Everyone who knows how to speak English, whether it's their native language or they're aiming to learn English as a foreign language, knows how tough the spelling can be.
Since the English language is a mish-mash of several tongues of people who invaded the British Isles, it is sometimes difficult for non native speakers to spot any reliable pattern in its spelling.
This means that learning to spell fluently in English can be a daunting task, as there are few examples to refer to.
Another downside to this is that any rules that are made usually have plenty of exceptions, such as the ‘I before E’ rule.
The rule says:
I before E is always the same, except after C.
Sadly, this isn’t always true.
Exceptions include ‘weird’, ‘ceiling’, and ‘science’ to name a few.
But it’s not all bad – even the trickiest of spellings can be learnt with the right methods and plenty of practice.
So, let’s delve into the world of English spelling rules, and find out which ones are most likely to help you improve your vocabulary as well as your writing fluency and accuracy so that your writing skills are close to those of a native English speaker in no time!
Nota bene: this article will focus on British English spellings.
Pluralisation of Nouns
Pluralising nouns is probably the easiest part of English spelling, since the rules are regular and logical.
As a basic rule, to pluralise a noun in English, you add an ‘S’ to the word.
Curtain → Curtains
However, some phonetics do not allow this in English pronunciation, such as the word ‘church’, which is almost impossible to pronounce as ‘churchs’.
For this reason, singular nouns ending in ‘s’, ‘ch’, ‘z’, ‘sh’ and ‘x’ take an extra ‘E’ when they become pluralised.
Church → Churches
Gas → Gases
Bush → Bushes
Box → Boxes
Waltz → Waltzes
Another exception to the general ‘add an S’ rule is words ending in the letter ‘Y’, and since ‘Y’ can behave as both a vowel and a consonant, there are two different counter-rules.
Firstly, words ending in a ‘Y’ following a vowel.
These are simple, all you need to do is add an ‘S’ as usual.
Boy → Boys
But for words which have a consonant before their ending ‘Y’, the rule changes, and you have to remove the ‘Y’ and replace it with ‘i-e-s’.
Dolly → Dollies
Words ending in a single letter ‘F’ also change slightly when they are pluralised.
This happens by replacing the ‘F’ with ‘v-e-s’ to make pronunciation easier.
Calf → Calves
This also goes for words ending in ‘f-e’, such as ‘knife’.
Knife → Knives
Watch out for words ending in ‘ff’, though, as these take an ‘S’ as usual.
Quiff → Quiffs
Getting the hang of subtle differences such as these will make a big difference to how others view your level of English proficiency in both spoken and written English conversation.
There are exceptions to these pluralisation rules, and, just like with English verbs, the exceptions affect some of the most common words.
Man → Men
Child → Children
Tooth → Teeth
Other, less common examples include:
Crisis → Crises
Criterion → Criteria
Cactus → Cacti
Unfortunately, there is no real pattern to the very irregular plurals, so you just have to learn them.
Luckily, it’s easier than you think.
By regularly engaging in English conversation and exposing yourself to the English language, you will get used to exceptions without necessarily realising.
Silent and Ambiguous Letters
Logic of English is a handy website which sets out the concrete rules of English spelling and how it relates to pronunciation.
It covers all topics such as how the ‘silent E’ changes vowel sounds, and how letters such as ‘C’ and ‘G’, which have two possible pronunciations, should sound depending on their position in a word.
The ‘silent E’ may seem to be silent but deadly for some English learners, but thankfully there are plenty of rules and explanations around this rule to help you get the hang of it.
When the final letter in a word is ‘E’, the preceding vowel says its name.
This means ‘A’ becomes ‘ay’ instead of ‘ah’, ‘E’ becomes ‘ee’, ‘I’ becomes ‘eye’, ‘O’ becomes ‘oh’, and ‘U’ becomes ‘yoo’.
So, if you add an ‘E’ to the word ‘hat’, you get ‘hate’, pronounced ‘hayt’.
And it’s not just vowels that are altered by a final ‘E’.
