m: slim – slimming
When a word ends in a consonant followed by a vowel, and the stress is on the final syllable, we double the consonant before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel.
Here are some examples:
- run + ing = running
- stop + ed = stopped
- big + est = biggest
- swim + ing = swimming
- hot + er = hotter
- prefer + ed = preferred
- occur + ed = occurred
- refer + al = referral
But this rule works only when the final syllable of the word is stressed. If the final syllable is unstressed, the consonant is not doubled:
- offer + ing = offering
- travel + ed = traveled
- limit + ed = limited
English spelling is irregular, remember?
So there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, words that end in x, w, or y usually do not have the final consonant doubled:
- mix + ing = mixing
- glow + ing = glowing
- pay + ment = payment
In British English, when a verb ends in -l, you always double it.
- travel – travelling – travelled
- cancel – cancelling – cancelled
But in American spelling, this doesn’t happen, so:
- travel – traveling – traveled
- cancel – canceling – canceled
You don’t double the final consonant if the word ends in two consonants (e.g. -rt, -lp, ng, etc.)
- start – starting – started
- help – helping – helped
- long – longer – longest
You don’t double the final consonant if the word ends in two vowels + consonant (e.g. -oil, -eed, etc.)
- boil – boiling – boiled
- need – needing -needed
- explain – explained – explaining
8. Tricky Sound-Spelling Relationship: “Ough”
Did you know that more than 10% of English words are not spelled the way they sound?
Even if you didn't, you might have realised this by now.
One combination of letters that often causes confusion is “ough” as this can be pronounced in several ways.
Let’s have a closer look at this.
Here are some common pronunciations of “ough” and examples of words that use them:
- “Ough” sounds like “aw” as in “thought”:
- “uff” as in “enough”:
- “off” as in “cough”:
- “oh” as in “although”:
- “ow” as in “plough”:
- “ooh” as in “through”
9. Silent Letters
Many English words have silent letters. For example, in the word “listen” the “t” is silent – you don’t pronounce it.
Here are some other English spelling rules and patterns.
- Silent “e”:
When a word ends in a silent “e,” it often changes the pronunciation of the vowel before it.
For example, the “e” in “cute” is silent, but it changes the pronunciation of the “u” from “cut” to “kyoot.”
Some other examples:
- hat – hate
- pet – Pete
- fin – fine
- rob – robe
- cub – cube
- Silent “k”: The letter “k” is often silent before the letter “n”.
- Silent “b”:
- Silent “h”:
- Silent “p”:
- Silent “w”: The letter “w” is often silent at the beginning of certain words.
- Silent “g”: The letter “g” is often silent at the beginning of certain words
- Silent “l”
- Silent “s”
- Silent “t”
Homophones are words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings and spellings.
Here are ten examples of homophones:
- flower (a plant with petals) and flour (a powder made from grains)
- right (correct) and write (to put words on paper)
- sea (like the Mediterranean sea) and see (to observe with eyes)
- hear (to perceive sound) and here (in this place)
- meet (to meet another person) and meat (food)
- their (belonging to them) and there (in that place)
- break (to separate into pieces) and brake (a device for stopping a vehicle)
- peace (the opposite of war) and piece (a portion of something)
- pair (a couple) and pear (a type of fruit)
11. American English vs British English Spelling Rules
Here are some common words that are spelled differently in American and British English.
|American English||British English|
12. A Famous English Spelling Rule
English-speaking children learn a rhyme: ‘i before e, except after c’.
They learn this to remember that the sound /iː/ (as in believe) is often written ie, but not usually ei expect after с.
Here are some examples:
There are, as always, exceptions:
English Spelling Rules Explained!
Now that you’ve seen all these rules and exceptions, you might be wondering: what’s the best way to master English spelling rules?
Dictionaries can really help you check the spelling of words, so it’s a great idea to learn how to use them. Check out this list of apps to learn English to discover my favourite dictionary app.
But another way is to get exposed to English spelling as much as you can.
One way to do this is to read – a lot!
The more you read books in English, the more words you see. This can help you improve your knowledge of English spelling rules. And if you pay close attention to how words are spelled, you’ll improve it even more.
Check out the StoryLearning method. You’ll see thousands of words in the context of engaging short stories in English, so you can learn English spelling almost unconsciously while having fun
I hope this guide was useful!