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Concourse 2

Learning to spell in English

shcool

Native speakers of English also make spelling mistakes!

Lots of them.

If you read through websites and, often, newspapers and magazines, you will see that English speakers find spelling difficult sometimes.
That does not mean that it is impossible to spell things correctly in English.
There are rules!


question

Why is English spelling sometimes irregular?

There are four main reasons

  1. Printers
    type
    Early printers were often not native speakers of English, even in England, and the influence of Dutch (their first language, frequently) is seen in, e.g., putting the 'h' in ghost.
    When printing first began, nobody knew how to spell words so they spelled them the way they said them.
  2. Borrowed words
    borrow
    English has borrowed lots of words from other languages such as Norwegian, German, French, Spanish and many more.  When words are borrowed, we do not usually change the spelling.
    This means we still spell some words we have borrowed the way they are spelled in the language they come from.
  3. Authority
    authority
    Many countries have special committees of people who control how a language is spelled and who also often say what grammar is right and what is wrong.  English has never had a system like this.
    Other countries have institutions (like the Académie française for French, The Nederlandse Taalunie for Dutch, The Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung for German and so on) to make rules about words, spelling and grammar.  There are lots of these kinds of language academies around the world.  There is a good chance that your first language is controlled this way.
  4. Variety
    variety
    English is spoken and written in many countries around the world.  Sometimes it is people's first language and sometimes it is used as well as the local language(s).
    This leads to different ways of spelling some words in different countries.

why

Why doesn't English spell words the way they sound?

In some languages, words are almost always spelled the way they sound but in English this is not the case.  For example:

  • to, two and too sound the same but have different spellings
  • our and hour sound the same but have different spellings
  • right and write sound the same but have different spellings
  • deer and dear sound the same but have different spellings

The list can go on for many hundreds of examples of words which sound the same but look different.  Teachers call them homophones.
Spelling is not the same as pronunciation because English writing shows meaning as well as sound.
For example,

  • when we see the word write, we know it is connected to words like writing and written because the spelling looks similar.  We know it's not connected to the word right.
  • when we see a word like hourly, we know it is connected to hour not our
  • when we see a word like deerskin, we know that it is connected to the animal deer and not to the adjective dear

Is English spelling completely irregular?

No.

It is often claimed that English spelling is impossible (or at least very difficult) to learn.  In fact, there are clear connections between how a word is pronounced and its spelling.  There are lots of exceptions, of course, but there are also lots of rules.

1

Rule 1: Long and short vowels

  1. short vowels only usually have only a single letter: bit, bat, sit, hat, kit, cut, sack, plug, drop and so on.
    If we have a consonant (like B, T, K, G, P etc.) followed by one vowel (A, E, I, O or U [and sometime W and Y]) and one or two more consonants then the vowel is pronounced as a short sound.
  2. long vowels are shown in two ways:
    1. when we put a vowel after the consonant, we pronounce the vowel as a long sound, so we have:
      bite, bate, site, hate, kite, cute and so on.
      This is the Vowel-Consonant-Vowel (VCV) principle.
    2. when we put a second vowel in the word, we also pronounce the vowel as a long sound, so we have:
      beat, boat, heat, sheep, neat, coat, down, grown etc.  This is the VVC principle.
      Notice that here the letter W is pronounced as a vowel.

So, for example:

  • The word pat, rhymes with hat, not hate
  • the word shock rhymes with lock, not soak
  • the word shut rhymes with hut, not shoot
  • the word sit rhymes with lit, not beat

Just by looking at how the words are spelled, we know how they are pronounced.

There are some exceptions (of course) and they are common words, usually.  They include:
come, done, give, gone, have, live, love, none, one, some
All these have short vowels but end VCV.

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Task 1: Click here to try a short rhyming test to see if you can use the VCV and VVC principles.


2

Rule 2: Consonant doubling

  • If we want to keep the sound of the vowel short, we double the consonant sometimes so the word does NOT follow the VCV principle.  The consonants we double are: B, D, G, L, M, N, P, R, T.
  • If we want the sound to be long, we do NOT double the consonant so it follows the VCV rule.
For example, we double the T in hatter (a person who makes or sells hats) so that it rhymes with matter.  If we spell it hater it means a person who hates and it rhymes with later because it will be Vowel-Consonant-Vowel.
We often do this when the word ends in -ed, -ing, -er and -est.  For example, we write:
    She dropped the ball (because the vowel is short)
    She hoped I would come (because the vowel is long)
    She is riding a bicycle (because the vowel is long)
    She is sitting alone (because the vowel is short)
    It is the hottest day of the summer (because the vowel is short)
    That's the upper floor of the house
(because the vowel is short)
Here are some more examples:

cutter (short vowel)
cuter
(long vowel)
sitter
(short vowel)
fitter
(short vowel)
waiter
(long vowel)
wetter
(short vowel)
later
(long vowel)
latter (short vowel)
butter (short vowel)
shaped (long vowel)
soaked (long vowel)
sitting (short vowel)
jetting (short vowel)
and so on.

