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The Most Important Spelling Rules in English to Help You Progress Faster

By Imogen, published on 13/09/2017 Blog > Languages > ESOL (English) > English Spelling Rules for ESOL Learners

With its international status and easy conjugation, English is a brilliant language to learn.

Gaining reading and writing skills with the possibility of achieving fluency in any language is highly beneficial for the future prospects of the learners, as acquiring valuable language skills is a small step in promoting healthy intercultural relations.

However, there is one particularly tricky aspect of the English language, which causes all manner of problems for those learning English as a second language, as well as native English speakers.

The offender is English spelling.

With its silent letters making new words difficult to pronounce, and several different pronunciations for words ending in o-u-g-h, English spelling is anything but phonetic.

The way that ‘tough’ rhymes with ‘rough’, but it doesn’t rhyme with ‘though’ is enough to make anyone dizzy.

English also features silent letters, which appear in the spelling of a word but are not said aloud.

Some examples of silent letters include the letter ‘K’ in ‘knife’ and ‘knead’, as well as the ‘G’ in ‘gnarl’ and ‘gnat’.

Even the many English dictionaries on the market can’t seem to completely agree when it comes to the spelling of certain words, and whether compound words like ‘makeup’ should feature a hyphen to become ‘make-up’.

The international status of English means that it opens up a lot of doors to its speakers From Westminster to Washington DC and beyond – English is an international language ¦ source: Pixabay – derwiki

The interestingness of English spelling is largely due to the early origins of the English language, as well as more recent variations that have surfaced with English being spoken in North America.

English started life as, and still technically is, a part of the Germanic family of languages.

But the Norman invasion of 1066 brought a Latin influence across the channel, which had a lasting impact on English language and how language was used within society at that time.

When you learn to speak English as a foreign language, it is about more than your conversational English skills, listening comprehension and getting the hang of the latest slang to make an impression in your English lessons.

Being able to speak English fluently isn’t the be-all and end-all of acing your English course.

As a non native English learner, knowing how to read and write in good English is an essential part of using English in every aspect of communication, and will stand you in good stead if you take any written exams in English.

Its rich yet somewhat rocky history is what makes some aspects of English challenging, but it is nevertheless a truly unique language and a joy to learn!

The Logic of English Spelling Rules

English grammar rules such as pluralisation and conjugation, as well as tenses, are just a few things that can pose problems when it comes to improving English spelling.

However, overcoming these grammatical obstacles is all part of learning a language.

Regardless of whether or not you are a native English speaker, there are many different methods and grammar exercises and worksheets out there to help you with your spelling.

When studying English, you need to be motivated to constantly improve your communication skills.

a large part of this is knowing yourself as a learner and finding out what revision methods work best for you. In order to succeed in your English language learning, you must first learn how to learn English confidently and effectively.

For example, you could keep a list of the words you struggle with, and test yourself on them until you can spell them perfectly, ticking them off as you go.

This will target any problem areas and prevent you from getting into the habit of misspelling certain words, whilst helping you keep track of your progress.

You can use songs, rhymes or mnemonics to remember difficult spellings.

Ironically, ‘mnemonic’ is itself a tricky word to spell with its silent ‘M’ at the beginning, but mnemonics are an incredibly helpful method for remembering letter orders.

‘Mnemonic’ is an umbrella term for methods used to assist the memory.

For instance, you could use phrases, tongue twisters or sentences in which the first letters of each word come together to form the word you want to spell.

An example of this is ‘Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants’, which is a good way of remembering the spelling of ‘because’.

A large part of learning to spell is practice.

For this reason, playing word games where your success is down to your ability to consider letter combinations, such as Scrabble, can help you take a less academic approach to spelling.

Having fun in your learning is often the secret ingredient to academic success.

This is exactly why watch English language films with subtitles is also a great way to link the sounds of spoken English to its letters!

Learning through thinking critically about the inner workings of the English alphabet will not only help you get into the habit of avoiding spelling mistakes, but it will also help you gain confidence in your English proficiency.

