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GENERAL EDUCATION

Spelling Guidelines and Techniques

This section presents information specifically about dealing with prefixes, suffixes, and plurals. It also covers the rules for use of i and e combinations.

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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.

Prefixes

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.

Old English

Prefix

Meaning

Example

a

in, on, of, up, to

arise, awake

be

around, about, away

behead, bedevil

for, fore

away, off, from

forsake, forewarn

mis

badly, poorly, not

misspell, mistake

over

above, excessively

overextend, oversee

un

not, reverse of

untidy, unnatural

Latin/Latin-French

Prefix

Meaning

Example

ab, a, abs

from, off, away

absent, abscond

ante

before

antechamber, anteroom

bi

two

biweekly, bisect

circum

around

circumspect

col, com, con, co, cor

with, together

collide, companion, congregate, coexist, correlate

contra, contro

against

contradict, controversial

de

away, from,

off, down

decline, depart

dif, dis

away, off, opposing

disagree, differ

e, ef, ex

away, from, out

efface, exit

im, in

in, into, within

immerse, include

il, im, in, ir

not

illegal, immoral, inescapable, irreverent

inter

among, between

intercept, interstate

intro, intra

inward, within

introduce, intrastate

non

not

nonclinical, nonessential

post

after, following

postscript, postoperative

pre

before

preceding, prevent

pro

forward, in place of, favoring

proceed, pronoun, pro-Canadian

re

back, backward, again

recede, recur, reduce

retro

back, backward

retroactive, retrojets

semi

half

semicircle, semimonthly

sub, suf, sum, sup, sus

under, beneath

suburb, suffuse, summon, support, suspicion

super

over, above, extra

supervise, superfluous

trans

across, beyond

transport, transnational

ultra

beyond, excessively

ultraviolet, ultramodern

Greek

Prefix

Meaning

Example

a

lacking, without

amoral, atheist

anti

against, opposing

antismoking, antithesis

apo

from, away

apology

cata

down, away, thoroughly

cataclysm, catacomb

dia

through, across, apart

diameter, dialogue

epi

at, on, over, among, beside

epidemic, epigraph

eu

good, pleasant

euphoria, eulogy

hemi

half

hemisphere

hyper

excessive, over

hyperactive, hypertension

hypo

under, beneath

hypodermic, hypotension

para

beside, beyond

parallel, paradox

peri

around

perimeter, peripheral

pro

before

prognosis, progress

syl, sym, syn, sys

together, with

syllable, sympathy, synthesis, systematic

Suffixes

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.

    • exceed
    • proceed
    • succeed

All other words with similar sounds end in cede.

    • precede
    • recede
    • secede
    • concede
    • accede

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.

Old English

Noun Suffixes

Meaning

Example

dom

state, rank, condition

kingdom, wisdom, martyrdom

er

doer, maker

writer, teacher

ness

quality, state

hardness, likeness

Latin, French, Greek

Noun Suffixes

Meaning

Example

age

process, state, rank

peerage, passage

ance, ancy

act, condition, fact

vigilance, vacancy

ard, art

one that does (in excess)

