English Usage Topics > Spelling
Short vowel or long vowel
If a one-syllable word has a short vowel, it usually does not have 'e' at the end. The most common exceptions to this rule are the words have and give. If it has a long vowel represented by a single letter, the word usually does have an 'e' at the end. For example:
- /fæt/ is spelled fat and /feɪt/ is spelled fate.
- /bɪt/ is spelled bit and /baɪt/ is spelled bite.
- /rɒd/ is spelled rod and /rəʊd/ is spelled rode.
Doubling final consonants
If a one-syllable word ends in a single vowel and consonant, you double the final consonant before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel.
- run -- runner
- set -- setting
- stop -- stopped
- wet -- wettest
If the word has more than one syllable, you usually only double the final consonant if the final syllable is stressed.
- admit -- admitted
- begin -- beginner
- refer -- referring
- motor -- motoring
- open -- opener
- suffer -- suffered
However, in British English, you double the final 'l' of verbs like travel and quarrel, even though the last syllable is not stressed.
- travel -- travelling
- quarrel -- quarrelled
In British English, and sometimes in American English, the final consonant of the following verbs is doubled, even though the last syllable is not stressed.
The final 'p' of handicap is also doubled.
Omitting final 'e'
If a final 'e' is silent, you omit it before adding a suffix beginning with a vowel.
- bake -- baked
- blame -- blaming
- fame -- famous
- late -- later
- nice -- nicest
- secure -- security
Don't omit the final 'e' of words like courage or notice when forming words like courageous /kə'reɪdʒəs/ and noticeable /'nəʊtɪsəbl/, because the 'e' shows that the preceding 'g' is pronounced /dʒ/ and the preceding 'c' is pronounced /s/. Compare analogous /ən'æləgəs/ and practicable /'præktɪkəbl/. You sometimes omit the silent final 'e' in front of suffixes that begin with a consonant. For example awful is formed from awe, and truly is formed from true. However, you don't always omit the 'e': useful is formed from use, and surely is formed from sure.
Changing final 'y' to 'i'
If a word ends in a consonant and 'y', you usually change 'y' to 'i' before adding a suffix.
- carry -- carries
- early -- earlier
- lovely -- loveliest
- try -- tried
However, don't change 'y' to 'i' when adding ing.
- carry -- carrying
- try -- trying
You don't usually change the final 'y' of one-syllable adjectives like dry and shy.
- dry -- dryness
- shy -- shyly
'ie' or 'ei'
When the sound is /iː/, the spelling is often 'ie'. Here is a list of the commonest words in which /iː/ is spelled 'ie':
In mischief and sieve the 'ie' is pronounced /!i/.
After 'c', when the sound is /s/, the spelling is usually 'ei'.
In some words, 'c' is followed by 'ie', but the sound of 'ie' is not /iː/: for example, efficient /ɪ'fɪʃnt/, science /'saɪəns/, and financier /fɪ'nænsiə/.
In the following words 'ei' is pronounced /eɪ/:
The 'ei' in either and neither can be pronounced /aɪ/ or /iː/. Note also the pronunciation of 'ei' in height /haɪt/, foreign /'fɒrɪn/, and sovereign /'sɒvrɪn/.
With adjectives ending in 'ic', you add 'ally' to form adverbs, for example, artistically, automatically, democratically, specifically, and sympathetically. Don't add 'ly', although the 'ally' ending is often pronounced like 'ly'. However, publicly is an exception.
You form some adjectives by adding 'ful' to a noun, for example, careful, harmful, useful, and wonderful. Don't add 'full'.
Many adjectives end in 'ible', but there is a fixed set of them, and new words are not formed by adding 'ible'. Here is a list of the most common adjectives ending in 'ible'.
Negative forms are only included in the above list if the positive form is rarely used. You can add a negative prefix to many of the positive forms in the list, for example, illegible, impossible, invisible, irresponsible, and unintelligible.
Many adjectives end in 'able'. There is no fixed set of them, and new words are often formed by adding 'able' to verbs. Here is a list of the most common adjectives ending in 'able':
You can add a negative prefix to most of the positive forms in the list, for example, incapable and uncomfortable.
