Spelling Conventions with Suffixes  

Forming new words with suffixes can often be tricky because, in many cases, the spelling of the original root word must be altered to accommodate the attachment of the suffix. However, even though such spelling changes can sometimes seem erratic, they usually follow specific conventions that help us determine how to form the new word.

Vowel Suffixes vs. Consonant Suffixes

Before we look at the spelling conventions for suffixes as a whole, it’s important to distinguish between the two broad categories: vowel suffixes (those that begin with a vowel letter) and consonant suffixes (those that begin with a consonant letter). Let’s look at a few of the most common examples of each:
Vowel Suffixes
Consonant Suffixes
-able
-ate
-ed
-er
-est
-ible
-ic
-ion
-ify
-ize
-ing
-ous
-y
-dom
-ful
-less
-ly
-ment
-ness
-ry
-s
-ship
-sion
-tion
-ward
-wise

The Primary Rules

These spelling rules are the most complex, resulting in spelling irregularities that often prove difficult for learners and native speakers alike. We’ll give a brief overview of these rules below, but be aware that there are usually several exceptions and special cases within each rule. To learn more about these more complex primary rules, continue on to their individual sections.

Rule 1: Dropping silent E with vowel suffixes

When a silent E appears at the end of a word, its most common purpose is to change the pronunciation of vowels (as well as the consonants C or G) within the word.
When a vowel suffix is attached to a word with a silent E, it often (though not always) results in E being omitted.
For example:
Root Word
Correctly Suffixed Words
Incorrectly Suffixed Words
bake
baked, baker, baking
bakeed, bakeer, bakeing
communicate
communicated, communicating, communication
communicateed, communicateer, communicateing
dispose
disposable, disposal, disposing
disposeable, disposeal, disposeing
fame
famed, famous
fameed, fameous
fine
fined, finest, fining
fineed, fineing, finey
ice
iced, icing, icy
iceed, iceing, icey
store
storage, stored, storing
storeage, storeed, storeing
use
usage, used, user, using
useage, useed, useer, useing

Rule 2: Keeping silent E with consonant suffixes

Unlike vowel suffixes, when a consonant suffix is attached to a word ending in a silent E, we nearly always keep the E in the word.
For example:
Root Word
Correctly Suffixed Words
Incorrectly Suffixed Words
bare
barely, bareness, bares
barly, barness, bars
care
careful, careless, cares
carful, carless, cars
complete
completely, completeness, completes
completly, completness, complets
home
homeless, homely, homeward
homless, homly, homward
like
likely, likeness, likewise
likly, likness, likwise
peace
peaceful, peaceless
peacful, peacless
state
statehood, stateless, stately
stathood, statless, statly
wake
wakeful, wakeless, wakes
wakful, wakless, waks
Although these two rules regarding silent E are fairly reliable, there are quite a few exceptions to both. Check out the section on Adding Suffixes after Silent E to learn more.

Rule 3: Change Y to I before a suffix

When we add both vowel and consonant suffixes to words ending in Y, we usually change it to the letter I. For example:
With Vowel Suffixes
With Consonant Suffixes
apply→appliance, applied, applies
beauty→beautify, beautiful
colony→colonial, colonies, colonize
contrary→contrarily, contrariness, contrariwise
envy→enviable, envied, envious
eery→eerily, eeriness
happy→happier, happiest
happy→happily, happiness
luxury→luxuriant, luxuriate, luxurious
lively→likelihood, likeliness
marry→marriage, married, marries
merry→merrily, merriment, merriness
pity→pitiable, pities
pity→pitiful, pitiless
tidy→tidied, tidier, tidiest
trustworthy→trustworthily, trustworthiness
worry→worried, worrier, worries
weary→weariful, weariness, wearisome
Again, there are some exceptions to this rule. Most notably, we don’t change Y to I before the vowel suffix “-ing” (e.g., apply becomes applying). To learn more about this and other exceptions, go to the section Changing Y to I with Suffixes.

Rule 4: Doubling Consonants with Vowel Suffixes

When a single-syllable word ends in a vowel + a consonant, we almost always double the consonant when a vowel suffix is attached. If we don’t, it could end up looking as though the root word had a silent E that’s been omitted. For example:
Root Word
Correctly Suffixed Words
Incorrectly Suffixed Words
bar
barred, barring
bared, baring
(looks like the root word is bare)
dot
dotted, dotting
doted, doting
(looks like the root word is dote)
fat
fatten, fatter, fattest, fatty
faten, fater, fatest, faty
(looks like the root word is fate)
hop
hopped, hopper, hopping, hoppy
hoped, hoper, hoping, hopy
(looks like the root word is hope)
mad
madden, madder, maddest
maden, mader, madest
(looks like the root word is made)
rob
robbed, robber, robbing
robed, rober, robing
(looks like the root word is robe)
slim
slimmed, slimmer, slimming
slimed, slimer, sliming
(looks like the root word is slime)

