To many writers, the English language seems riddled with exceptions to spelling rules. Yet most words conform to specific guidelines, and even the exceptions can be categorized for easy reference. The guidelines in this section explain how to spell most regular and many troublesome words.
This section presents information specifically about dealing with prefixes, suffixes, and plurals. It also covers the rules for use of i and e combinations.
A prefix added at the beginning of a word changes its meaning. However, the prefix does not change the spelling of that word. Most prefixes are added without using a hyphen.
- mis + step = misstep
- im + memorial = immemorial
- un + burden = unburden
- over + enthusiastic = overenthusiastic
- pre + formed = preformed
- in + tolerable = intolerable
- non + food = nonfood
- re + draw = redraw
Exceptions: the prefixes ex, self, and all are always used with a hyphen when they are joined to nouns.
- ex + prizefighter = ex-prizefighter
- self + awareness = self-awareness
- all + inclusive = all-inclusive
A hyphen is used when the prefix is joined to a proper noun or adjective.
- non + English = non-English
- pro + American = pro-American
A hyphen is used when the resulting word might be confused with a similar word of different meaning or when the word might be confusing to the eye.
- re + creation = re-creation (not recreation)
- re + emphasize = re-emphasize
- sub + subheading = sub-subheading
Prefixes let us see how many words and terms English has borrowed from Greek, Latin, and French. Following is a list of the common prefixes used in English along with their meanings.
in, on, of, up, to
around, about, away
away, off, from
badly, poorly, not
not, reverse of
ab, a, abs
from, off, away
col, com, con, co, cor
collide, companion, congregate, coexist, correlate
away, off, opposing
e, ef, ex
away, from, out
in, into, within
il, im, in, ir
illegal, immoral, inescapable, irreverent
forward, in place of, favoring
proceed, pronoun, pro-Canadian
back, backward, again
recede, recur, reduce
sub, suf, sum, sup, sus
suburb, suffuse, summon, support, suspicion
over, above, extra
down, away, thoroughly
through, across, apart
at, on, over, among, beside
syl, sym, syn, sys
syllable, sympathy, synthesis, systematic
A suffix is added to the end of the word. In many cases, the spelling of the word does not change.
- sly + ly = slyly
- awkward + ness = awkwardness
- work + able = workable
The suffix elect, however, is always used with a hyphen.
- secretary + elect = secretary-elect
- president + elect = president-elect
There are several instances in which the spelling of the root word does change when a suffix is added. The following guidelines categorize these changes.
Final y as a Long e Sound. If the final y of a word represents a long e sound, then the final y changes to i before adding the suffix ness or ly.
- merry + ly = merrily
- dizzy + ness = dizziness
Final y Preceded by a Consonant. With words that end in y and are pre- ceded by a consonant, change the y to i before any suffix not beginning with i.
- sunny + er = sunnier
- happy + ly = happily (but hurry + ing = hurrying)
Final e Before a Suffix Beginning with a Vowel. The final e is dropped before a suffix that begins with a vowel.
- dare + ing = daring
- sale + able = salable
The only exception to this rule is when the final e must be retained to maintain a soft c or g sound in the word.
- notice + able = noticeable
- courage + ous = courageous
Final e Before a Suffix Beginning with a Consonant. Keep the final e when adding a suffix that begins with a consonant.
- use + ful = useful
- care + less = careless
There are a few exceptions to this rule:
- true + ly = truly (but sincere + ly = sincerely)
- argue + ment = argument
Final e with the Suffix ment. When the final e in a word is preceded by two consonants, drop the final e and add the suffix.
- acknowledge + ment = acknowledgment
- judge + ment = judgment
When the final e in a word is preceded by a vowel and a consonant, keep the final e and add the suffix.
- manage + ment = management
Double Final Consonant Before a Suffix Beginning with a Vowel. The final consonant of a word is doubled when (1) the word has only one syllable, (2) the accent falls on the last syllable of the word (prefer), or (3) the word ends in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel.
- drag + ed = dragged
- sit + ing = sitting
- omit + ing = omitting
- ocCUR + ed = occurred
- preFER + ing = preferring (but PREferable)
- conTROL + able = controllable
Single Final Consonant Before a Suffix. The final consonant remains single if the word is accented on the first syllable; if the final consonant is already double it remains double.
- TARget + ed = targeted
- CANcel + ing = canceling
- tell + ing = telling
pull ed pulled
Words Ending in a Hard c Sound. For words ending in a hard c sound, add k before suffixes in, ed, and y.
- panic + y = panicky
- picnic + ing = picnicking
- traffic + ed = trafficked
- mimic + ing = mimicking
Suffixes sede, ceed, and cede. Only one word in English ends in sede.
- super + sede = supersede
Only three words in English end in ceed.
All other words with similar sounds end in cede.
Suffixes able and ible. The suffixes able and ible sound alike and mean nearly the same things such as “capable of being” and “worthy of being.” They are added to verbs and nouns to form adjectives.
- irritate + able = irritable
- permission + ible = permissible
There is a handy rule of thumb for knowing when to use able or ible that works for most words. When a related word can be formed ending in ation, then able is the correct suffix. When a related word can be formed ending in ion or ive, then ible is correct.
- duration = durable
- irritation = irritable
- repression = repressible
- permissive = permissible
If a word is not in the dictionary, it is spelled with able.
