Because modern English has been formed from and influenced by a variety of different languages—Latin, Greek, French, German, etc.—in addition to its evolution from Old and Middle English, the ways in which words are spelled and created can often seem inconsistent, illogical, and even contradictory.
Adding to the problem is that there is no single unified consensus governing English (unlike, for example, the Académie française, a council that acts as the official authority on the French language), so there are many discrepancies and differences in how words are spelled, pronounced, and even used grammatically in different parts of the world.
While there may be no single set of “rules” for English spelling, there are many different conventions and patterns we can use to help to make it easier to grasp. We’ll briefly review these conventions below, but you can continue on to each individual section to learn more.
An affix is an element that is added to a base word or root to create a new or inflected form. The most common affixes in English are prefixes, which attach to the beginning of a base or root word, and suffixes, which attach to the end. (There are a few other types of affixes that occur in English, but these are much less common; to learn more, go to the full section on Affixes.)
A prefix is a letter or group of letters that is added to the beginning of a root or base word to create a new word with a unique meaning. Let’s briefly look at some common examples; continue on to the Prefixes section to learn more.
- atypical (not typical)
- bidirectional (having two directions)
- cooperate (operate together)
- defuse (to remove a fuse)
- ex-boyfriend (former boyfriend)
- forearm (front part of the arm)
- hyperactive (overly active)
- immature (not mature)
- maladjusted (wrongly adjusted)
- nonfunctional (not functional)
- outnumber (to be greater in number)
- postproduction (later in production)
- restart (start again)
- semiserious (half serious)
- transgenerational (cross generational)
- ultraviolet (beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum)
A suffix is a letter or group of letters added onto the end of a root or base word to change its meaning. There is a huge range of suffixes in English, which can be broadly categorized as either inflectional or derivational.
Inflectional suffixes are used to modify the grammatical meaning of a word; they do not change a word from one part of speech to another, nor do they alter the fundamental meaning of the word.
Suffixes with Nouns
Suffixes with Verbs
(form participles or third-person singular)
Suffixes with Adjectives or Adverbs
(form comparatives or superlatives)
Unlike inflectional suffixes, derivational suffixes create a new word based on the meaning of the word to which they attach. In many cases, the new word will belong to a completely different part of speech (or word class). These are sometimes referred to as class-changing suffixes.
While there are too many derivational suffixes to list here, let’s go over some of the most common ones in day-to-day writing and speech. To learn more about the meanings they create, continue on to the section covering Suffixes.
Suffixes that form nouns
Suffixes that form verbs
Suffixes that form adjectives
Suffixes that form adverbs
You may have noticed that some of the suffixes we looked at above have very similar appearances and uses—for example, -able vs. -ible, -ic vs. -ical, and -tion vs. -sion. This can cause some confusion for writers as to which suffix is appropriate for certain words. Continue on to the section Commonly Confused Suffixes to learn more about the subtle differences between these suffixes and when to use them.
Additionally, there are many instances in which adding a suffix to a word results in a change to the original word’s spelling, which can prove difficult for writers to remember. For example, nouns that end in “-y” will end in “-ies” when becoming plural (as in candy→candies); the Silent E at the end of a word will usually be dropped when adding a suffix (as in bake→baking); and a single consonant at the end of a word will often be doubled when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel (as in drag→dragged). To learn more about the different instances in which suffixes change the spelling of base words, go to the section Spelling Conventions with Suffixes.
Conjugation specifically refers to the inflection of verbs. In terms of spelling changes, it refers to changing a verb’s structure to reflect past tense (as in walk→walked), continuous tense (as in walk→walking), or the third person singular (as in walk→walks).
Declension, on the other hand, is the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. We’ll briefly cover how each part of speech is inflected here, but you can continue on to the full section on Inflection in Spelling to learn more.
Declension of nouns
The declension of nouns most often entails forming plurals by adding “-s” or “-es” (as in cake→cakes or beach→beaches). We go into greater detail about this in the section on Forming Plurals. A few nouns can also be declined to reflect gender (as in actor→actress or bachelor→bachelorette), but this is not very common.
