Correct Spelling And Usage
If you’ve ever had to memorize hard-to-spell words in English you’ve probably noticed that some words are spelled way different than how they are pronounced. To further complicate things, some words may even be spelled differently is they are written in American English versus say, British English.
Back in the Shakespearean era, when spelling first started to become standardized, most English words were spelled phonetically – or how they sounded – or, that is to say, they were spelled more phonetically then they are nowadays. Interestingly, those who spoke English once pronounced that hard ‘k’ in words like knife and knee. Even though no one pronounced knife as ‘kuhnife’ in hundreds of years after that, the spelling remains the same.
Luckily, there are a few guidelines – or rules of thumb – that will help you when you run into a word that you are not entirely sure how to spell.
Basic Spelling Rules
Spelling Rule Number 1: I before E, except after C
You likely first heard this ‘rule’ in grade school. It sounds like this, “I before E except after C, unless it sounds like A, as in neighbor or weigh.”
There are several exceptions to this rule – perhaps it is best not to think of it as being concrete. However, it can be useful with words like those listed below:
I Before E
- I brought you a piece of pizza.
- I believe I can fly…
- Don’t drive on the soccer field.
Except before C
- Lisa received a brand new blue dress for Easter.
- Corinne noticed a small leak in the ceiling.
- I forgot to ask for a receipt when I was at the store.
Unless is sounds like A
- Our neighbors drive a beige minivan.
- This box weights a lot.
There are a few words that are exceptions to the I before E rule, they are:
Spelling Rule Number 2: Adding Suffixes to Words the End in Y
In most cases, whenever you add a suffix that starts with E (-ed, -er, – est) to a word that ends in Y, you will typically change the Y to an I.
- Cry – crier – cried
- Dry – drier – dried
- Baby – babies
- Lay – laid
- Family – families
- Ugly – uglier – ugliest
Remember, whenever the suffix is -ing, the Y will not change.
- My mother has been crying for hours.
- My little brother was tired after soccer practice, he is now laying down in his bedroom.
- Sally is busy tidying the house before her dinner guests arrive.
If the word has two consonants before the Y, the Y needs to be changed to I prior to adding the suffix -ly.
- Sloppy becomes sloppily
- Happy becomes happily
- Scary becomes scarily
Spelling Rule Number 3: The Silent E
Most often, the E at the end of a word is silent when it follows a consonant. However, it does after the way that the vowel that comes before the consonant is pronounce. The E makes the vowel sound longer (like the I in bite) instead of short (like the I in kiss). It is important to pay attention to the silent E, its presence or absence can change the meaning of a word.
- The puppy bit me OR
- The puppy bites me
In adding E to the end of bit, the word changes from past to presents tense.
- I got a paper cut OR
- That puppy is cute
In the above example, the silent E is a different word entirely.
Whenever you add a suffix like -ed, -er or -est, the silent E is removed from the end of the word.
- The kitten had the bluest eyes
- The dog bared his teeth at the intruder.
Spelling Rule Number 4: Double Consonants
Be mindful of double consonants. This may be difficult to notice when a word is said out loud – especially with one syllable words. Double consonants are often found in words with added suffixes.
- Jim called for your earlier.
- I dropped the glass, smashing it on the ground.
There are words that can be pronounced using both one and two syllables, but the spelling does not change.
- Blessed are those amongst children.
The example above is a fixed expression, blessed is pronounced using two syllables: bless-ed
- The priest blessed the couple prior to their wedding.
The example above is pronounced using only one syllable: blest
Be especially careful with words where a double consonant might change both the way the word is pronounced and what it means.
- Sandstorms are found in the desert OR
- I would love cake for dessert
Commonly Confused Words
English is not only one of the most difficult languages to learn, it is also one of the most confusing given that many words sound similar, but actually mean different things. Here is a list of some of the most common words that sound the same.
Accept vs. Except
Accept: a verb meaning to receive or to agree.
Example: She accepted the new position without giving it much thought.
Except: a preposition meaning all but, other than.
Example: Everyone went to dinner except Megan.