When the suffix able is added to a word ending in e, the final e is dropped unless preceded by a c or g.
- desire + able = desirable
- use + able = usable
- notice + able = noticeable
- knowledge + able = knowledgeable
Suffixes ant and ent, ance and ence. The four suffixes ant, ent, ance, and ence are added to change verbs to nouns and adjectives.
- attend + ant = attendant
- insist + ent = insistent
- attend + ance = attendance
- insist + ence = insistence
Unfortunately, there is no rule for knowing when to use which suffix. Memorize the spellings of words with these endings. However, if the word you wish to spell is not in the dictionary, use ant or ance.
Suffixes er and or. The suffixes er and or sound alike and both mean one who. Some words are spelled with either ending.
- act + or = actor
- drive + er = driver
- visit + or = visitor
- advise + or = advisor
- advise + er = adviser
- speak + er = speaker
The suffix er is more common and is added to all new words in English. The suffix or occurs mainly with Latin root words, particularly legal terms, and is no longer added to words in English. If a word cannot be found in the dictionary, use the er suffix.
Suffixes ize and ise. The suffixes ize and ise are added to adjectives and nouns to make verbs. The suffix ize is used in American English while the suffix ise is British.
- legal + ize = legalize
- custom + ize = customize
- critic + ize = criticize
Some words use either suffix as an ending, while others are spelled only with ise.
- mesmer + ise = mesmerise
- mesmer + ize = mesmerize
- (advise, exercise, enterprise, disguise, chastise)
If a word is not in the dictionary, use the ize suffix as the correct ending. Suffixes, like prefixes, have been added to English from several sources. Following is a list of the most common suffixes for nouns, adjectives, and verbs from Old English, Greek, Latin, and French along with their meanings.
state, rank, condition
kingdom, wisdom, martyrdom
Latin, French, Greek
process, state, rank
act, condition, fact
one that does (in excess)
action, state, result
one receiving action
doer, worker at
act, condition, fact
doer, native of
action, result, state
act, manner, doctrine
baptism, barbarism, feminism
action, state, result
means, result, action
doer, office, action
quality, state, result
act, result, means
result, action, quality
arty, jealousy, handy
made of, like
full of, marked by
like, of the nature of
apt to, showing
in the direction of
heavy, wavy, rocky
in the style of, like
able, likely, fit
marked by, given to
marked by, given to
doer, pertaining to
one belonging to,
actor, agent, showing
belonging to, one connected with
doing, showing, actor
of a place or style
pertaining to, one
dealing with, caused
by, person or thing
marked by, one
marked by, dealing
with, one marked by
divine, feline, marine
one marked by
Muscovite, favorite, composite
doing, pertaining to,
place or thing for
cause to be, become
become, form, treat
become, grow, continue
make, cause, cause to harm
do, make, perform
make, cause to be
We have already briefly touched on plurals of words; here is more detailed information.
Regular Nouns. The plural of most nouns is formed by adding s.
Irregular Nouns. For most irregular nouns, the spelling changes to form the plural. Because the spelling changes do not follow any general rule, the forms must be memorized.
Some irregular nouns keep the same form for both singular and plural.
Nouns Ending in s, ss, z, sh, ch, and x. For nouns ending in s, ss, z, sh, ch, and x, add es to form the plural.
Nouns Ending in y. For nouns ending in y preceded by a consonant, change the y to i and add es. For nouns ending in y preceded by a vowel, simply add s.
NOUNS ENDING IN Y PRECEDED BY A CONSONANT
NOUNS ENDING IN Y PRECEDED BY A VOWEL
Nouns Ending in o. For nouns ending in o preceded by a consonant, add s or es. If the o is preceded by a vowel, add s.
NOUNS ENDING IN O PRECEDED BY A CONSONANT
NOUNS ENDING IN O PRECEDED BY A VOWEL
All musical and literary terms ending in o add s to form the plural.
Nouns ending in f or fe. Many nouns ending in f or fe simply add s to form the plural. However, some nouns change the f to v and add es.
CHANGE F OR FE TO V AND ADD ES
Compound Nouns as One Word. Compound nouns written as one word and ending in s, sh, ch, or x form the plural by adding es. In all other cases, the plural is formed by simply adding s.
COMPOUND NOUNS ADDING ES
COMPOUND NOUNS ADDING S
Compound Nouns as Two Words. The plural of compound nouns written as two or more words is formed by making the main word plural.
chairman of the board
chairmen of the board
editor in chief
editors in chief
notary publics or notaries public
Hyphenated Compound Nouns. Hyphenated compound nouns are made plural either by adding s to the main word or, if there is no main word, adding s to the end of the compound.
ADDING S TO THE MAIN WORD
ADDING S TO THE END OF THE COMPOUND
Foreign Words. Some foreign words form plurals as they would in the original language.
Other foreign words form the plural either as they do in the original language or by adding s or es as in English. When in doubt about the preferred form, consult a dictionary.
Numbers, Letters, Words, Symbols. The plural of numbers, letters, words, and symbols is formed by adding ’s to the term.
- three 5’s
- two &’s and three #’s
- use l’s and m’s
- yes’s and no’s
The i and e Rules
Use i before e, except after c, for the long e sound in a word.
The exceptions to this rule are the words either, neither, leisure, seized, and weird.
Use e before i after c for the long e sound in a word. ceiling receipt
Use e before i when the sound in the word is not long e.