The 10 Most Common Spelling Mistakes in English

There is a whole collection of words which people struggle to spell.

Sometimes English pronunciation, which, as well as being one of these commonly misspelt words, is actually part of the greater issue.

Work on your spelling so you're never caught out on a crossword Don’t be caught out by English spelling ¦ source: Visualhunt – stevepb

English is neither a phonetic language nor is it very consistent when it comes to the link between pronunciation and spelling.

For example, why should ‘colonel’ represent a rank of officer in the armed forces which is pronounced ‘ker-nul’, when it looks nothing like its pronunciation?

And to confuse matters even further, why is this exact same pronunciation attributed to the edible part of a nut or seed, which is spelt phonetically as ‘kernel’?

The same goes for ‘knows’ and ‘nose’, or ‘mist’ and ‘missed’.

There is a logical reason for the odd orthography of the English language, and it is to do with its turbulent past (or is it spelt ‘passed’?).

To use the example above, the word ‘colonel’ is derived from the Middle French equivalent, which, at one time, had two spellings.

The first was ‘coronel’, which is somewhat closer to the actual pronunciation, however, it was the older spelling of the word which triumphed, harking back to its Italian roots in ‘colonello’.

English words with silent letters are usually of a foreign origin and have been adapted by English speakers over time.

A recent example of this phenomenon is the Japanese word ‘tsunami’.

The ‘ts’ sound at the beginning of a word is not native to the English language, so many native English speakers drop the ‘T’ and say ‘sunami’ instead.

With the UK being an island nation, English vocabulary has become a true melting pot of other languages, however, this does make it difficult to apply any kind of spelling rules.

But don’t worry!

There are plenty of tricks you can use to remember awkward spellings, such as the mnemonics we have already mentioned.

Other causes of common spelling mistakes include double letters.

For example, in the word ‘unnecessary’, people are often unsure about how many N’s, C’s and S’s they should use.

There is a simple trick for this one – your Nearly New shirt has one Collar and two Sleeves.

So, ‘unnecessary’ – two ‘N’s, one ‘C’ and two ‘S’s.

It is helpful to think of conquering English spelling as being fluent in English writing.

Where knowing a language fluently is often associated with having a high level of speaking skills and being able to use common English phrases and idiomatic expressions to in English conversation as naturally as possible, working on your English spelling can bridge the gap between your written and spoken English.

Rules of English Spelling

So, as we know, the English language is a melting pot, and this is what makes it so difficult to apply any sort of rule which doesn’t have any exceptions.

However, there are patterns in how words work, and since so much of the English language is closely related to French and Germanic languages, these patterns apply to large groups of vocabulary.

For instance, one of the simplest English spelling rules concerns pluralisation.

To pluralise a noun in English, as a general rule you add an ‘S’ to the end of the word.

Shoe → Shoes

Photograph → Photographs

Angel → Angels

However, this rule is only general, and there is a whole host of exceptions.

Thankfully, since most of these exceptions follow the same pattern, you can easily learn how they work.

It's hard to make rules for English spelling that don't have a lot of exceptions Rules are made to be broken, and they definitely are in English spelling! ¦ source: Pixabay – MoneyforCoffee

Let’s start with words ending in ‘Y’.

For words ending in a consonant followed by ‘Y’, you remove the Y and add ‘i-e-s’:

Pony → Ponies

Company → Companies

Parties → Parties

The exception to this rule is the less common words which end with a vowel before the Y follow the usual rule or simply adding an ‘S’.

Bay → Bays

Key → Keys

Play → Plays

So, even though, as a speaker of another language, English spelling may seem to make people bend over backwards with its traps and inconsistencies, they’re not always too difficult to get the hang of.

Another exception to standard pluralisation is words which already end in ‘S’, like ‘bus’, for example.

The rule for pluralising these words is that you add ‘es’ instead of just ‘S’, and it applies to words ending in ‘s-s’, ‘Z’, ‘c-h’, ‘s-h’ and ‘X’, too.

