Words > I before E: 21 spelling rules (and their crazy exceptions!)

I before E: 21 spelling rules (and their crazy exceptions!)

English has many spelling rules and exceptions, which can make learning how to spell a challenge. In this article, we break down some of the most common spelling rules, including those based on what is being added to the beginning (a "prefix") or the end (a "suffix") of a simple word (also known as a "root word").

Take the word "kind," for instance. It can be joined with the prefix "UN-" to form "unkind," or with the suffix "-NESS" to form "kindness."

We have categorized prefixes and suffixes based on how they change the root word. Rules that impact the spelling in the middle of a word have been grouped together in the "Miscellaneous" section at the end of the article.

Prefixes

A prefix is a part of a word attached to the front of it to produce a derivative word or an inflected form.

1. Simple Prefixes

Prefix + root word

Many root words are like "unkind" and do not change their spelling when a prefix is added.

Examples

mis + spell = misspell

dis + like = dislike

re + pay = repay

un + do = undo

2. "All-" loses an L

The prefix "all-" loses its second L when added to the root word.

Examples

all + though = although

all + ready = already

all + most = almost

all + mighty = almighty

Suffixes that make words plural

A suffix is a part of a word added to the end of it or its stem, serving to form a new word or functioning as an inflectional ending.

3. For simple plurals, just add -S

For many words in the English language, you simply need to add an -S to the end in order to make them plural.

Examples

cats

dogs

umbrellas

airplanes

4. The ending -Y becomes -IES

Words that end in a Y that is preceded by a consonant need to be changed to end in -IES when they are made plural.

Examples

baby = babies

ability = abilities

lady = ladies

5. The ending -Y becomes -YS

Words that end in a Y that is preceded by a vowel just need an -S at the end to become plural.

Examples

journeys

keys

days

6. Endings that hiss need an -ES

Words that end in hissings sounds (S, SS, X) or CH/SH/ZZ sounds need an -ES to become plural.

Examples

bus + ES = buses

hiss + ES = hisses

fizz + ES = fizzes

watch + ES = watches

wish + ES = wishes

tax + ES = taxes

Exceptions

The letter combination CH that is pronounced like a K simply gets an -S.

stomach + S = stomachs

monarch + S = monarchs

7. F becomes V before -ES

For most words ending in a single F, you must change the final F to a V before you can add the plural "-ES" ending.

Examples

scarf - F + VES = scarves

leaf - F + VES = leaves

life - F + VES = lives

Exceptions

chiefs

roofs

Words ending in -FF just get an –S.

cliffs

riffs

8. Nouns ending in O

Nouns ending in O get an -S or -ES suffix to become plural.

Examples with -S

radio + S = radios

photo + S = photos

Examples with -ES

hero + ES = heroes

potato + ES = potatoes

9. Some words keep their Latin or Greek plural endings

Examples

datum > data

alumnus > alumni (male)

alumna > alumnae (female)

analysis > analyses

What is the plural of "octopus"?

The plural of "octopus" can be either "octopuses" or "octopi." The same goes for "cactus" ("cactuses" or "cacti") and hippopotamus ("hippopotamuses" or "hippopotami").

Non-Plural Suffixes

Suffixes used with verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

10. Drop the silent E

The silent E at the end of many words needs to be dropped before suffixes beginning with vowels (e.g. -ING, -ED, -ABLE, -IBLE) can be added.

Examples

write - E + ING = writing

close - E + ED = closed

excite - E + ABLE = excitable

sense - E + IBLE = sensible

11. Keep the silent E

Words ending in -GE or -CE, however, often keep the -E when suffixes that start with vowels are added. (The E helps indicate that the G or C sound will remain soft.)

Examples

courage + ous = courageous

notice + able = noticeable

12. Y becomes I

For many words, the Y ending must change to I when a suffix is added.

Examples

funny + er = funnier

beauty + ful = beautiful

ready + ly = readily

Exceptions

wry > wryly

shy > shyly

"Dry" can follow the rule or be an exception: "drily" or "dryly."

Verbs that end in Y keep the Y when -ING is added:

cry > crying

apply > applying

13. -FUL has one L

The suffix -FUL shows that the root word is full of something... just not Ls: -FUL always has just one L.

Examples

help + ful = helpful

art + ful = artful

grate + ful =grateful

care + ful = careful

Exceptions

When adding -LY to the above words, you must double the ending L:

helpful + ly = helpfully

artful + ly = artfully

grateful + ly = gratefully

careful + ly = carefully

14. Adding -LY

Adding -LY to the end of words makes them into adverbs.

Examples

love + ly = lovely

definite + ly = definitely

grateful + ly = gratefully

Exceptions

true + ly = truly

Words ending in -LE often drop the -E.

whole + ly = wholly

gentle + ly = gently

15. 1:1:1 Rule

Double the last consonant if the word has one syllable and one vowel followed by one consonant.

win + ing = winning

split + ing = splitting

big + er = bigger

In multi-syllabic words, double the final consonant if the last syllable is stressed.

admit + ed = admitted

occur + ence = occurrence

Miscellaneous Rules

Some spelling rules don't fall under any one category.

16. I before E except after C

Perhaps the best known mnemonic device for an English spelling rule, the full rhyme goes:

I before E except after C

Or when sounded as A

As in "neighbor" or "weigh."

Examples: I before E

believe

thief

Examples: Except after C

receive

deceive

ceiling

conceit

I before E exceptions

Keep reading…

17. When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking

Another popular rhyme: When two vowels go walking (appear together), the first one does the talking (is the sole, dominant sound).

Examples

coat

leave

boat

pain

neat

bean

easy

ream

Exceptions

bread

leather

already

poem

canoe

eight

guest

18. Q is always followed by U

Q is almost always followed by U in English words.

Examples

question

queue

quack

query

querulous

quarry

mystique

critique

aquatic

Exceptions

As all Scrabble players know, Q can be used without U in some words.

You can find them all here: Q words without U

19. Singular Possessives

For singular words, an apostrophe S ('S) is added to the end to show possession.

Examples

Kate's dress

mom's car

the cat's toy

This includes words that end with S:

the bus's engine

20. Possessives of proper names ending in S

Different style guides differ about whether to use an apostrophe S after a proper name ending in S, such as James or Jesus.

Some recommend adding an apostrophe S for some "common" proper names (Charles's), but not Biblical names (Jesus'). Some say that all names should take an apostrophe S (Jesus's), while others says that names ending in S should only take an apostrophe. Still others take into account how many sibilant (S) sounds the word has when determining whether to add an S after the apostrophe. Many guidelines reflect the way the word is often pronounced (Jesus' = Jee-zus, not Jee-zus-iz). Check with your preferred style guide to see its recommendation.

21. Plural Possessives

For plural words already ending in -S, simply add an apostrophe.

Examples

The two cats' bowls are empty.

Our parents' cars are in the garage.

Exceptions

For plural words that do not end in S, simply add an apostrophe S ('S):

children's

What exceptions did we miss? What is your biggest spelling challenge?

Complete English Grammar Rules is available for purchase as Paperback and Kindle eBook.
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