Differences in Spanish and English Spelling

Distinctions between languages often follow predictable patterns

Tsunami sign in Chile
The spelling of "evacuación" changes in a predictable way from the English "evacuation." This sign is from Chile and says "tsunami evacuation route.".

Pablo Fernández Burgeño / Creative Commons.

If you can spell in English, you have a head start with spelling in Spanish. After all, thousands of words are English-Spanish cognates, words in both languages that are spelled identically or similarly because they share common origins.

For the English speaker learning Spanish as a second language, most of these words pose little problem in spelling, as the differences between the two languages usually follow regular patterns. Below are listed the most common regular differences in spelling as well as a selection of words whose differences don't fit these patterns. The emphasis here is on words that are likely to cause spelling problems, not ordinary differences in the languages such as radio for the English "radium" and dentista for "dentist."

Differences in Prefixes and Suffixes

English "-tion" as the equivalent of Spanish -ción: Hundreds of words fit this pattern. The English "nation" is nación in Spanish, and "perception" is percepción.

Use of inm- instead of "im-" to start words: Examples include inmadurez (immaturity), inmaterial, and inmigración.

Use of tras- for "trans-": Many English words that begin with "trans-," but not all, have Spanish cognates that begin with tras-. Examples include trasplantar and trascender. However, there are many Spanish words where both tras- and trans- are acceptable. Thus both trasferir and transferir (transfer) are used, as are both trasfusión and transfusión.

Differences in Specific Letters

Avoidance of k in Spanish: Except for a few Greek words (such as kilómetro and some words of other foreign origin such as kamikaze and various place names), Spanish cognates of English words with a "k" usually use a c or qu. Examples include quimioterapia (chemotherapy) and Corea. Some words are spelled both ways: caqui and kaki are both used for "khaki," and both bikini and biquini are used.

Lack of "th" in Spanish: Cognates of English words with a "th" usually use a t in Spanish. Examples are tema (theme), metano (methane), ritmo (rhythm) and metodista (Methodist).

Avoidance of y as a vowel: Except for some recently imported words such as byte and sexy, Spanish usually doesn't use y as a vowel except in diphthongs, so i is used instead. Examples include hidrógeno (hydrogen), dislexia , and gimnasta (gymnast).

Use of cua and cuo instead of "qua" and "quo": Examples include ecuador (equator) and cuota.

Dropping of English's silent letters: Commonly, the "h" in English words is dropped in the Spanish equivalents, as in ritmo (rhythm) and gonorrea (gonorrhea). Also, it is common in modern Spanish to not use ps- to start words. Thus sicológico is used for "psychologist," although the older forms such as psicológico are still used. (The cognate of "psalm" is always salmo.)

Use of es- for "s-" preceding a consonant: Native Spanish speakers have a difficult time pronouncing words beginning with various letter combinations starting with s, so the spelling is adjusted accordingly. Examples include especial, estéreo, escaldar (scald), escuela (school), and esnobismo (snobbery).

Use of f for the English "ph": Examples include elefante, foto, and Filadelfia.

Other Common Differences

Avoidance of double letters in Spanish: Except for recent words of foreign origin (such as express), the use of rr and, less commonly, the use of cc (where the second c is followed by i or e), Spanish generally doesn't use double letters in English cognates. Thus the English "libretto" is libreto in Spanish, "possible" is posible, and "illegal" is ilegal. Examples of rr or cc in cognates include acción, acceso, and irrigación. One Spanish word that doesn't fit this pattern is perenne (perennial).

Avoidance of hyphenation in Spanish: Hyphens aren't used as much in Spanish as they are in English. An example is that while some styles of English uses hyphens in words such as "re-edit" and "re-encounter," Spanish does not in the equivalents: reeditar and reencontrar (the latter of which can also be spelled as rencontrar).

Simplification in Spanish: A number of words, particularly ones whose English spellings come from French, have more phonetic spellings in Spanish. For example, "bureau" is buró and "chauffeur" is chófer or chofer, depending on the region.

B and V: B and V have identical sounds in Spanish, and there are a few words where the English and Spanish cognates use opposite letters. Examples include "govern" and gobernar, and "Basque" and vasco.

Words that don't fit other patterns: Following are some other easy-to-misspell words that don't fit any of the above patterns. The Spanish word is in boldface followed by the English word in parentheses. Note that in a few cases the Spanish word doesn't have the same meaning, or has other meanings, than the English word listed.

abril (April)
adjetivo (adjective)
asamblea (assembly)
automóvil (automobile)
billón (billion)
cañon (canyon)
carrera (career)
circunstancia (circumstance)
confort (comfort)
coraje (courage)
coronel (colonel)
diciembre (December)
énfasis (emphasis)
erradicar (eradicate)
espionaje (espionage)
etcétera (et cetera)
femenino (feminine)
garaje (garage)
glaciar (glacier)
gorila (gorilla)
gravedad (gravity)
huracán (hurricane)
Irak (Iraq)
jamón (ham)
jeroglíficos (hieroglyphics)
jirafa (giraffe)
jonrón (home run)
lenguaje (language)
mensaje (message)
millón (million)(canyon)
móvil (mobile)
noviembre (November)
objeto, objetivo (object, objective)
octubre (October)
pasaje (passage)
proyecto (project)
septiembre or setiembre (September)
siniestro (sinister)
subjuntivo (subjunctive)
tamal (tamale)
trayectoria (trajectory)
vagabundo (vagabond)
vainilla (vanilla)
yogur or yogurt (yogurt)