Declension of pronouns
The declension of pronouns involves changes in how personal pronouns are spelled depending on their grammatical person (first person, second person, or third person), number (singular or plural), gender (masculine or feminine), and case (objective, subjective, or possessive). There are also specific forms for reflexive pronouns (those that are the object of their own action). For example, consider these variations of the first-person pronouns (which are all gender neutral):
- I (singular, subjective case)
- me (singular, objective case)
- mine (singular, possessive case)
- myself (singular, reflexive)
- we (plural, subjective case)
- us (plural, objective case)
- ours (plural, possessive case)
- ourselves (plural, reflexive)
Declension of adjectives and adverbs
The first is known as the comparative degree, which, for adjectives, expresses a higher or lower degree of an attribute, or, for adverbs, indicates how an action is performed. In both cases, we form the comparative degree by attaching the suffix “-er” to the end of the word or by using the words more or less before it. (Note that adverbs that can take the “-er” suffix can also be used as adjectives.) For example:
formed with “-er”
(one-syllable adverbs, one-syllable adjectives, and two-syllable adjectives ending in “-y”)
formed with “more/less”
(adverbs ending in “-ly”; adjectives with three or more syllables, or adjectives with two syllables not ending in “-y”)
The second degree of comparison is known as the superlative degree, which is used to describe characteristics that are the highest or lowest compared to someone or something else. We form the superlative degree in the same way as the comparative, but, instead of “-er,” we use “-est,” and, instead of more/less, we use most/least. For example:
formed with “-est”
(one-syllable adverbs, one-syllable adjectives, and two-syllable adjectives ending in “-y”)
formed with “most/least”
(adverbs ending in “-ly”; adjectives with three or more syllable, or adjectives with two syllables not ending in “-y”)
Another way that we alter the spelling of a word is when we create contractions. These are formed when words are shortened by omitting one or more letters, which are most often replaced with an apostrophe.
The most common type of contraction is when two words are joined together and one of them (usually the second) is shortened. It’s important to remember that the apostrophe marks the letters that are left out of the contracted word; it does not mark the space that was between the words. For example:
- “This plan does’nt make any sense.” (incorrect)
- “This plan does’n’t make any sense.” (incorrect)
- “This plan doesn’t make any sense.” (correct)
We’ll go over some of the most common contractions here, but you can continue on to the full section on Forming Contractions to learn more.
Contracting is, am, and are
The most common type of two-word contraction occurs when the present simple tense forms of the verb be (is, am, are) are combined with the subject of a clause—usually a proper noun, personal pronoun, or question word (who, what, where, when, why, and how). For example:
Contracting other auxiliary verbs
In addition to the three forms of be, there are four other auxiliary verbs that can also be contracted as enclitics: have (and its conjugations has and had), did, will, and would. For example:
Another difference from the words we’ve looked at so far is that when we contract not, we don’t omit all of the letters leading up to the final consonant; instead, we only omit -o- and replace it with an apostrophe. What’s especially unusual about contractions of not is that sometimes the first word is altered as well. There’s no specific pattern to help us gauge when (or how) these extra alterations will occur, so we have to memorize them:
- is + not = isn’t
- are + not = aren’t
- was + not = wasn’t
- were + not = weren’t
- have + not = haven’t
- has + not = hasn’t
- had + not = hadn’t
- do + not = don’t
- does + not = doesn’t
- did + not = didn’t
- can + not = cannot = can’t
- could + not = couldn’t
- will + not = won’t
- would + not = wouldn’t
- shall + not = shan’t
- should + not = shouldn’t
- might + not = mightn’t
- must + not = mustn’t
Remember that this is just a cursory summary of contractions; there are many other informal contractions we can form, as well as several one-word and even three-word contractions. For more information on all of these, go to the section on Forming Contractions.
Inconsistent Spelling Rules
Because English spelling is often so haphazard, there are a few different sets of rules that have been popularized in an attempt to help standardize the way words are spelled. The problem is that there are many exceptions to each of them, which means that they are not the most reliable methods for determining a word’s spelling. However, they are still useful to know, so we will briefly touch on them here; continue on to their full sections to learn more about each.
Perhaps the best known spelling convention in English is “I Before E, Except after C,” meaning that I comes before E in most words, except when both letters immediately follow C. Due to the simplicity of the rule and its easily remembered rhyming mnemonic, it is often one of the first rules taught to those learning English spelling. The full rhyme typically goes like this:
- “I before E,
- Except after C,
- Or when sounding like A
- As in neighbor or weigh.”
In addition to the “A” sound (/eɪ/) described in the rhyme, there are many exceptions and special cases that we have to consider when deciding whether I should come before E.
