{October 6, 2008}   English Spelling Rules

I promise I’ll update this in some days with lots of worth visiting sites for teachers! Meanwhile, I want to share with you something I’ve found quite useful for my intermediate level students (teens and adults). This short summary of English Spelling Rules has been emailed from YahooGroups (Group: English4All, user: Laila). Hope it’s useful for you too!


Short and Long Vowels

1. To spell a short vowel sound, only one letter is needed:

at red it hot up

2. To spell a long sound you must add a second vowel. The second may be next to the first, in the VVC pattern (boat, maid, cue, etc.) or it may be separated from the first one by a consonant in the VCV pattern (made, ride, tide, etc.). If the second vowel is separated from the first by two spaces, it does not affect the first one. This is the VCCV pattern in which the first vowel remains short. Thus, doubling a consonant can be called “protecting” a short vowel because it prevents an incoming vowel from getting close enough to the first one to change its sound from short to long:

maid, made, but madder; dine, diner, but dinner.

Spelling the Sound /k/

This sound can be spelled in any one of four ways:

1. c 2. cc 3. k 4. ck

1. The single letter, c , is the most common spelling. It may be used anywhere in a word:

cat corn actor victim direct mica
scat bacon public cactus inflict pecan

2. Sometimes the letter c must be doubled to cc to protect the sound of a short vowel:

stucco baccalaureate hiccups
Mecca tobacco buccaneer
occupy raccoon succulent

3. The letter k is substituted for c if /k/ is followed by an e, i, or y.

kin make sketch poker kind risky
skin token skill keep liking flaky

(Boring examples? How about kyphosis, kylix, keratosis, and dyskinesia?)

4. Similarly, the spelling ck, is substituted for cc if the following letter is an e, i, or y:

lucky picking rocking finicky
blackest mackintosh frolicked ducking
Kentucky picnicking stocking Quebecker

5. The letters, k and ck are more than substitutes for c and cc. They are used to spell /k/ at the end of a monosyllable. The digraph, ck, ALWAYS follows a short vowel:

sack duck lick stick wreck clock

(Forget about yak. Your student will never need it.)

The letter, k, follows any other sound:

milk soak make bark
tank peek bike cork
tusk hawk duke perk

The Sound, /j/
The sound, /j/ is spelled in three ways: j ge and dge.

1. The letter j is usually used if the sound if followed by an a, o, or u.

just jam jungle injure major adjacent
jog jar Japan jury job Benjamin
adjust jacket jolly jaguar jump jalousie

2. Since the letter g has the soft sound of /j/ when it is followed by an e, i, or y, it is usually used in this situation:

gentle ginger aging algebra
Egyptologist gem origin gym

2. If /j/ follows a short vowel sound, it is usually spelled with dge. This is because the letter j, is never doubled in English.

badge ridge dodge partridge gadget
judge edge smudge judgement budget

The Sound, /ch/

The sound /ch/ has two spellings: tch after a short vowel, ch anywhere else:

witch sketch botch satchel
catch hatchet kitchen escutcheon

Which, rich, much, such, touch, bachelor, attach, sandwich, and ostrich.

The Sound, /kw/
This sound is ALWAYS spelled with the letters, qu, never anything else.

Using -le

Words ending in –le, such as little, require care. If the vowel sound is short, there must be two consonants between the vowel and the -le. Otherwise, one consonant is enough.

li tt le ha nd le ti ck le a mp le
bo tt le pu zz le cru mb le a ng le
bugle able poodle dawdle needle idle people

Odds and Ends

1. The consonants, v, j, k, w, and x are never doubled.
2. No normal English words ends with the letter v. A final /v/ is always spelled with ve, no matter what the preceding vowel sound may be:

have give sleeve cove
receive love connive brave

Adding Endings

There are two kinds of suffixes, those that begin with a vowel and those that begin with a consonant. As usual, the spelling problems occur with the vowels:

Vowel Suffixes Consonant Suffixes
– – – age – – -ist – – – ness – – – cess
– – – ant – – – ish – – -less – – -ment
– – -ance – – -ing – – -ly – – -ty
– – – al – – -ar – – -ful – – -ry
– – -ism – – -o – – -hood – – -ward
– – -able – – -on – – -wise
– – -an – – -ous
– – – a – – -or
– – -es – – -ual
– – -ed – – -unt
– – -er – – -um
– – -est – – -us
– – -y – – -ive