Rule 5: Doubling the consonant when the final syllable is emphasized

When a multi-syllable word is vocally stressed on the final syllable, we almost always double the final consonant before a vowel suffix; when the vocal stress is on a different syllable, we generally don’t double the suffix. For example:
Emphasis on final syllable
Suffixed Words
Emphasis on other syllable
Suffixed Words
begin
(/bɪˈgɪn/)
beginner, beginning
bicker
(/ˈbɪkər/)
bickered, bickering
forget
(/fərˈgɛt/)
forgettable, forgetting
forfeit
(/ˈfɔrfɪt/)
forfeited, forfeiting, forfeiture
incur
(/ɪnˈkɜr/)
incurrable, incurred, incurring
interpret
(/ɪnˈtɜrprət/)
interpreted, interpreter, interpreting
omit
(/oʊˈmɪt/)
omitted, omitting
open
(/ˈoʊpən/)
opened, opener, opening
transmit
(/trænzˈmɪt/)
transmittable, transmitted, transmitting
travel
(/ˈtrævəl/)
traveled, traveler, traveling
Note that in British English, a final L is almost always doubled before vowel suffixes, even when the stress is on the first syllable of the word (e.g., travel becomes travelled or travelling). There are also a number of exceptions regarding the doubling of consonants before vowel suffixes in single- and multi-syllable words; to learn more, go to the section Doubling Consonants with Vowel Suffixes.

The Lesser Rules

There are a few other spelling conventions for suffixes that aren’t as complex as the ones we’ve looked at so far. These “lesser” rules apply to a much narrower range of words and have few or no exceptions, so we’ll examine them in their entirety here.

Rule 6: Adding K to verbs ending in C

Most verbs do not end in a C after a vowel; they usually have a K at the end to make the /k/ sound more definitive. A few do have a final C, though, so to avoid a spelling that might indicate a “soft C” sound (/s/), we add a K before suffixes beginning with E, I, or Y. For example:
  • frolic→frolicked, frolicker, frolicking
  • mimic→mimicked, mimicker, mimicking
  • panic→panicked, panicking, panicky
  • picnic→picnicked, picnicker, picnicking
  • traffic→trafficked, trafficker, trafficking
Note that we don’t do this when we attach consonant suffixes or vowel suffixes that begin with A:
  • frolic→frolics, frolicsome
  • mimic→mimical, mimicry, mimics
  • panic→panics
  • picnic→picnics
  • traffic→trafficable, traffics

Rule 7: “-ic” + “-ly” = “-ically”

Almost all adjectives that end in “-ic” have a variant spelling that ends in “-ical,” and vice versa. The two forms are often synonymous, with one form simply being preferred over the other (though in some cases the two forms have similar but distinct meanings).
However, when adding the suffix “-ly” to words ending in “-ic” to form adverbs, we almost always change “-ic” to “ical” (even with words that don’t have an “-ical” variant), thus yielding the ending “-ically.”
For example:
  • academic→academically
  • acoustic→acoustically
  • basic→basically
  • democratic→democratically
  • drastic→drastically
  • enthusiastic→enthusiastically
  • genetic→genetically
  • historic→historically
  • ironic→ironically
  • majestic→majestically
  • organic→organically
  • poetic→poetically
  • realistic→realistically
  • specific→specifically
  • tragic→tragically
Note that there are two words that do not conform to this rule:
  • chic→chicly
  • public→publicly
Luckily, these are the only exceptions we have to memorize; all other adjectives ending in “-ic” take the adverbial ending “-ically.”

Rule 8: Change IE to Y before "-ing”

Very rarely, a verb will end in “-ie.” When this happens, we have to change the vowel digraph to Y so that we can attach the present participle suffix “-ing.” Note that this is the only suffix that results in an unusual spelling for these words; others will attach according to the patterns we’ve already looked at. For example:
  • boogie→boogied, boogies, boogying
  • die→died, dies, dying
  • lie→lied, lies, lying
  • tie→tied, ties, tying
  • vie→vied, vies, vying
There are very few verbs that end in IE, so there are no exceptions to this rule.

Rule 9: Don’t change verbs ending in a vowel

There aren’t many verbs that end in a vowel other than Y or silent E. Many of those that are used in English often originated from another language or are abbreviated forms of longer, more technical terms that are now used as verbs. Regardless of origin, when a verb ends in a vowel other than Y or E, we don’t make any changes to the root spelling when adding a vowel suffix. For example:
  • cameo→cameoed, cameoing
  • conga→congaed, congaing
  • disco→discoed, discoing
  • echo→echoed, echoing
  • halo→haloed, haloing
  • henna→hennaed, hennaing
  • safari→safaried, safariing
  • shanghai→shanghaied, shanghaiing
  • ski→skied, skiing
  • subpoena→subpoenaed, subpoenaing
  • taxi→taxied, taxiing
  • veto→vetoed, vetoing
Quiz

1. Silent E is generally not omitted before which types of suffixes?




2. In general, when do we double the final consonant in multi-syllable words?






3. Which of the following is an incorrectly suffixed form of the word apply?





4. Which of the following words has its spelling changed before the suffix “-ly”?





5. Which of the following words does not have its spelling changed before the suffix “-ing”?





6. Which of the following suffixed words is spelled incorrectly?





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