Spelling rules are guidelines that help us consistently spell words correctly in the English language.
English spelling can be thorny, so there are exceptions to every rule. But these are some common spelling rules you can usually count on and how to break them the right way in order to avoid spelling mistakes.
Basic spelling rules
- Add a silent -e at the end of one-syllable words to make the first vowel long
- Add -s, -es, or -ies to form plurals
- End a multi-syllable word with -y to make the long e sound
- Replace letters and spaces with an apostrophe to form a contraction
- Use i before e except after c or when sounded like a, as in neighbor or weigh
- Don’t use s after x…usually
- Include a vowel sound in every syllable
1. Add a silent e at the end of one-syllable words to make the first vowel long
For single-syllable words, adding a silent -e at the end often changes the pronunciation of the first vowel from short to long (which is when the vowel sounds like its name).
Short vowel/Long vowel
However, in some cases, especially when m, n, v, or r appears immediately before the silent e, the vowel remains short:
- where, there
- give, live
2. Add -s, -es, or -ies to form plurals
To form a plural, simply add -s to the end of most words:
- dog -> dogs
- idea -> ideas
If the word ends with -s, -x, -z, -sh, or -ch, then add -es.
- bias -> biases
- ax -> axes
- leash -> leashes
- couch -> couches
And if it ends with a consonant and -y, drop the -y and add -ies.
- puppy -> puppies
- spy -> spies
- apology -> apologies
If there’s no consonant next to the y, the usual rule applies. Simply add -s:
- valley -> valleys
Things get a little iffy when a word ends in -o. This is a good time to look in a dictionary:
- tomato -> tomatoes
- zero -> zeros or zeroes
- veto -> vetoes
- halo -> halos or haloes
- casino -> casinos
- cuckoo -> cuckoos
- stiletto -> stilettos or stilettoes
3. End a multi-syllable word with -y to make the long e sound
When a word with two or more syllables ends with a -y, the -y nearly always makes the long e sound.
4. Replace letters and spaces with an apostrophe to form a contraction
When you’re forming a contraction, the apostrophe goes where the missing letters were and spaces between the original words disappear. A contraction is often a one-syllable word.
- can not -> can’t
- is not -> isn’t
- there is -> there’s
- we are -> we’re
- they are -> they’re
- you all -> y’all
- he would or he had -> he’d
One contraction goes beyond this rule. It not only replaces some letters with an apostrophe but also changes some letters:
- will not -> won’t
5. Use i before e except after c or when sounded like a, as in neighbor or weigh
Though it’s still one of the most commonly taught spelling rules, this one has been largely discredited. A study found that i does come before e about three-fourths of the time, but the cases when it doesn’t are usually after w, not c.
Here are some common words in which e comes before i, but the vowel sound is not like neighbor or weigh:
Many words in which i comes before e even after c are superlatives or plurals of nouns ending in -y, but some are not:
The safe bet is to put i first, but if you’re not sure, it’s wise to check a dictionary.
6. Don’t use s after x...usually
Some say there are no English words that have an s following an x. While this is true most of the time, you can see in the following list that it isn’t always:
7. Include a vowel sound in every syllable
Most English words have at least one vowel in them, and the spelling rule is that every syllable must have a vowel.
But some words don’t contain any of the five letters we typically think of as vowels. Instead they use y to create a vowel sound:
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, that’s because y is also considered a vowel in these three cases:
- The word has no other vowel: gym, my.
- The letter is at the end of a word or syllable: candy, deny, bicycle, acrylic.
- The letter is in the middle of a syllable: system, borborygmus.
Onomatopoeic words, which represent sounds and therefore don’t follow typical spelling rules, are an exception even to this rule. They’re listed in dictionaries and used frequently:
With so many finer points and exceptions to every English spelling rule, you might be wondering how anyone gets it all right.
It’s tough, and that’s why QuillBot has created a spell checker that has outstanding spell-check functionality. It can grasp in seconds what takes us a lifetime to understand.
How many vowels are there according to English spelling rules?
There are five vowels: a, e, i, o, and u. Sometimes y functions as a vowel, too. However, since vowels are really just symbols for sounds, there are actually many more because combining these five letters with other letters changes the sounds they make, leading to numerous new sounds.
Are there any English spelling rules that are always true?
Nope. For every English spelling rule, there are exceptions. Throughout history, English has changed a lot. Also, as English speakers have adopted or adapted a large number of words from other languages, they’ve incorporated some spelling and pronunciation rules of those languages as well. This leads to a lot of variety in English, which is a beautiful thing even if it’s a bit tricky.