When the letters sound like E (/i/)
The “I before E” rule is most useful if we focus on instances when E and I are put together as vowel digraphs—that is, two vowels working together to form a single speech sound.
With this in mind, the basic rule “I before E, except after C” is fairly reliable when IE or EI function as digraphs that produce the sound /i/ (the way the letter E is said aloud as a word). For example:
I before E
Except after C
E before I when sounding like A (/eɪ/)
The second half of the rhyme—“when sounding like A”—alludes to the fact that E often comes before I without C when EI is pronounced /eɪ/ (the way the letter A is said aloud as a word).
This is especially common when EI is followed by a silent GH, as in:
- freight (/freɪt/)
- eight (/eɪt/)
- inveigh (/ɪnˈveɪ/)
- neighbor (/ˈneɪbər/)
- sleigh (/sleɪ/)
- weight (/weɪt/)
(Remember this when using these roots in other words, as in eighteen or weightless.)
And sometimes when sounding like I (/aɪ/)
Less commonly, the digraph EI produces the sound /aɪ/ (the way the letter I is said aloud as a word).
There are only a few common root words in which this is the case:
- feisty (/ˈfaɪsti/)
- height (/haɪt/)
- heist (/haɪst/)
- sleight (/slaɪt/)
Just be sure not to confuse the spelling for slight (an adjective meaning “small in size, degree, or amount”) with sleight (a noun meaning “skill or dexterity” or “a clever trick or deception”)—they both sound the same, but have slightly different spellings.
Exceptions and other helpful tips
The main problem with the “I Before E” rule is that there are many different exceptions, as well as other special cases that dictate which letter will come first in a given word. There are too many to quickly summarize here, so continue on to the full section on I Before E, Except After C to learn more.
A less popularly taught spelling rule is known as “The Three-Letter Rule,” which states that “content words” (words that communicate meaningful information, such as nouns, (most) verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) will almost always be spelled with at least three letters. Words that are spelled with only one or two letters, on the other hand, will almost always be “function words”—words that perform grammatical functions to help construct a sentence, such as pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, or particles.
Determining spelling using the three-letter rule
The three-letter rule is a useful convention to follow when we’re trying to determine the spelling of short, single-syllable words. Many one- and two-letter function words are homophones of short content words: they have different spellings, but their pronunciations are the same.
Even where a short content word does not have a homophonic function word from which it needs to be distinguished, we still commonly find silent, seemingly extraneous letters in three-letter words that would have the same pronunciation with only two letters. For example:
As with the “I Before E” rule, there are many exceptions to this convention. Go to the full section on The Three-Letter Rule to learn more.
Capitalization refers to certain letters being in the upper case. While there are some words that are always capitalized no matter where they appear in a sentence, most words are only capitalized if they appear at the beginning of a sentence.
There are also various conventions regarding the capitalization of words in the titles of creative or published works, but these can be difficult to learn because there is no single, generally accepted rule to follow.
Letters can also be capitalized in other specific circumstances, too. Let’s briefly look at some of the capitalization conventions here; to learn more, go to the Rules for Capitalization.
Capitalizing the first word of a sentence
The first word of a sentence is always capitalized.
We also capitalize the first letter of a full sentence that is directly quoted within another sentence, as in:
- John said, “You’ll never work in this city again!”
- The other day, my daughter asked, “Why do I have to go to school, but you don’t?”
Note that we do not capitalize the first word in the quotation if it is a word, phrase, or sentence fragment incorporated into the natural flow of the overall sentence; we also do not set it apart with commas. For example:
- My brother said he feels “really bad” about what happened.
- But I don’t want to just “see how things go”!
Proper nouns are used to identify a unique person, place, or thing (as opposed to common nouns, which identify generic or nonspecific people or things).
The most common proper nouns are names of people, places, or events:
- “Go find Jeff and tell him that dinner is ready.”
- “I lived in Cincinnati before I moved to New York.”
- “My parents still talk about how great Woodstock was in 1969.”
The names of organizations, companies, agencies, etc., are all proper nouns as well, so the words that make up the name are all capitalized. However, unlike the names of people or places, these often contain function words, which are not capitalized. For example:
- “You’ll have to raise your query with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”
- “I’ve been offered a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania.”
Acronyms and Initialisms
Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations of multiple words using just their initial letters (or fragments of each word); like the initials of a person’s name, these letters are usually capitalized. Acronyms are distinguished by the fact that they are read aloud as a single word, while initialisms are spoken aloud as individual letters, rather than a single word. (Because the two are so similar in appearance and function, though, it is very common to simply refer to both as acronyms.)
