Spelling - Grammar Guide

The Right Word: A Writer's Toolkit of Grammar, Vocabulary and Literary Terms - Waldram Sarah 2021

Grammar Guide

My spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.

A. A. Milne

Winnie-the-Pooh (1926)

English spelling is famed for its vagaries and eccentricities. Despite attempts to impose some standardisation from the late 16th century, it was not until Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 that a more comprehensive effort was made. Johnson was generally not concerned with reform, but simply in recording the most common spelling forms. In the early 19th century, Noah Webster similarly recorded American usage, this time with a view to reform.

The illogicality of English spelling persists to this day, however. While it is not required that a writer be a perfect natural speller, it is useful to be familiar with resources that enable one to spell correctly, for the purposes of clarity and professionalism, that is, for creating texts that are free from error. This chapter arms writers with some tools to improve spelling. It offers examples of how different letters can represent the same sound in English, and also of how the same letters can represent different sounds. This provides a means of looking up in the dictionary words whose spelling one does not know. A trusted dictionary, of course, should be regarded as the indispensable and ultimate source of correct spelling.

Dictionary look-up

The main alternative spellings for consonant and vowel sounds are given below. If a word cannot be found in the dictionary at the first attempt, it may be worth referring to these tables to identify alternative possible spellings. To the same end, variant word endings and word beginnings, as well as a list of silent letters, are also included.


Consonants are the letters of the alphabet apart from a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.

Alternative spellings for consonants

There’s also a sound somewhere between z and sh for which there is no letter of the alphabet or standard combination. It’s usually spelt su, as in pleasure or casual, but can also be spelt si, as in vision or precision, or zu, as in seizure. Some dictionaries represent it by /zh/.

Note that consonants in English can generally be doubled; the exceptions are h, j, k, q and x, which can be doubled only rarely, for example, dekko, anti-vaxxer. If a word cannot be found under a doubled consonant spelling, an obvious next recourse is to try it spelt with a single consonant, or vice versa. (See also discussion of vowel pronunciation in relation to doubled consonants at VOWELS immediately below.)


The vowels in the alphabet are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. All these vowels have a ’long’ vowel sound and a ’short’ vowel sound. The ’long’ sound is generally the sound of the letter as it is pronounced in reciting the alphabet. The ’short’ sounds are those in bad, bed, bid, bo dy and bu d. Exceptionally, the letter y, as a vowel, has the same long and short sounds as i, as in cy cle and bicy cle.

A vowel on its own (between two consonants or at the beginning of a word) can have either the long or short sound. A vowel before a double consonant will have the short sound, as in latter (compare later) or hopping (compare hoping).

Long vowels

In general, a vowel followed by a single consonant and then an -e (with the e not pronounced, known as ’silent e ’) is a long vowel, for example,

spa de, the se, bi te, pho ne, pru ne, sty le.

Alternative spellings for the long vowels a, e, i, o and u

Other vowels

Alternative spellings for the short vowels e, i and u

Alternative spellings for non-alphabetic vowels

The schwa: Note that the vowel sound uh is so short it’s almost not pronounced at all. It can be written as e, a, i, o or u, as in barre l, mise rable, refe ree, a bout, turba n, defi ni te, responsi ble, commo n, pu rsue and circu s. In dictionaries, this sound is indicated by a symbol called schwa, and written as an upside down lowercase e: /ə/. It’s the vowel sound of most unaccented syllables in English.

Word endings, word beginnings and silent letters

Knowledge of variant word endings and beginnings and awareness of possible silent letters are also helpful when using a dictionary.

Word endings

Note also that:

✵ endings sounding like -ent may also be spelt -ant

✵ endings sounding like -ence may also be spelt -ance.

Word beginnings

This list gives possible alternative spellings for some common word beginnings:

acs try acc:


air try aer:


ca try cha:


ce try che:


clor try chlor:


co try cho:


cr try chr:


ecs try ex:


ef try af:

affection, afraid

egs try exh:


fer try fur:


fol try fal:


for try four:


gi try gui:


hi try high:


ho try who:


meca try mecha:


na try kna:

knack, knave

ne try kne:

knee, knell

ni try kni:

knife, knit

no try kno:

knob, know

nur try neur:


nut try neut:


ocs try ox:


pel try pol:


per try pur:

purple, pursue

pre try pro:


quo try qua:

qualification, quarrel

ra try wra:


re try wre:


ri try wri:

wriggle, write

ro try wro:

wrong, wrote

se try sce:

scene, scent

si try sci:

science, scissors

sic try psych:


sosh try soci:


spesh try speci:

special, species

squo try squa:

squabble, squad

uf try euph:


uph try euph:


ur try eur:


vial try viol:


wa try wha:

whack, whale

we try whe:

when, wheel

wi try whi:

which, while

wo try wa:

wander, wash

wor try wa:


wur try wor:


Silent letters

These consonants and vowels may not be pronounced, or not pronounced by some speakers, so can easily be forgotten when spelling the words shown and similar ones.