‘C’ and ‘G’ are also pronounced a certain way when followed by an ‘E’.
The letter ‘C’ may be pronounced as a hard ‘K’ in some instances, and as a softer ‘S’ in others.
‘C’ takes its soft pronunciation, becoming ‘ss’, so words such as ‘dance’ end with an ‘s’ sound.
And ‘G’ sounds as a ‘J’ rather than a hard, glottal ‘g’ in words like ‘tonnage’.
When these rules are put into writing, they can seem overly complex, however, as you progress through your English learning, spelling rules will become instinctual and you’ll have no trouble making an educated guess when in doubt.
How Tenses Affect Spelling
Tenses are another aspect of English grammar which can have a dramatic effect on spelling – especially when it comes to the irregular verbs.
So, the general (and simple) rule of forming the past tense in English goes like this:
For regular verbs, add the ending ‘-ed’ to the word.
In spoken English, this is usually pronounced as a ‘d’ or a ‘t’ sound at the end of the infinitive (basic) form of the verb.
So, instead of ‘walk’, you have ‘walked’, pronounced ‘walk-t’.
An important point on the difference between British and American English is to do with these verbs.
In US English, the past participle of verbs such as ‘to learn’ and ‘to dream’ follows the ‘-ed’ pattern, whereas in English English there is a ‘t’ in the place of ‘-ed’, since this better reflects the pronunciation.
Past participle in US English
|Past participle in British English|
|To dream||dreamed|| |
Sometimes, the ‘-ed’ ending will sometimes add a new syllable to the infinitive, giving you ‘wanted’ instead of ‘want’.
This is usually the case for infinitive verbs which already end with a ‘D’ or a ‘T’.
Shout → Shouted
Found → Founded
The English language contains at least 370 irregular verbs, and this may seem daunting, but thankfully, most of them are part of everyday language, which means any English learner can easily get used to them.
The most striking examples include ‘to be’ which becomes ‘was’, ‘go’ which becomes ‘went’ and ‘do’ which becomes ‘did’.
Both regular and irregular verbs are easy to learn in their imperfect or ‘simple past’ form, as they don’t change depending on who they relate to.
This means you can have:
But you can also have:
Of course, there has to be an exception to this rule, and in this case, it happens to be the verb ‘to be’, which has two imperfect forms: ‘was’ and ‘were’.
Problems arise in spelling when it comes to generating the imperfect form of an irregular verb.
A good example of just how much the infinitive and imperfect form can differ is the verb ‘to buy’.
This is because ‘I buy’ becomes ‘I bought’ – which looks nothing like its infinitive.
An even more striking verb is ‘to seek’, which becomes ‘sought’.
It’s important not to be put off by the spelling of these verbs, and be thankful that you don’t have to conjugate them for each pronoun as you have to in so many other languages.
When we learn English online or at home, the forms of these verbs as well as their sometimes-ridiculous spelling, there are many methods you can use.
Some people test themselves with online quizzes and grammar exercises in preparation for the grammar section of English exams, whereas others do their best to absorb as much information as possible through surrounding themselves with English language material.
Even watching English TV and films with the subtitles on can help you get used to how pronunciation and spelling links together in English.
This way, you will be able to rely on your natural instinct rather than inconsistent ‘rules’ when it comes to spelling, as well as improving your English speaking and listening skills as you study English.
No matter whether English is your native or second language, English spelling is anything but a walk in the park, but improving your general language skills as you learn slang and work on your comprehension of idiomatic expressions and phrases to become fluent really is all down to practice.
So if you aim to learn to speak English as a second language, you'll need to get the hang of the tricky details including spelling. Why not carry a dictionary with you to perfect your daily language.
There are plenty of ways you can practice your English and improve your overall English skills including practising speaking English and not relying on your native language as well as getting the most from your English lessons by learning grammar rules through studying English literacy and getting used to English media.
With the right attitude and a good amount of motivation, you’ll soon be on your way to spelling success and 0 mistakes!
Get information on online ESOL courses here.