(acronym of “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”)
(acronym of “Absent Without Leave”)
(acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”)
(initialism of “United States of America”)
(initialism of “Automated Teller Machine”)
(initialism of “Unidentified Flying Object”)
However, there are some acronyms that have become so common in modern English that they are not capitalized at all. For example, the word scuba is actually an acronym of “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus,” but it is now only written as a regular word. Similarly, ASAP (which stands for “as soon as possible” and can be pronounced as an acronym or an initialism) is commonly spelled with lowercase letters as asap due to how frequently it is used in everyday speech and writing.
There are also two initialisms that are always in lowercase: i.e. (short for the Latin id est, meaning “that is”) and e.g. (short for the Latin exempli gratia, meaning “for example”).
Capitalizing titles and headlines
While proper nouns, acronyms, and initialisms all have fairly standard conventions for capitalization, an area that gives writers difficulty is capitalizing headlines or the titles of written works. Different style guides prescribe different rules and recommendations, so there is little consensus on which words need to be capitalized in a title.
That said, it is generally agreed that you should capitalize the first and last word of the title, along with any content words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs). “Function words” (prepositions, articles, and conjunctions) are generally left in lowercase. This convention is sometimes known as title case, and some style guides recommend following it without exception, even for longer function words like between or upon.
- “New Regulations for Schools Scoring below National Averages”
- “An Analysis of the Differences between Formatting Styles”
- “President to Consider Options after Results of FBI Investigation”
- “Outrage over Prime Minister’s Response to Corruption Charges”
Many styles guides consider longer function words (such as the conjunction because or the prepositions between or above) to add more meaning than short ones like or or and. Because of this, it is a common convention is to capitalize function words that have more than three letters in addition to “major” words like nouns and verbs. Here’s how titles following this convention look:
- “New Regulations for Schools Scoring Below National Averages”
- “An Analysis of the Differences Between Formatting Styles”
- “President to Consider Options After Results of FBI Investigation”
- “Outrage Over Prime Minister’s Response to Corruption Charges”
However, there are a lot of other variations that different writers and styles guides choose to implement. Continue on to the full section on Rules for Capitalization to learn more.
Other Aspects of Spelling
In addition to the conventions we’ve looked at so far, there are other elements informing how words are spelled and used in English. One important aspect is how many words and phrases enter English from different languages around the world. These are broadly known as borrowings, and they are subdivided into two categories: loanwords and loan translations.
Another aspect that causes writers confusion is the discrepancy between the American style of English compared to the British style. We’ll briefly look at both of these aspects here, but you can continue on to their full sections for more information about each.
A loanword is a term taken from another language and used without translation; it has a specific meaning that (typically) does not otherwise exist in a single English word. Sometimes the word’s spelling or pronunciation (or both) is slightly altered to accommodate English orthography, but, in most cases, it is preserved in its original language.
A loan translation (also known as a calque), on the other hand, is a word or phrase taken from another language but translated (either in part or in whole) to corresponding English words while still retaining the original meaning.
We’ll look at some examples of both here, but you can continue on to the full section on Foreign Loanwords and Loan Translations to learn more.
Language of origin
Notes on spelling, pronunciation, and meaning
Literally “fond of,” in English it refers to an ardent fan, supporter, or devotee of some subject or activity.
In English, café (also spelled cafe, without the accent mark) only refers to a small restaurant in which one can buy food and drinks, usually coffee.
In French, café (itself a loanword from Italian caffé) primarily refers to coffee itself, rather than an establishment that serves it.
Adapted from Chinese ch’ao mein, meaning “fried noodles.” In English, it typically refers to a dish consisting of chopped vegetables and meat that is served with these noodles.
Literally meaning “and (et) the rest (cetera),” it is used more figuratively in English to mean “and other unspecified things of the same type of class” or “and so forth.”
Literally “false step,” used in English to mean “a breach in decorum, etiquette, or good manners.”
A type of poem that traditionally juxtaposes two disparate ideas or images in 17 on (Japanese sound units), separated in three phases of 5, 7, and 5. In English, on was translated to syllables, so haikus in English are typically written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively.
Literally “child garden,” referring in both languages to a program or class for young children serving as an introduction to elementary school.
Literally meaning “man of the woods,” in English it refers to arboreal apes with shaggy, reddish-brown hair.