Spelling rules

Why does English have so many words that are difficult to spell? The main reason is that the twenty-six letters of the alphabet have to represent forty-four different sounds. And confusingly, as we have seen, the same combinations of letters can be used to represent quite distinct sounds.

Other parts of this book deal with some aspects of this phenomenon that have a more obvious bearing on meaning and the creative aspects of self-expression, for example, COMMONLY CONFUSED and MISUSED WORDS (see chapters 8 and 9), WORD FAMILIES (see chapter 10) and the delights of the spelling idiosyncrasies of proper nouns.

Meanwhile, this chapter focuses on the more technical aspects of spelling. Fortunately, in this area, there are at least a few rules that hold good.

Noun and verb ending -s or -es

The regular plural ending for nouns and the third person present singular (see PERSON, NUMBER AND TENSE, chapter 1, here) ending for verbs is -s.

However, words already ending in -ch, -s, -sh, -x and -z take -es for plural nouns or third person singular verbs:

beech [noun]


batch [noun, verb]


boss [noun, verb]


bush [noun]


fox [noun, verb]


waltz [noun, verb]


Words already ending in -f, or -fe, sometimes take -s and sometimes change to -ves:

scarf → scarves

Exceptionally, while the plural of the noun gas is gases, the third person singular of the verb gas is gasses. Another anomaly is that the plurals of hero, potato and tomato end in -es rather than -s.

Noun, verb and adjective ending -y to -ie-

Verbs that end in -y keep the -y before the present participle ending (-ing), but this changes to -ie- for third person present singular (-ies) and the past tense (-ied) forms (see PRINCIPAL PARTS, chapter 1, here).

Meanwhile, nouns that end in -y also experience a change to -ie- in the plural (-ies); and adjectives ending in -y similarly undergo a change to -ie- in the comparative (-er) and superlative (-est) forms (see COMPARATIVES AND SUPERLATIVES, chapter 1, here):

worry [noun, verb]

worries, worried, worrying

try [noun, verb]

tries, tried, trying

happy [adjective]

happier, happiest

Exceptionally, words that have a vowel before the -y ending, retain the -y before -s, -ed, -er -est:

play [noun, verb] → plays, played, playing, player

key [noun, verb] → keys, keyed, keying, keyer

grey [adjective] → greyer, greyest

Names of people and places that end in -y similarly keep the -y and just add -s in the plural, for example,

Mr and Mrs Perrythe Perrys.

Verb ending - ie to - y -

Verbs ending -ie, such as lie, tie and die, replace the -ie with -y- in the present participle:

lielies, lied, lying

diedies, died, dying

Note the difference between die above and dyedyes, dyed, dyeing.

Verb and adjective ending dropping -e

Verbs that end in a consonant and final -e (’silent e’) generally lose the -e before -ing; adjectives of a similar pattern do the same before -ise (or -ize):

hike [verb]

hikes, hiked, hiking, hiker

private [adjective]


Exceptions are the present participles of singe (= burn), which is singeing (to avoid confusion with singing), and age, which can be spelt ageing or aging. Note also swingeing (= severe, extreme), spelt with an -e- to avoid confusion with swinging.

Verb ending - c adding - k

Verbs ending in -c add -k before simple past and past participle -ed and present participle -ing:

panicpanics, panicked, panicking

An exception is arc , for which the corresponding forms are arced and arcing.

Verb and adjective ending doubling the consonant

Single-syllable words that end in a single vowel and a consonant usually double the consonant before - ed, -ing, -er and -est:

pot [verb] → pots, potted, potting, potter

fit [adjective] → fitter, fittest

Verbs of more than one syllable that end in a single vowel and a consonant and are stressed on the last syllable usually double the consonant before -ed and -ing:

regretregrets, regretted, regretting

omitomits, omitted, omitting

Compare these examples with listen and happen, which are stressed on the first syllable:

listenlistens, listened, listening

happenhappens, happened, happening

In British English, there are some exceptions, however. Note the doubling pattern for benefit and cancel, both stressed on the first syllable:

benefitbenefits, benefitted, benefitting

cancelcancels, cancelled, cancelling

(For these examples, American English follows the rules more closely; so, in American English, it is benefited and benefiting, while canceled and canceling are preferred.)

Internal - ie - and - ei -

The well-known rule ’i before e except after c’ applies when the vowel rhymes with sheep:

shriek, niece [i before e]

ceiling, deceit […except after c]

Exceptions include caffeine, protein, seize, weird, and the names Sheila and Keith.

Verb ending - ise (or - ize )

In British English verbs like characterise are often spelt with the -ise ending, but some style guides prefer -ize. (In American English, in contrast, the standard is -ize.)

No matter the general style adopted, there are a few exceptions that are always spelt -ise:










prise (open)













Adjective ending - able and - ible

The ending -able is attached to whole words (often minus any final ’silent e’ in the case of verbs); the ending -ible is usually not.

Some words ending in -able:











Some words ending in -ible:











Exceptions include liable and pliable.