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"We have heard countless times that knowledge of grammar does not make a writer. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a musician without a sense of rhythm, knowledge of notes, or ear for melody."

Maynar J. Brennan, Compact Handbook of College Composition, Third Edition, 1978


To Spell Well
By Ray Wyman, Jr.

Misspelled words are not easily forgiven. Just ask the sign painter who misplaced the second 'e' in 'receiving' or the editor who missed 'journies' on a front page headline. These days, misspellings are especially inexcusable when 'spell checker' software is within our easy reach. The trick is to prevent misspelling from occurring in the first place. Easier said than done? Imagine the consequences if you don't at least try.

Misspellings are a distraction and they diminish the author's authority, particularly when errors occur several times in one document. No matter how simple or trite they may seem initially, misspellings can destroy a well-intended message and hamper reader comprehension. Some people may giggle about such errors, but in the worst-case situation a misspelled word can make a mockery of you, your organization, and your mission.

The rules below are spelling 'crutches' that this writer learned through his own mistakes (and embarrassment). Some were learned in college while others were picked up on the road from other editors and writers who also suffered the same afflictions.

Be forewarned that crutches are not solutions for chronic errors - but they are a good beginning. The advice from one of my early professors: "Only practice makes a writer a better speller, and only a better writer can communicate effectively." And why is this so important, you ask? Because everybody notices a mistake.

Common Digraphs (diphthongs)

Digraphs are two successive letters that form a single sound. The most common misspellings involve words that contain the digraph combinations 'ai', 'ia', 'ie' and 'ei'.

  • 'a' before 'i': Use 'a' before 'i' when sounded as 'ah'. This rule always works with words like caisson and waiter.
  • 'i' before 'a': Use 'i' before 'a' when sounded as 'yah' as in words like brilliant, familiar, and partial. The 'ia' in some words not digraphs because the 'i' is pronounced separately and therefore can be sounded out phonetically.
  • 'i' before 'e': Use 'i' before 'e', when sounded as 'ee', except after 'c', or when sounded like 'a', as in neighbor and weigh. The rule works with long 'e' words like brigadier and grief; 'ei' after 'c' words like perceive and receive; and long 'a' words like neighbor and weight. The exception is 'i' before 'e' after a 'sh' sound, as in patient and glacier.
  • 'e' before 'i': Use 'e' before 'i' when sounded as 'eye' (long 'i') as in height and kaleidoscope; or 'eh' (short 'i') as in foreign and forfeit.

Words like either, friend, and financier (the list is rather lengthy) do not fit into any of the above 'ie' and 'ei' rules. On those counts, there is only one answer: drill.

Adding Suffixes

Suffixes are partial words are attached to the end of root words to modify action or a state of being. These rules concern the most common suffixes used in English.

'sede', 'ceed', and 'cede': These 'suffixes' are often confused and misused by seasoned journalists and novice writers alike. In some cases, they are not suffixes at all and are actually part of the root word. In any case, all are derivatives of the Latin word 'cedere' - to give way or yield. Pronounced 'seed', most writers simply solve the problem by memorizing a handful of verbs since there only 12 of them:

  • 'sede': supersede
  • 'ceed': exceed, proceed, succeed
  • 'cede': accede, antecede, cede, concede, intercede, precede, recede, and secede.

Note that each word, except 'supersede', can be modified into nouns or adjectives by changing 'ceed' or 'cede' to 'cess' as in these examples: exceed/excess/excessive, proceed/process/processor, and succeed/success/successor. Proceed and antecede may be modified by adding 'ced', as in procedure and antecedent.

Adding suffixes to words ending with 'e', 'y' and other consonants is a bit more complicated.

  • Words that end with 'e':
    Drop the silent 'e' when adding suffixes that begin with vowels: able, age, ance, ed, ence, er, est, ing, ible, ous, and ity; and when preceded by a 'u' with words like true/truly, and awe/awfully.
    Keep the silent 'e' when adding suffixes that begin with consonants: ful, less, ly, ness, and ment; and with words that end with 'ee' and 'oe' in words like agree/agreeable, canoe/canoeing; and in cases where dropping the 'e' may cause mispronunciation or a malapropism, as in 'dying' as in 'dying of a disease' versus 'dyeing' as in 'dyeing her hair'.

  • Words that end with 'y':
    Keep the 'y' followed by a vowel as in words like delay/delayed and journey/journeys; and if the suffix is 'ful', 'ing', 'ment', or 'ness' as in and play/playful, study/studying, enjoy/enjoyment, and dry/dryness.
    Change 'y' to 'i' only when it follows a consonant or 'qu', as in apply/applies, and soliloquy/soliloquies.

