Spelling Rules in English

spelling rules
(Amanda Rohde/Getty Images)

A spelling rule is a guideline or principle meant to assist writers in the accurate spelling of a word. Also called a spelling convention.

In our article Top Four Spelling Rules, we point out that traditional spelling rules "are a bit like weather forecasts: we may use them, but we really can't depend on them to be right 100% of the time. In fact, the only foolproof rule is that all spelling rules in English have exceptions."

Spelling rules differ from the rules of grammar. Spelling rules, says Steven Pinker, "are consciously taught and learned, and they show little of the abstract logic of grammar" (Words and Rules, 1999).

Examples and Observations

  • "Spelling rules can help us spell accurately by giving guidelines on how to make plurals (more than one), how to add suffixes (such as -ly and -ment) and how to change the form of verbs (for example, by adding -ing).
    "Words that have come into English from other languages often keep that language's spelling rules and letter combinations. . . . A knowledge of word history (etymology) helps us follow the rules because then we know which language the spelling rules have come from."
    (John Barwick and Jenny Barwick, The Spelling Skills Handbook for the Word Wise. Pembroke, 2000)
  • "An example of a spelling rule is the deletion of final 'silent e' before a vowel initial suffix; arrange, arranging; blue, bluish. This rule is broken (i.e., the e is retained) in singe, singeing; dye, dyeing; hoe, hoeing; glue, gluey; etc."
    (TESOL Newsletter, 1975)
  • Traditional Spelling Rules
    "Most traditional spelling rules are based on the written language only. Consider these two examples: 'to form the plural of nouns ending in y, change y to i and add es' (crycries), and 'i goes before e except after c' (quite a useful reminder, though there are a few exceptions--weird, neighbour, etc.). In such cases, we don't need to know anything about the sounds conveyed by the letters: the rules work on the letters alone. Rules of this kind are useful, as far as they go. The trouble is, of course, that they don't go very far. They need to be supplemented by more basic rules which tell the learners to relate what they see to what they hear. Ironically, it is these rules which are usually not taught but left for children to 'pick up' as best they can. Not surprisingly, most children don't."
    (David Crystal, The English Language: A Guided Tour of the Language, 2nd ed. Penguin, 2002)
  • Teaching and Learning Spelling Rules
    "In general, research has not shown the formal teaching of spelling rules to be an effective instructional method--although several anecdotal and case-study accounts (particularly from older students with learning disabilities) have suggested that learning rules helped them combat a spelling weakness (Darch et al., 2000; Massengill, 2006).
    "Many rules are very complicated, and may apply only to a very small number of words. . . .
    "Students with learning difficulties have the greatest problem remembering and applying spelling rules. It is best instead to teach these students effective strategies for learning new target words and for proofreading, rather than attempting to teach obscure rules that are unlikely to be remembered or understood (Watson, 2013)."
    (Peter Westwood, Teaching Spelling: Exploring Commonsense Strategies and Best Practices. Routledge, 2014)
  • The Problem With Spelling Rules
    "From a linguist's point of view, rules are part of the natural system of language. But since spelling was arbitrarily standardized, the spelling rules that exist in school books are not the natural rules of other aspects of language. And as dialects change and drift apart, and language as a dynamic organic system evolves, the rules stay the same, making them a bad fit for the changing sounds. Because of its multiple origins, English spelling is complex, and spelling rules are far from a simple alphabetic–sound correspondence."
    (Kenneth S. Goodman and Yetta M. Goodman, "Learning to Read: A Comprehensive Model." Reclaiming Reading, ed. by Richard J. Meyer and Kathryn F. Whitmore. Routledge, 2011)
  • An Alternative Approach Is Morphemic Spelling Rules
    "Morphemes are units of meaning. Some words have one such unit, but many have more than one. There is only one morpheme in the adjective 'glad,' while 'gladly,' an adverb, and 'gladness,' a noun, have two morphemes each. All three words share the same root morpheme, 'glad'; but the added '-ly' ending in 'gladly' and '-ness' in 'gladness' turns the first of these two words into an adverb and the second into an abstract noun. . . . Whenever you put '-ly' or '-ness' on the end of an adjective you generate an adverb in the first case and an abstract noun in the second. . . .
    " [T]he same morphemes tend to be spelled in the same way in different words. The result is a set of morphemic spelling rules, which transcend the basic alphabetic rules and . . . play a great part in children's successes and failures in learning to read and write. . . .
    "[M]orphemic spelling rules are a valuable but neglected resource for those learning to be literate."
    (Peter Bryant and Terezinha Nunes, "Morphemes and Children's Spelling." The SAGE Handbook of Writing Development, ed. by Roger Beard et al. SAGE, 2009)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Spelling Rules in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/spelling-rule-1691892. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Spelling Rules in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/spelling-rule-1691892 Nordquist, Richard. "Spelling Rules in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/spelling-rule-1691892 (accessed March 21, 2023).

Watch Now: Most Important Rules for Avoiding Common Spelling Mistakes