When we have longer words, we double the last consonant ONLY if the stress is on the second syllable.
For example, these words have the stress on the second syllable so we double the consonant:

forget → forgetting
prefer → preferred
occur → occurring

These words have the stress on the first syllable so we do not double the consonant:

enter → entering
visit → visiting
happen → happening

stars and stripes union jack

American and British English

In British English, we always double L and P when a word ends in -ed or -ing, but American spelling has a single letter, so we have:
    labelled (British) and labeled (American)
    channelled (British) and channeled (American)
    gossipped (British) and gossiped (American)

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Task 2: Click here to try a short spelling test to see if you can use the consonant doubling principle.


3

Rule 3: Spelling the K sound

There are rules, too, for spelling a K sound as in, for example, click, black, corn, bacon etc.

  1. single C is the most common so we have:
        actor, cactus, cart, fact, because etc.
  2. we double the C to keep the vowel short, so we have
        tobacco, Mecca, Rebecca, moccasins
    etc.
  3. if the K sound is followed by 'e', 'i' or 'y', we use K not C, so we get:
        make, sketch, token, sake, slinky, skin etc.
  4. CK always follows a short vowel, so we have:
        luck, duck, back
    etc.
  5. K follows any other vowel or consonant, so we have:
        soak, coke, seek, beak
    etc.
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Task 3: Click here to try a short spelling test to see if you can use spell the K sound.


4

Rule 4: Endings

There are 5 rules for endings on English words.

  1. words ending in Y
    1. if you add an S, the Y changes to IE, so we get:
          worry-worries, cry-cries
      etc.
    2. words ending in EY and AY usually do not change when S or D is added, so we get:
          valley-valleys, player-players-played
      etc.
      (But lay-laid, say-said and pay-paid)
    3. Y does not change when it's followed by I, so we get:
          dry-drying, cry-crying, spy-spying
      etc.
  2. words ending in E
    if a word ends in consonant + E, we drop the E when adding anything beginning with a vowel, so we get:
        love → loving
        response → responsible
        approve → approval
        invite → invitation
        prove → provable

    etc.
  3. words ending in IE change to Y, so we get:
        die-dying, lie-lying
  4. words ending in UE drop the E, so we get:
        argue-argument, true-truly
  5. words ending in S, Z, X, CH or SH add ES not just S, so we get:
        watch-watches, match-matches, fizz-fizzes, fix-fixes, bush-bushes, bus-buses etc.
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Task 4: Click here to try a short spelling test to see if you can spell endings correctly.



microphone

Homophones

As we saw, there are many words in English which are spelled differently but sound the same.
Native speakers of English often make mistakes with these but you mustn't!

Here are some common mistakes

to, too and two to is a preposition and has only one O so we have:
He went to the park
She wants to see me

too is an adverb and it means as well, so we have:
She went to the party and I did, too
I want some, too

two is a number (2) so we have
I lent him two dollars
I have two dogs
your and you're your is the possessive of you in English so we have:
Is this your hotel?
I can't see your problem

you're is a short way to write you are so we have:
You're coming, aren't you?
You're the manager
its and it's its is the possessive of it in English so we have:
What a nice dog!  What's its name?
it's is a short was to write it is or it has so we have:
It's raining
It's rained hard today
their and there their is the possessive of they in English so we have:
Is that their house?
there is an adverb to talk about a place away from here so we have:
I don't want to go there

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Task 5: Click here to try a short test on these four.



union jack usa

English (BrE) and American (AmE)

English (BrE) and American spelling (AmE) are a little different but not very much (and it often doesn't matter which way you spell something).
In most cases, the American way of spelling a word is easier than the British way.
Here are some of the most important differences:

  • American English leaves out the U in words like these:
    union jack stars and stripes
    colour color
    labour labor
    flavour flavor
  • The endings on some words are left off in American English so we get, for example:
    union jack stars and stripes  
    catalogue catalog  
    dialogue dialog  
    epilogue epilog  
    programme program for computer programs we spell it the American way in all countries
    kilogramme kilogram many British people now use the American spelling for weights
  • Words ending -RE in British English usually end with -ER in American English:
    union jack stars and stripes
    centre center
    theatre  theater
    fibre fiber
  • Words ending with -CE in British English will often end with -SE in American English and British English spells some verbs with an S but the nouns with a C:
    union jack stars and stripes  
    defence defense  
    offence offense  
    licence (n.) licence (n.) both the same
    license (v.) licence (v.) British English makes a difference for the verb
    practice (n.) practice (n.) both the same
    practise (v.) practice (v.) British English makes a difference for the verb
  • Here are a few more common differences:
    union jack stars and stripes  
    aeroplane airplane the pronunciation is the same
    grey gray the pronunciation is the same
    plough plow the pronunciation is the same
    speciality specialty the pronunciation is different!
    jewellery jewelry the pronunciation is the same
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Task 6: Click here to try a short test on US and British spelling.

There are two spelling tests on this site:
A simple one here.
And a more difficult one here.
Both links open in a new window.