  • Words that end with other consonants:
    Double the consonant in a one-syllable word when followed by a single vowel, as in stop/stopping; and in a one-syllable word when followed by a suffix that begins with a vowel, as in ship/shippable; and in a one-syllable word if it stands alone, as in dig/digger. The same applies for most multi-syllable words and all multi-syllable words where the accent is on the last syllable, as in transmit/transmitting.


The singular state of nouns defines a person, place, or thing. When there are many persons, places, or things, then it is plural.

  • Add 's': In most cases, add 's' as in American/Americans, toy/toys, and wire/wires.
  • Add 'es': In cases where the noun ends in ss, sh, ch, x, and z, add 'es' as in grass/grasses, lash/lashes, church/churches, fax/faxes, buzz/buzzes.

Then there are the special cases where adding 's' or 'es' is complicated by other rules, such as:

  • Words that end with 'o':
    Add 's' for words if 'o' is preceded by a vowel as in radio/radios and video/videos.
    Add 'es' for most words if 'o' is preceded by a consonant as in cargo/cargoes and potato/potatoes. Add 's' for some words in this case as in banjo/banjos and zero/zeros.

  • Words that end with 'f' and 'fe':
    Add 's' if the word contains 'ie', 'oo', 'rf', 'ff' or 'gh' ('f' sound) as in belief/beliefs, hoof/hoofs, scarf/scarfs, bluff/bluffs, and trough/troughs.
    Replace 'f' or 'fe' with 'v' and add 'es' if sounded as 'ee' (long 'e'), 'eye' (long 'i'), and 'el' as in leaf/leaves, life/lives, and elf/elves.

There are many exceptions to the above rules, and some plural forms have two spellings, as in the case of scarf/scarfs/scarves and wharf/wharfs/wharves. Carefully sound out the word, and often the correct spelling will reveal itself as in the case of loaf/loaves and thief/thieves.

Plural Verbs and Subject Nouns:
When a noun is a subject of a sentence, it must 'agree' with the verb acting on it. Add 's' to verbs acting on a singular noun, as in "The boy yells to his friends." No change to verbs acting on a plural noun, as in "The boys yell to their friends."

  • Proper Nouns:
    In some cases, a writer may use a plural form of a proper noun by adding 's' to the name: "The three Meccas of nearly every red-blooded American are Disneyland, the ballpark, and the beach."

  • Working Plurals:
    Add an apostrophe 's' ('s) to modify numbers and abbreviations, as in 2's and 3's, and GI's and Dr.'s.

  • Miscellaneous Plurals:
    Some words do not change at all, such as cattle, goods, and pants. Other words are completely transformed as in foot/feet, man/men. Very few words are modified by add 'en' or 'ren' as in ox/oxen and child/children. Some words are not English at all and the writer must take great care to obey the word usage rules of the original language.

Verb Tenses

Add what has been covered so far to the following rules concerning regular and irregular verbs, and those acting with plural/singular subject nouns. Spelling these words correctly requires certain knowledge of basic grammar.

  • Regular Verbs: Add 'ed', 't', or 'd' to modify present tense to past tense, as in talk/talked, deal/dealt, and love/loved.

  • Irregular Verbs: There are no rules for these words. Most past tense forms often require more than simply adding or changing a letter as in bear/bore/borne and swim/swam/swum. The best way to remember the spelling of these kinds of words is to memorize them.

Some final words: always proofread your copy. Some pros read their text forwards and backwards, literally: forwards for content and backwards to catch errors (reading backwards helps to overcome what I call the 'wall paper syndrome'). Whatever your method for proof reading, read each word individually - sound out the phonetics of each syllable. Often, if it sounds wrong, then it usually is. When in doubt, always check with an authority (e.g., dictionary). One last tip: Keep a list of words that you frequently misspell and tape it to your monitor. I use this method to learn new words that I find. The thinking is that the correct spellings (and new words) will eventually sink in. -HP


  • Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary
  • Edward Corbett, Little English Handbook, Wiley, 1973
  • The Associated Press Stylebook
  • Stephen Ross, Spelling Made Simple, Doubleday, 1981
  • My teachers in grammar school, high school, and college.

Suggested Websites

28 Rules for Spelling
An excellent premier on defeating the spelling monster. A good adjunct to this article.

Spelling Rules
Excellent spelling and grammar suggestions for teaching younger writers how to spell well. Use this guide to help improve overall grammar skills too!

Susan Jones' Spelling Rules
Teacher inspired. Good for parents engaged in a bit of home learning. Another suggestion - read the newspaper together at least 20 minutes a day.

Recommended Writing and Research Links
From Capital Community College. For college level writers looking for a concise source of online writing aids.

Webster Online
When in doubt, look it up
. Includes a few tools and other useful links.


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