Spelling Rules in English

by Craig Shrives

This Page Includes...

Top 10 Spelling Rules in English

At first glance, the spelling rules in English look complicated. However, after a bit of practice, you will soon discover that they are not as bad as they initially look.

After a bit of practice, you will notice that a word looks wrong, or would be pronounced wrongly, without the spelling rule. You will even learn to love the exceptions!

Our Top 10 List

The following spelling rules make our top 10 list (click to view):
  1. Adding a suffix to word ending "-y"
  2. Adding "-es" to a word ending "-s," "-ss," "-z," "-ch," "-sh", or "-x"
  3. Dropping the "-e"
  4. Writing "i" before "e" except after "c"
  5. Changing "-f" to "-ves"
  6. Doubling the final consonant
  7. Adding the suffix "-ful"
  8. Adding the suffix "-ly"
  9. Adding the prefix "al-"
  10. Adding "-s" or -"-es" to a word ending "-o"
  11. Try the test

(1) Adding a suffix to word ending "-y"

If the suffix starts with e, change the y to an i.
word ending -ysuffixcorrect spelling
cry
-ed
cried
ugly
-est
ugliest
family
-es
families
If the suffix is -ing, leave the y.
words ending -ysuffixcorrect spellings
cry, try, tidy
-ing
crying, trying, tidying
If suffix is -ly and the word ends [two consonants] + y, change the y to an i.
words ending [two consonants] + ysuffixcorrect spellings
happy, funny, jolly
-ly
happily, funnily, jollily
Exceptions: There are exceptions, which must be learned separately. For example:
word ending [two consonants] + ysuffixcorrect spelling
sly
-ly
slyly
not slyily wrong cross

(2) Adding "-es" to a word ending "-s," "-ss," "-z," "-ch," "-sh", or "-x"

There are two reasons to add -s or -es to the end of a word:
  1. To make a noun plural (e.g., cat > cats, tree > trees)
  2. To make a verb fit with "he," "she," or "it" (e.g., he looks, she thinks, it likes)
If the words ends -s, -ss, -z, -ch, -sh, or -x, use -es (not -s).
example wordreason to add "-s" or "-es"correct spelling
bus
make plural
buses
fox
make plural
foxes
business
make pluralbusinesss wrong cross
catch
verb change
he catches
wash
verb change
it washes
box
verb changehe boxs wrong cross
Changing a verb to fit is called verb conjugation.

(3) Dropping the "-e"

Drop the silent e to add a suffix that starts with a vowel (e.g., -ing, -ed, -er, -est, -able).
example wordvowel suffixcorrect spelling
write
-ing
writing
imagine
-able
imaginable
loose
-est
loosest
opposite
-ion
opposition
promote
-ablepromoteable wrong cross
Exceptions: Some words that end -ge or -ce, keep the e to maintain the soft sound of the g or c.
example wordvowel suffixcorrect spelling
courage
-ous
courageous
notice
-able
noticeable
Not all words that end -ge or -ce follow this rule:
example wordvowel suffixcorrect spelling
stage
-ing
staging
splice
-ing
splicing

(4) Writing "i" before "e" except after "c"

If you're unsure whether to use ie or ei, follow this well-known rhyme:
  • i before e except after c
uncertaintycommentcorrect spelling
believe or beleive?i before e
believe
recieve or receive?after c, so switch
receive
cieling or ceiling?after c, so switch
ceiling
Exceptions 1: Keep i before e when the c sounds like sh.
uncertaintycommentcorrect spelling
ancient or anceint?c sounds like sh
ancient
efficient or efficeint?c sounds like sh
efficient
Exceptions 2: Keep i before e when the pairing sounds like A.
uncertaintycommentcorrect spelling
weigh or wiegh?pairing sounds like A
weigh
freight or frieght?pairing sounds like A
freight
Exceptions 3: There are some noteworthy exceptions:
  • conscience, counterfeit, either, foreign, forfeit, height, leisure, neither, science, seize, species, sufficient, weird

(5) Changing "-f" to "-ves"

When pluralizing a word ending -f, use the -ves ending.
example wordscorrect spellings
leaf, knife, shelf
leaves, knives, shelves
Exceptions 1: If the word ends -rf, a normal -s might also be acceptable.
example wordcorrect spellings
dwarf
dwarves, dwarfs
scarf
scarves, scarfs
Exceptions 2: Some words that end [two vowels] + f just add -s.
example wordscorrect spellings
chief, roof, belief
chiefs, roofs, beliefs
Some words that end [two vowels] + f use the -ves ending (e.g., thief > thieves, leaf > leaves).