'-ent' and '-ant'
You cannot usually tell from the sound of a word whether it ends in 'ent' or 'ant', both pronounced /ənt/. These are the commonest adjectives ending in 'ent':
These are the commonest adjectives ending in 'ant':
These are the commonest nouns ending in 'ent':
Note that nouns referring to actions and processes, such as assessment and improvement, end in 'ment', not 'mant'.
These are the commonest nouns ending in 'ant':
Note that many of these words refer to people.
Adjectives ending in 'ent' have related nouns ending in 'ence' or 'ency'. Here are some other common nouns ending in 'ence' or 'ency':
Adjectives ending in 'ant' have related nouns ending in 'ance' or 'ancy'. Here are some other common nouns ending in 'ance' or 'ancy':
Many people find some words especially hard to spell. Here is a list of some common problem words:
- instalment (AM installment)
- manoeuvre (AM maneuver)
- skilful (AM skillful)
In American English, when you add a suffix to a two-syllable word whose final syllable is not stressed, you don't double the 'l'. For example, American English uses the spellings traveling and marvelous, whereas British English uses the spellings travelling and marvellous.
If the final syllable is stressed, the final consonant is doubled in both British and American English. For example, both use the spellings admitting and admitted.
A few verbs have a single consonant in the base form and -s form in British English, but a double consonant in American English. For example, British English uses the spellings appal and appals, but American English uses appall and appalls. Both British and American English use the spellings appalling and appalled.
Note also the British spellings skilful and wilful, contrasted with the American spellings skillful and willful.
Note that a few words have a double consonant in British English, and a single consonant in American English.
- carburettor -- carburetor
- chilli -- chili
- jeweller -- jeweler
- jewellery -- jewelry
- programme -- program
- tranquillize -- tranquilize
- woollen -- woolen
'-our' and '-or'
Many words, mostly abstract nouns of Latin origin, have their ending spelled 'our' in British English, but 'or' in American English.
- armour -- armor
- behaviour -- behavior
- colour -- color
- demeanour -- demeanor
- favour -- favor
- flavour -- flavor
- honour -- honor
- humour -- humor
- neighbour -- neighbor
- odour -- odor
- tumour -- tumor
- vapour -- vapor
'-oul' and '-ol'
Some words spelled with 'oul' in British English are spelled with 'ol' in American English.
- mould -- mold
- moult -- molt
- smoulder -- smolder
'-re' and '-er'
Many words, mostly of French origin, have their ending spelled 're' in British English and 'er' in American English.
- calibre -- caliber
- centre -- center
- fibre -- fibre
- meagre -- meager
- reconnoitre -- reconnoiter
- sombre -- somber
- spectre -- specter
- theatre -- theater
'ae' or 'oe' and 'e'
Many words, mostly of Greek or Latin origin, are spelled with 'ae' or 'oe' in British English, but 'e' in American English. However, the American spellings are now sometimes used in British English as well.
- aesthetic -- esthetic
- amoeba -- ameba
- diarrhoea -- diarrhea
- gynaecology -- gynecology
- mediaeval -- medieval
Note that manoeuvre is spelled maneuver in American English.
'-ise' and '-ize'
Many verbs can end in either 'ise' or 'ize'. For example, authorise and authorize are alternative spellings of the same verb. The 'ise' ending is more common in British English than American English, but British people are increasingly using the 'ize' ending. In this book, we use the 'ize' ending.
Note that for the following verbs you can only use the 'ise' ending in both American and British English:
Note also the following small groups of words that are spelled differently in British and American English. The British spelling is given first.
- analyse -- analyze
- breathalyse -- breathalyze
- catalyse -- catalyze
- paralyse -- paralyze
- analogue -- analog
- catalogue -- catalog
- dialogue -- dialog
- defence -- defense
- offence -- offense
- pretence -- pretense
Vice is spelled vise in American English when it refers to the tool used to hold a piece of wood or metal firmly.
Some individual words are spelled differently in British English and American English. In the list below, the British spelling is given first.
- axe - ax
- chequer - checker
- dependence - dependance
- distension - distention
- gelatine - gelatin
- glycerine - glycerin
- grey - gray
- nought - naught
- plough - plow
- pyjamas - pajamas
- sceptic - skeptic
- tyre - tire
With the following pairs there is also a slight change of pronunciation:
- aluminium /æluː'mɪniəm/ -- aluminum /ə'luːmɪnəm/
- furore /fjʊ'rɔːri/ -- furor /'fjʊərɔːr/
- speciality /speʃi'ælɪti/ - specialty /'speʃəlti/
Two words or one word
In British English, some items are usually written as two words, but in American English they can be written as one word.
