Being a good writer does not automatically make one a good speller. And since the English language includes exceptions and special cases for practically every spelling principle, you’ll very likely one day find yourself looking at a word that you’ve written thinking,“Is that right?”
Don’t resign yourself to simply being at the mercy of your spell checker. Instead, take this brief refresher on three basic spelling principles so you can better identify potential spelling problems while editing your work.
Principle One: I Before E Except After C (or When It Doesn’t Sound Like Me)
The first part of this rule is one of the best known English spelling principles and will help you spell words like achieve, fiend and thief as well as receive and receipt.
The second part applies to words that have the i and e placed together, but do not have the vowel sound that you hear in the word me.
In the absence of that sound, use the ei combination, in order to accurately spell words such as neighbor, weigh, beige, height, and foreign.
Exceptions: Only a few words don’t follow any part of this first rule. E.g., seize and sheik have the same vowel sound as me but they still use an ei combination.
On the other hand, friends and mischief do not have the vowel sound, but use an ie combination as if they did.
So, memorize these four words as the tricky exceptions. Any other word you encounter will adhere to the EI/IE principle.
Principle Two: Adding Suffixes to Words with a Silent Final “E”
Suffixes (endings attached to the end of a word) include “-less,” “-ly” “-ment” and “-ing.”
If the suffix begins with a vowel, you should drop the final e in the root word unless the result would lead to confusion.
E.g., age becomes aging and fame becomes famous. However, be becomes being because deleting the final e in this case would result in bing.
If the suffix begins with a consonant, keep that final e.
Example: manage becomes management.
Exceptions: The following are examples of exceptions to this principle:
argue – argument
mile – mileage
nine – ninth
true – truly
whole – wholly
In addition, you have the option of keeping or deleting the e with the words judgment/judgement and likeable/likable. However, the AP stylebook states its preference is for judgment and likable. Check whether the style sheets or stylebooks related to the publications that you’re targeting have a specific preference.
Principle Three: Doubling a Final Consonant Before a Suffix
This principle is applied when three circumstances are met:
1. The suffix begins with a vowel
2. The root word places emphasis on the last syllable or has only one syllable
3. The consonant is preceded by a single vowel
Examples: drag (one syllable) – dragging
begin (last syllable emphasized) – beginning
Spelling Beyond These Three Principles
If particular words consistently give you trouble, try creating a sheet of the words that you frequently misspell so that you can easily check for errors as you’re writing. You should also review the entire list from time to time.
If you suspect that your spelling skills need a more general overhaul, use the spelling exercises at the Online Writing Lab (OWL) in order to pinpoint areas of trouble.
Finally, when in doubt, check a dictionary, including online versions such as dictionary.com and merriam-webster.com. That’s the sign of a conscientious writer.