coward, braggart

ate

office, rank

delegate, potentate

ation

action, state, result

occupation, starvation

cy

state, condition

delinquency, accuracy

ee

one receiving action

retiree, employee

eer

doer, worker at

engineer, mountaineer

ence

act, condition, fact

evidence, sentence

er

doer, native of

financier, baker

ery

skill, action,

collection

surgery, cookery

ess

feminine

princess, lioness

et, ette

little, feminine

islet, majorette

ion

action, result, state

union, conclusion

ism

act, manner, doctrine

baptism, barbarism, feminism

ist

doer, believer

plagiarist, socialist

ition

action, state, result

sedition, expedition

ity

state, quality,

condition

civility, rarity

ment

means, result, action

embarrassment, fulfillment

or

doer, office, action

actor, juror

ry

condition, practice,

collection

archery, jewelry

tion

action, condition

delegation, destruction

tude

quality, state, result

multitude, fortitude

ty

quality, state

witty, beauty

ure

act, result, means

culture, ligature

y

result, action, quality

arty, jealousy, handy

Old English

Adjective Suffixes

Meaning

Example

en

made of, like

silken, golden

ful

full of, marked by

thoughtful, careful

ish

suggesting, like

prudish, childish

less

lacking, without

thankless, hopeless

like

like, similar

catlike, dreamlike

ly

like, of the nature of

heavily, friendly

some

apt to, showing

worrisome, tiresome

ward

in the direction of

forward, downward

y

showing, suggesting

heavy, wavy, rocky

Foreign

Adjective Suffixes

Meaning

Example

able

able, likely

workable, likeable

ate

having, showing

animate, duplicate

escent

becoming, growing

obsolescent

esque

in the style of, like

statuesque, picturesque

fic

making, causing

terrific

ible

able, likely, fit

producible, edible

ose

marked by, given to

bellicose, comatose

ous

marked by, given to

wondrous, religious

Adjective/Noun Suffixes

Meaning

Example

al

doer, pertaining to

ritual, autumnal

an

one belonging to,

pertaining to


American, human

ant

actor, agent, showing

servant

ary

belonging to, one connected with

functionary, adversary

ent

doing, showing, actor

agent, confident

ese

of a place or style

Japanese, journalese

ian

pertaining to, one

belonging to

reptilian, Sicilian

ic

dealing with, caused

by, person or thing

scientific, epidemic

ile

marked by, one

marked by

senile, juvenile

ine

marked by, dealing

with, one marked by

divine, feline, marine

ite

formed, showing,

one marked by

Muscovite, favorite, composite

ory

doing, pertaining to,

place or thing for

accessory, observatory

Old English

Verb Suffix

Meaning

Example

en

cause to be, become

enliven, awaken

Foreign

Verb Suffixes

Meaning

Example

ate

become, form, treat

formulate, agitate

esce

become, grow, continue

convalesce, acquiesce

fy

make, cause, cause to harm

fortify, glorify

ish

do, make, perform

finish, distinguish

ize

make, cause to be

mobilize, sterilize

Plurals

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.

Singular

Plural

eagle

eagles

minister

ministers

record

records

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.

Singular

Plural

child

children

goose

geese

man

men

mouse

mice

woman

women

Some irregular nouns keep the same form for both singular and plural.

Singular

Plural

deer

deer

sheep

sheep

species

species

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.

Singular

Plural

address

addresses

box

boxes

buzz

buzzes

dish

dishes

fez

fezes

gas

gases

kiss

kisses

watch

watches

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

Singular

Plural

category

categories

currency

currencies

secretary

secretaries

territory

territories

NOUNS ENDING IN Y PRECEDED BY A VOWEL

Singular

Plural

delay

delays

holiday

holidays

relay

relays

Wednesday

Wednesdays

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

Singular

Plural

hero

heroes

potato

potatoes

solo

solos

tomato

tomatoes

NOUNS ENDING IN O PRECEDED BY A VOWEL

Singular

Plural

radio

radios

stereo

stereos

studio

studios

All musical and literary terms ending in o add s to form the plural.

Singular

Plural

oratorio

oratorios

piano

pianos

rondo

rondos

soprano

sopranos

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.

ADD S

Singular

Plural

chief

chiefs

dwarf

dwarfs

CHANGE F OR FE TO V AND ADD ES

Singular

Plural

half

halves

knife

knives

life

lives

self

selves

wife

wives

wolf

wolves

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

Singular

Plural

lockbox

lockboxes

toothbrush

toothbrushes

COMPOUND NOUNS ADDING S

Singular

Plural

firefighter

firefighters

mainframe

mainframes

Compound Nouns as Two Words. The plural of compound nouns written as two or more words is formed by making the main word plural.

Singular

Plural

chairman of the board

chairmen of the board

editor in chief

editors in chief

notary public

notary publics or notaries public

vice president

vice presidents

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

Singular

Plural

ex-governor

ex-governor

passer-by

passers-by

president-elect

presidents-elect

son-in-law

sons-in-law

ADDING S TO THE END OF THE COMPOUND

Singular

Plural

grown-up

grown-ups

start-up

start-ups

trade-in

trade-ins

write-in

write-ins

Foreign Words. Some foreign words form plurals as they would in the original language.

Singular

Plural

alumna (female)

alumnae

alumnus (male)

alumni

basis

bases

crisis

crises

datum

data

tableau

tableaux

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.

Singular

Foreign Plural

English Plural

appendix

appendices

appendixes

formula

formulae

formulas

index

indices

indexes

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.

    • believe
    • grievance
    • piece
    • relieve
    • retrieve
    • thief

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

    • deceive
    • receive
    • ceiling
    • receipt

Use e before i when the sound in the word is not long e.

    • eight
    • freight
    • height
    • neighbor
    • weigh
    • weight
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