Literally meaning “first lady,” referring to the leading female singer in an opera company. It is more commonly used in English to refer to a self-centered, temperamental, petulant person.
Adapted from the Swedish term smörgåsbord, meaning “open-faced sandwich table.” It refers specifically to a buffet-style meal consisting of a variety of different dishes. By extension in English, it is used figuratively to describe a wide variety of different options or elements, as in, “The festival features a smorgasbord of musical talents.”
Literally meaning “watchman,” it is used in English to refer to a person who pursues and punishes suspected criminals outside of the law.
Loan Translations (Calques)
While loanwords feature little or no change to the spelling (or phonetic spelling) of the original word, loan translations—typically idiomatic words or phrases—are translated literally into English (but retain the original meaning or one very similar). For example:
Language of origin
Notes on meaning
Very thin, long pasta. In English, it is more commonly written as angel hair pasta.
“Calculated, forcible indoctrination meant to replace a person’s existing beliefs, convictions, or attitudes.”
This term originated in the Roman Catholic Church, referring to an official whose role was to deliberately argue against the canonization of potential saint, in order to expose any possible character flaws of the candidate or weaknesses of evidence in favor of canonization. In modern English, the term refers to anyone who argues against something either for the sake of argument alone, or to help clarify or determine the validity of the opposing cause (rather than due to personal opinions or convictions).
(marché aux puces)
A type of informal bazaar consisting of vendors who rent space to sell or barter various goods or merchandise. The term is popularly thought to refer to a particular market in Paris known as the marché aux puces, so-called because most of the items being sold were of such age that they were likely to have gathered fleas over time.
The phrase means “humiliation” in Chinese, but in English it means “to do something resulting in the loss of status, reputation, or respect from others.” The related term save face comes from this meaning in English, rather than as a loan translation from Chinese.
Originally meaning “the work for which an artist or craftsman is granted the rank of master in a guild or academy,” it is used in modern English to refer to any creation that is considered a person’s greatest work or is of outstanding quality.
rest in peace
(requiescat in pace)
Said of someone who has passed away, and commonly written on tombstones.
An overall conception of life, the world, and humanity’s place therein.
While English is fairly uniform in terms of structure and spelling across the various regions in which it is the native language, there are a few prominent differences that have arisen over the years. These differences are most notably codified between two major English-speaking regions, resulting in American English (AmE) and British English (BrE).
Most of these differences have to do with the endings of certain types of words, as in “-er” vs. “-re,” “-or” vs. “-our,” and “-ize” vs. “-ise.” There are also differences involving whether a final consonant will remain single (AmE) or be doubled (BrE) after a vowel suffix, as well as whether words once featuring Latin ligatures will be spelled with a single vowel (AmE) or a vowel digraph (BrE). We’ll briefly look at examples of each of these here, but for more in-depth information and exceptions, you can continue on to the full section on American English vs. British English Spelling.
“-er” vs. “-re”
Many words in British English are spelled with “-re” when that ending follows a consonant. This spelling is a reflection of the French spellings of the words from which they were derived. In American English, we usually find “-er” after a consonant at the end of a word, a practice started in the 19th century to more naturally reflect the word’s pronunciation.
“-ize” vs. “-ise”
In American English, the suffix “-ize” is used to form verbs, and it is ultimately derived from the Greek “-izein.” This Greek suffix became “-iser” in Old French, and it is this form from which the British English “-ise” is derived.
This is a very standard convention, and almost all of the hundreds of words ending in “-ize” in American English will be spelled “-ise” in British English; here are just a few examples:
There are, however, verbs that only end in “-ise” regardless of region (such as advertise, compromise, or televise) as well a few that only end in “-ize” (such as capsize, prize, and seize).
Doubling L before vowel suffixes
In American English, we follow the rule that if the word has an emphasis on the final syllable before the vowel suffix, then the L is doubled. However, most words ending in a single L are stressed on the first syllable, so L remains singular. In British English, a final L that follows a vowel is almost always doubled before “-ed,” “-er,” and “-ing” regardless of where the stress occurs in the word.
“e” vs. “ae” and “oe”
In American English, however, most of the words featuring these divided ligatures dropped the A and O, respectively, leaving just the E behind.
There are also a variety of other less common spelling differences that only arise in a handful of words, as well as some specific word pairs that have slightly different spelling between American and British English. To learn more about all of these, go to the full section on American English vs. British English Spelling.
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