1. Words that end in the letter y must have the y changed to i before adding any suffix:

body – bodily marry – marriage
many – manifold family – familiar
happy – happiness puppy – puppies
beauty – beautiful vary – various
company – companion fury – furious
plenty – plentiful merry – merriment

2. In words that end in a silent e you must drop it before you add a vowel suffix. The silent e is no longer needed to make the preceding vowel long as the incoming vowel will do the trick:

ride – riding cure – curable use – usual age – aging
fame – famous force – forcing refuse – refusal slice – slicing
pure – purity ice – icicle nose – nosy convince – convincing
globe – global race – racist pole – polar offense – offensive

3. Words that end in an accented short or modified vowel sound must have the final consonant doubled to protect that sound when you add a vowel suffix:

Quebec – Quebecker remit – remittance confer – conferring refer – referred
upset – upsetting shellac – shellacking occur – occurred concur- concurrent

Note that this doubling is not done if the accent is not on the last syllable. If the word ends in a schwa, there is no need to “protect” it.

open – opening organ – organize
focus – focused refer – referee

4. Normally you drop a silent e before adding a vowel suffix. However, if the word ends in -ce or -ge and the incoming vowel is an a, o, or u, you cannot cavalierly toss out that silent e. It is not useless: it is keeping its left-hand letter soft, and your a, o, or u will not do that. Thus:

manage – manageable peace – peaceable
courage – courageous revenge – vengeance
surge – surgeon change – changeable
notice – noticeable outrage – outrageous

Gorgeous George bludgeoned a pigeon noticeably! Tsk.

5. Adding consonant suffixes is easy. You just add them. (Of course you must change a final y to i before you add any suffix.)

peace – peaceful harm – harmless age – ageless
pity – pitiful child – childhood rifle – riflery


When this sound occurs before a vowel suffix, it is spelled ti, si, or ci.

partial cautious patient vacation
special deficient suspicion suction
inertia delicious ratio pension
musician physician optician quotient
electrician nutrition statistician expulsion

/ee/ before a vowel suffix

When /ee/ precedes a vowel suffix, it is usually spelled with the letter i:

Indian obvious medium
ingredient zodiac material

Spelling Determined by Word Meaning

1. Mist and missed sound alike, as do band and banned. To determine the spelling, remember that -ed is a past-tense tending.

  1. The mist drifted into the harbor.
  2. I nearly missed my bus.
  3. The movie was banned in Boston.
  4. The band played on.

2. The endings of dentist and finest sound alike. Deciding which one to use can be tricky. One rule helps but doesn’t cover all cases:

  1. ist is a suffix meaning someone who does something:
    artist – machinist – druggist
  2. est is the ending used on superlative adjectives:
    finest – sweetest – longest

3. The sounds at the end of musician and condition sound alike. but….

  1. cian always means a person, where…
  2. tion or sion are never used for people.

4. How do you tell whether to use tion or sion?

  1. If the root word ends in /t/, use -tion: complete, completion
  2. If the root word ends in /s/ or /d/, use sion: extend, extension
    suppress, suppression
  3. If the sound of the last syllable is the “heavy” sound of /zhun/ rather than the light sound, /shun/, use s: confusion, vision, adhesion

Exception: The ending, –mit becomes -mission:

permit – permission omit – omission
submit – submission commit – commission

The Hiss

1. The letter s between vowels sounds like a z:

nose result noise
present partisan tease
preside resound reserve

2. The light “hissy” sound is spelled with either ss or ce. Predictably, ss, like any proper doubled consonant, follows accented short vowels. Soft c is used anywhere else. (A soft c is one that is followed by e, i, or y).

notice reticent massive bicycle
recent gossip russet rejoice
essence vessel discuss pass

3. The plural ending is always spelled with a single letter s unless you can hear a new syllable on the plural word. In that case, use –es:

loss, losses bank, banks twitch, twitches tree, trees
box, boxes list, lists judge, judges

No compendium of spelling rules would be complete with the most important rule of all:
WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK (or look it up)

But ask first – it’s quicker.



melody pokorny says:

do you have this in a format that would make it easy to make a “flash card” for each rule? These are fabulous, and I would like to use them as they are, but I want to make flash cards for a student I am tutoring that has dyslexia

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