Affect vs. Effect
Affect: a verb meaning to influence.
Example: Drinking alcohol will affect your judgement.
Effect: a noun meaning result or consequence.
Example: Will drinking alcohol have an effect on your judgement?
Effect: a verb meaning to bring about or to accomplish.
Example: Our efforts in waste management have effected the environment positively.
Here is a tip: RAVEN -> (R)emember (A) ffect is a (V) erb and (E)ffect is a (N)oun.
Advise vs. Advice
Advise: a verb that means to recommend, suggest or counsel.
Example: He advised Sarah to be cautious when walking alone after dark.
Advice: a noun that means recommendation or opinion.
Example: I would like your advice on a work matter.
Conscious vs. Conscience
Conscious: an adjective referring to awake, perceiving.
Example: Despite having fallen down the stairs, Kelly was conscious and aware of her surroundings.
Conscience: a noun meaning a profound obligation to behave or be good.
Example: Grayson refused to cheat on his test because his conscience would not allow it.
Idea vs. Ideal
Idea: a noun meaning thought, concept or belief.
Example: Sally had a fantastic idea – she would sign up for dance lessons and then she would be the star of the prom.
Ideal: a noun meaning someone or something that is perfect or an ultimate object.
Example: Christmas time was the ideal time to vacation in Cuba.
Ideal: an adjective meaning the embodiment of an ultimate standard of excellent – or the best.
Example: Carson was the ideal athlete.
Its vs. It’s
Its: a possessive adjective
Example: The dog had a bone in its mouth.
It’s: a contraction for it is or it has.
Example: It’s still snowing outside, it’s very cold.
Lead vs. Led
Lead: a noun referring to dense metal.
Example: The walls were painted with lead-based paint.
Led: a past-tense form of the verb to lead – meaning to direct or to guide.
Example: The choir director led the group while they practiced for the upcoming concert.
Than vs Then
Than: used to compare or state preference.
Example: She is young than I am.
Then: used to indicate time other than the present. Also used to suggest a logical conclusion.
Example: We were much younger then.
Their vs. There vs. They’re
Their: a possessive pronoun
Example: They got their boots.
There: used to indicate a place.
Example: The classroom is over there by the gym.
They’re: a contraction for they are.
Example: They’re going to the movies this evening.
To vs. Too vs. Two
To: a preposition or the first part of the infinitive form of a verb.
Example: They went to the park to play tag.
Too: also, very.
Example: You are going to the store? Can I come too?
Two: The number 2, more than one less than three.
Example: Two elephants went out to play upon a spiders web one day.
We’re vs. Where vs. Were
We’re: a contraction for we are
Example: We’re glad that you were able to come with us to the concert.
Where: a location.
Example: Where does your family live?
Were: past tense of be.
Example: When we were young, we had so much fun.
Your vs. You’re
Your: possessive pronoun
Example: Please feed your dog.
You’re: a contraction for you are.
Example: If you don’t clean up your room, you’re grounded.
It should come as no surprise that the best way to improve your spelling capabilities is to gain as much exposure to the written word as possible, this can be done by making a commitment to read more (you might challenge yourself to read 50 books in a year, for example) or you might try to write letters to the people in your life to give yourself an opportunity to practice your writing and spelling skills. Remember, you might run into situations where two words that mean the same things might be spelled differently.
This is most often seen in British versus American spelling – where letters like S might be swapped with a Z or where words with an ORS ending might be written as OURS. For example neighbor versus neighbour.
Pay careful attention to the five spelling rules that we outlined earlier in the article, they will serve as your guide and also alert you to some things that you should be looking out for. For example, I before E except after C, unless it sounds like A as in neighbor or weigh will get you through most of the time. But, there are a few words that you should try to commit to memory because they are exceptions to the rule.
For certain words that sound the same, but have different spellings or meanings, it is in good practice to either learn how to research words using a dictionary, or listen for the first part of the word carefully so that you can make the distinction and not be left with egg on your face. For example, affecting or effecting – knowing that affect is a noun and that effect can be a verb is beneficial.