Words in English are not always spelled as they are pronounced. Spelling in English follows some basic rules and the majority of English words (around 75%) follow these rules. You can learn the rules but there are always exceptions to the rules that need to be learned too.
The main basic spelling rules of English relate to: prefixes and suffixes; spelling and plurals; doubling letters; dropping and adding letters; verb forms. This section focuses on British English but also covers some basic differences in spelling between British and American English.
When there is a prefix, we do not normally add or take away more letters:
dis + obey→ disobey
mis + spell→ misspell
dis + satisfied→ dissatisfied
over + hear→ overhear
in + humane→ inhumane
super + human→ superhuman
in + sane→ insane
un + natural→ unnatural
inter + national→ international
un + sure→ unsure
mis + rule→ misrule
under + pass→ underpass
Prefixes il-, im-, ir-
We commonly change the prefix in- to il-, im- or ir- when the first letter of a word is l, m, p, or r.
in becomes il- before l
in becomes im- before m or p
in becomes ir- before r
Spelling and plurals
There are rules for the plurals of regular nouns and the -s forms of regular verbs.
We often double the final consonant of a word (b, d, g, l, m, n, p, r, t) when a suffix beginning with a vowel is added (-ed, -er, -est, -ing):
hop + -ed → hopped
slim + -ing → slimming
red + -ish → reddish
thin + -er → thinner
rub + -ed → rubbed
travel+ -er → traveller
sit + -ing → sitting
wet + -er →wetter
When we add a suffix to a word with more than one syllable, we double the consonant only when the word ends in a stressed syllable (the stressed syllable of the base form is in bold):
admit+ -ing → admitting
prefer+ -ed → preferred
forget+ -ing → forgetting
transmit+ -ed → transmitted
occur+ -ence → occurrence
upset+ -ing → upsetting
Compare, however, visit or enter where the spoken stress is on the first syllable:
visit → visiting
enter → entered
Note too that in each case the vowel before the last consonant is a short vowel.
We don’t double the final consonant before a suffix:
– if the word ends in two written consonants, e.g. export= exported, find =finding, insist =insisted, lift= lifted, persist= persistence
– if there are two written vowels together in the word, e.g. meeting, rained, weaken, trainer, repeated.
Irregular forms and exceptions
Some monosyllabic words ending in -s are irregular. We normally do not double the -s, although some doubled forms will be seen. For example: busses and buses; gasses and gases. (Busses and gasses are not common.)
Some words, several of them ending in l, with more than two syllables, have a double consonant even though the last syllable is not stressed; for example, labelling, traveller, equalled, handicapped, programmed.
In American English the single consonant spelling is usually more common: labeling, traveler.
Spelling: dropping and adding letters
The final -e
We often drop the final -e when a suffix beginning with a vowel is added to a word:
approve + -al → approval
hope + -ing → hoping
fame + -ous → famous
invite + -ation → invitation
hate + -ed → hated
note + -able → notable
We keep the -e in dyeing (from dye) and singeing (from singe) to differentiate them from similar words e.g. dying (from die) and singing (from sing).
When a suffix begins with a consonant (e.g. -less, -ful, -ly, -ment) we do not normally drop the -e:
Sometimes we do drop the -e:
Some words have alternative forms with or without an -e: for example, acknowledgement or acknowledgment, and judgement or judgment.
The suffix -ally
The suffix -ally is added to adjectives ending in -ic to form adverbs:
basic → basically
realistic → realistically
tragic → tragically
Changing -y to -i
When we add a suffix to a word ending in a consonant + -y, we normally change -y to i:
amplify + -er → amplifier
happy + -ly → happily
busy + -ness → business
hurry + -s → hurries
day + -ly → daily
purify + -cation → purification
easy + -ly → easily
reply + -ed → replied
fury + -ous → furious
spy + -s → spies
Some words with one syllable keep the -y before a suffix: dryness, shyness, slyness.
We keep -y before -ing: studying, worrying.
We keep -y before ’s: the fly’s wings, Andy’s house.
We usually keep the -y in most words that end in a vowel + -y:
buy → buyer
destroy → destroys
BUT: day → daily
Spelling: ie or ei?
If in doubt about ie or ei, when the sound of the vowel is as in brief/i:/, we spell it ie; but after the letter c, we spell it ei:
Words in which -y has changed to i end in -ies even after a c:
emergency → emergencies
bureaucracy → bureaucracies
In most words that do not have the pronunciation /i:/ as in brief, the usual order is e before i, e.g. neighbour, leisure, height; friend, ancient, science are common exceptions.
Spelling and verb forms
Past and -ed forms
The past and -ed forms are the same in regular verbs. The following are the spelling rules for regular verbs.