Exceptions 3: If the word ends -ff, add -s.

example wordscorrect spellings
cliff, sniff
cliffs, sniffs

(6) Doubling the final consonant

If a one-syllable word ends vowel + consonant, double the final consonant before a vowel suffix.
example wordvowel suffixcorrect spelling
sit
-ing
sitting
big
-er
bigger
tap
-able
tappable
thin
-est
thinnest
A one-syllable word is also called a monosyllabic word.

With multi-syllable words, apply the same rule if the final syllable is stressed.

example wordvowel suffixcorrect spelling
refer
-ing
referring
begin
-er
beginner
tap
-able
tappable
Note the end syllable must be stressed. Look at these examples with "offer" and "develop," which are not end-stressed.
example wordvowel suffixcorrect spelling
offer
-ing
offering
develop
-er
developer

(7) Adding the suffix "-ful"

The suffix -ful always has one l.
example wordscorrect spellings
faith, care
faithful, careful
Note that the suffix "-fully" has two Ls (e.g., faithfully, carefully).

(8) Adding the suffix "-ly"

If a word ends -e, add -ly.
example wordscorrect spellings
love, live, definite
lovely, lively, definitely
Exception: True becomes
truly
not truely wrong cross.

If a word ends -le, remove the -e and add -y.

example wordscorrect spellings
gentle, subtle
gently, subtly

(9) Adding the prefix "al-"

The prefix al- comes from "all," but it always has one l.
correct spellings
also, always, almighty, already
Do not confuse the prefixed words with the two-word phrase (e.g., already/all ready, alright/all right, altogether/all together).

(10) Adding "-s" or -"-es" to a word ending "-o"

The he/she/it version of go and do are goes and does.
verbreason to add "-s" or "-es"correct spelling
do
verb change
he does
go
verb change
it goes
The following words add -es. For everything else, add -s.
words for "-es"correct spellings
domino, echo, embargo, hero, mosquito, potato, tomato, torpedo, veto
dominoes, echoes, embargoes, heroes, mosquitoes, potatoes, tomatoes, torpedoes, vetoes
For the rest of the words ending -o, you can just add -s. Nevertheless, here are some additional rules for added confidence:

If the word ends vowel + o, add -s.

example wordscorrect spellings
patio, video, tattoo
patios, videos, tattoos
If the word is a musical term or instrument, add -s.
example wordscorrect spellings
solo, soprano, banjo, cello, piano
solos, sopranos, banjos, cellos, pianos
If the word is an abbreviated version of a longer word, add -s.
example wordlong formcorrect spelling
photo
photograph
photos
hippo
hippopotamus
hippos
kilo
kilogram
kilos
typo
typographical error
typos
If the word is "foreign," add -s.
example wordscorrect spellings
stiletto, kimono, taco, inferno
stilettos, kimonos, tacos, infernos
Exceptions: The following common words ending -o can be pluralized with -s or -es.
example wordacceptable plurals
buffalo
buffalos or buffaloes
cargo
cargos or cargoes
fresco
frescos or frescoes
ghetto
ghettos or ghettoes
halo
halos or haloes
mango
mangos or mangoes
memento
mementos or mementoes
motto
mottos or mottoes
tornado
tornados or tornadoes
volcano
volcanos or volcanoes
zero
zeros or zeroes

Help Us Improve Grammar Monster

  • Do you disagree with something on this page?
  • Did you spot a typo?

Find Us Quicker!

  • When using a search engine (e.g., Google, Bing), you will find Grammar Monster quicker if you add #gm to your search term.
Next lesson >

See Also

How to improve your spelling The most commonly misspelled words in English The "schwa" vowel and why it causes spelling mistakes Word Builder Game Hangman Game Countdown Game Wordle ("Word Mastermind")

Page URL