- any more -- anymore
- de luxe -- deluxe
- per cent -- percent
Hyphens: compound nouns
Compound nouns can often be written as two separate words or with a hyphen. There are many differences between British and American practice, and you should check a COBUILD dictionary to be sure. In general, American English has fewer hyphenated compounds than British English. Speakers of American English are more likely to spell a compound as one word, or as two words without a hyphen.
At seven he was woken by the alarm clock.
She's the kind of sleeper that even the alarm-clock doesn't always wake.
You must always use a hyphen in words referring to relatives, for example great-grandmother and mother-in-law. You usually use a hyphen in compound nouns such as T-shirt, U-turn, and X-ray where the first part consists of only one letter. Words used together as compound nouns are often hyphenated when they are used to modify another noun, in order to make the meaning clearer. For example, you would refer to the sixth form in a school, but use a hyphen for a sixth-form class.
The stained glass above the door cast beautiful colours upon the floor.
...a stained-glass window.
I did a lot of drawing in my spare time.
I teach cookery as a spare-time occupation.
Compound adjectives can usually be written with a hyphen or as one word.
...any anti-social behaviour such as continuous lateness.
...the activities of antisocial groups.
Some adjectives are generally written with a hyphen in front of a noun and as two words after be.
He was wearing a brand-new uniform.
His uniform was brand new.
Prefixes that are used in front of a word beginning with a capital letter always have a hyphen after them.
...a wave of anti-British feeling.
...from the steps of the neo-Byzantine cathedral.
When you are describing something that is two colours, you use and between two adjectives, with or without hyphens.
...an ugly black and white swimming suit.
...a black-and-white calf.
If you are talking about a group of things, it is best to use hyphens if each thing is two colours.
...fifteen black-and-white police cars.
If each thing is only one colour, don't use hyphens.
...black and white dots.
Compound verbs are usually written with a hyphen or as one word.
Take the baby along if you can't find anyone to baby-sit.
I can't come to London, because Mum'll need me to babysit that night.
Phrasal verbs are written as two (or three) words, without a hyphen.
She turned off the radio.
They broke out of prison on Thursday night.
However, nouns and adjectives that are related to phrasal verbs are written with a hyphen, if the first part ends in -ing, -er, -ed, or -en.
Finally, he monitors the working-out of the plan.
One of the boys had stopped a passer-by and asked him to phone an ambulance.
Gold was occasionally found in the dried-up banks and beds of the rivers.
He fixed broken-down second-hand cars.
Other nouns and adjectives related to phrasal verbs are written with a hyphen or as one word, or can be written in either way. For example, break-in is always written with a hyphen, breakthrough is always written as one word, and takeover can also be written as take-over.
In American English, the solid form without a hyphen is more common than in British English.
Abbey National had fought off a take-over bid from Lloyds TSB.
They failed to reach a takeover deal.
Numbers between twenty and a hundred are usually written with a hyphen, as in twenty-four and eighty-seven. Fractions are also often written with a hyphen, as in one-third and two-fifths. However, when you use a instead of 'one' don't use a hyphen: a third.
Some headaches can last twenty-four hours or more.
Two-fifths of the world economy is now in recession.
A third of the cost went into technology and services.
In British English, if a word has two clear parts and the first letter of the second part is the same as the last letter of the first part, people usually use a hyphen, especially if the letter is a vowel. For example, they write pre-eminent and co-operate. In American English, the hyphen is now usually omitted, for example in preeminent and cooperate.
He agreed to co-operate with the police investigation.
Both companies said they would cooperate with the government.
When people are using a pair of hyphenated words that have the same second part, they sometimes just write the first part of the first word. However, it is clearer to write each word in full.
Their careers bridged the pre- and post-war eras.
...long- and short-term economic planning.
Compound words that are formed with the prefixes anti-, non-, and semi- are usually spelled with a hyphen in British English, but without it in American English. Adjectives formed by adding -like to a word are spelled without a hyphen in American English, unless the first part of the word is a proper noun or is rather long.
- anti-nuclear -- antinuclear
- non-aggression -- nonaggression
- semi-literate -- semiliterate
- cloud-like -- cloudlike
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