Bus → Buses

Kiss → Kisses

Waltz → Waltzes

Match → Matches

Brush → Brushes

Tax → Taxes

This part of the pluralisation rule isn’t so difficult to remember since these words are nearly impossible to pronounce without the additional ‘E’ to facilitate a consonant.

Learn English Spelling: UK vs the US

As English has become so widely spoken, there are areas where populations have adapted and added to the language to create their own version of English.

This is particularly notable in the USA, where variant spellings have gained status as a standardised version of English.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, these differences have arisen because British English has kept the original spellings of the words it has acquired from other languages, such as French in particular, whereas American English has adapted spellings to better reflect the way words are pronounced.

One of the most noticeable of these variations is in words ending in ‘r-e’ in English, which American English spells ‘e-r’.

The reason for this is exactly as Oxford Dictionaries explains: British English has stuck with the French spelling.

French British English American English
Centre Centre Center
Théâtre Theatre Theater
Mètre Metre Meter

 

Other examples of spellings that have been altered by US English are words which feature the vowels ‘O’ and ‘U’ side by side British English, but where the ‘U’ has been omitted in the American versions of these words.

British English American English
Colour Color
Honour Honor
Neighbour Neighbor

 

Regarding this phenomenon, BBC America explains that, just like the change in spelling of words ending in ‘r-e’, the omission of the letter ‘U’ was a deliberate change to make words better reflect their pronunciation.

Removing the ‘U’ from words such as ‘color’ was to help differentiate them from words containing ‘o-u-r’ but which were pronounced differently, as ‘ower’.

For example, ‘colour’ and ‘flour’ end with the same letters, but the ‘o-u-r’ in ‘flour’ is pronounced as ‘ower’.

Other words which have been altered to make spelling more phonetic for the American English speaker include ‘plow’, which is spelt as ‘plough’ in British English, ‘catalog’, which was originally ‘catalogue’, and ‘ax’, which the Brits spell with an ‘E’, as ‘axe’.

Spelling doesn't differ too much between UK English and USA English, but it is noticeable UK spelling vs. US spelling: the great debate ¦ source: Pixabay – ErikaWittlieb

The variation in spelling between British and US English is always recognisable, however, it rarely gets in the way of reading comprehension.

This is why to learn English is to open up a whole world of reading opportunity, as you can enjoy literature from both sides of the Atlantic!

Choosing the Right English Dictionary for You

When you’re learning to speak English, you’ll undoubtedly need some kind of dictionary to help with practicing your literacy, vocab and spelling.

But dictionaries come in all shapes and sizes: monolingual, bilingual, rhyming, prescriptive, descriptive, electronic, comprehensive or pocket.

However, being spoilt for choice can sometimes be overwhelming.

So how do you choose the right English dictionary for you?

Since each type of dictionary serves a different purpose, the one you choose will depend on your needs as a learner.

Some dictionaries are simply for looking up the spellings of words, and may only have a simple definition, whereas others will have definitions accompanied by related words and their usage.

It may surprise you that the dictionaries we know today started life as bilingual glossaries in medieval Europe, which were used by churchgoers to translate biblical texts between Latin and their native language.

Similarly, the earliest English dictionaries in Great Britain were used to define Latin, French and Spanish words in English, and later developed to only contain English words with detailed definitions.

The alphabetical dictionaries we know today came about in the year 1755, with the publication of ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ by Samuel Johnson.

Dictionaries, glossaries and word lists offered a standardisation of English spelling at a time when there were few reference resources.

This made the dictionary a powerful tool when it came to influencing the way in which the English language developed, as Noah Webster, as American compiler, realised.

Webster began making subtle changes to the spellings used by the Brits to make words better reflect their pronunciation, and these changes subsequently became responsible for what we know today as ‘US English’.

The world of dictionaries is far richer and more interesting than anyone ever imagines, and every publication is much more than a simple book of words.

The pros and cons of learning English as a native speaker of a foreign language are mainly due to the expanse of the English speaking world, but rest assured that help is never far away and from day one, you can reap the rewards.

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