Spelling Conventions  

Because modern English has been formed from and influenced by a variety of different languages—Latin, Greek, French, German, etc.—in addition to its evolution from Old and Middle English, the ways in which words are spelled and created can often seem inconsistent, illogical, and even contradictory.
Adding to the problem is that there is no single unified consensus governing English (unlike, for example, the Académie française, a council that acts as the official authority on the French language), so there are many discrepancies and differences in how words are spelled, pronounced, and even used grammatically in different parts of the world.
While there may be no single set of “rules” for English spelling, there are many different conventions and patterns we can use to help to make it easier to grasp. We’ll briefly review these conventions below, but you can continue on to each individual section to learn more.

Affixes

An affix is an element that is added to a base word or root to create a new or inflected form. The most common affixes in English are prefixes, which attach to the beginning of a base or root word, and suffixes, which attach to the end. (There are a few other types of affixes that occur in English, but these are much less common; to learn more, go to the full section on Affixes.)

Prefixes

A prefix is a letter or group of letters that is added to the beginning of a root or base word to create a new word with a unique meaning. Let’s briefly look at some common examples; continue on to the Prefixes section to learn more.
  • atypical (not typical)
  • bidirectional (having two directions)
  • cooperate (operate together)
  • defuse (to remove a fuse)
  • ex-boyfriend (former boyfriend)
  • forearm (front part of the arm)
  • hyperactive (overly active)
  • immature (not mature)
  • maladjusted (wrongly adjusted)
  • nonfunctional (not functional)
  • outnumber (to be greater in number)
  • postproduction (later in production)
  • restart (start again)
  • semiserious (half serious)
  • transgenerational (cross generational)
  • ultraviolet (beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum)

Suffixes

A suffix is a letter or group of letters added onto the end of a root or base word to change its meaning. There is a huge range of suffixes in English, which can be broadly categorized as either inflectional or derivational.

Inflectional Suffixes

Inflectional suffixes are used to modify the grammatical meaning of a word; they do not change a word from one part of speech to another, nor do they alter the fundamental meaning of the word.
Inflectional suffixes can be used with nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. For example:
Suffixes with Nouns
(form plurals)
Suffixes with Verbs
(form participles or third-person singular)
Suffixes with Adjectives or Adverbs
(form comparatives or superlatives)
bank→banks
car→cars
pizza→pizzas
toy→toys
coach→coaches
watch→watches
dish→dishes
box→boxes
ox→oxen
child→children
brother→brethren
hear→hears
run→runs
think→thinks
approach→approaches
catch→catches
do→does
burn→burned
hope→hoped
open→opened
eat→eaten
give→given
got→gotten
care→caring
hear→hearing
pass→passing
big→bigger
fast→faster
happy→happier
high→higher
sad→sadder
slow→slower
big→biggest
fast→fastest
happy→happiest
high→highest
sad→saddest
slow→slowest

Derivational Suffixes

Unlike inflectional suffixes, derivational suffixes create a new word based on the meaning of the word to which they attach. In many cases, the new word will belong to a completely different part of speech (or word class). These are sometimes referred to as class-changing suffixes.
While there are too many derivational suffixes to list here, let’s go over some of the most common ones in day-to-day writing and speech. To learn more about the meanings they create, continue on to the section covering Suffixes.
Suffixes that form nouns
Suffixes that form verbs
Suffixes that form adjectives
Suffixes that form adverbs
block→blockage
propose→proposal
arrogant→arrogance
free→freedom
employ→employee
exist→existence
teach→teacher
clarify→clarification
criticize→criticism
equal→equality
entertain→entertainment
dark→darkness
educate→educator
decide→decision
translate→translation
fright→frighten
pure→purify
apology→apologize
caffeine→caffeinate
adore→adorable
logic→logical
gold→golden
beauty→beautiful
sense→sensible
comedy→comedic
history→historical
child→childish
home→homeless
friend→friendly
glamor→glamorous
mess→messy
easy→easily
side→sideways
like→likewise
home→homeward
You may have noticed that some of the suffixes we looked at above have very similar appearances and uses—for example, -able vs. -ible, -ic vs. -ical, and -tion vs. -sion. This can cause some confusion for writers as to which suffix is appropriate for certain words. Continue on to the section Commonly Confused Suffixes to learn more about the subtle differences between these suffixes and when to use them.
Additionally, there are many instances in which adding a suffix to a word results in a change to the original word’s spelling, which can prove difficult for writers to remember. For example, nouns that end in “-y” will end in “-ies” when becoming plural (as in candy→candies); the Silent E at the end of a word will usually be dropped when adding a suffix (as in bake→baking); and a single consonant at the end of a word will often be doubled when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel (as in drag→dragged). To learn more about the different instances in which suffixes change the spelling of base words, go to the section Spelling Conventions with Suffixes.

Inflection in Spelling

Closely related to suffixes is the notion of inflection—changes in a word’s spelling that reflect changes in its grammatical function in a sentence. Inflection is divided into two broad categories: conjugation and declension.

Conjugation

Conjugation specifically refers to the inflection of verbs. In terms of spelling changes, it refers to changing a verb’s structure to reflect past tense (as in walk→walked), continuous tense (as in walk→walking), or the third person singular (as in walk→walks).

Declension

Declension, on the other hand, is the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs. We’ll briefly cover how each part of speech is inflected here, but you can continue on to the full section on Inflection in Spelling to learn more.

Declension of nouns

The declension of nouns most often entails forming plurals by adding “-s” or “-es” (as in cake→cakes or beach→beaches). We go into greater detail about this in the section on Forming Plurals. A few nouns can also be declined to reflect gender (as in actor→actress or bachelor→bachelorette), but this is not very common.

Declension of pronouns

The declension of pronouns involves changes in how personal pronouns are spelled depending on their grammatical person (first person, second person, or third person), number (singular or plural), gender (masculine or feminine), and case (objective, subjective, or possessive). There are also specific forms for reflexive pronouns (those that are the object of their own action). For example, consider these variations of the first-person pronouns (which are all gender neutral):
  • I (singular, subjective case)
  • me (singular, objective case)
  • mine (singular, possessive case)
  • myself (singular, reflexive)
  • we (plural, subjective case)
  • us (plural, objective case)
  • ours (plural, possessive case)
  • ourselves (plural, reflexive)

Declension of adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs are both inflected the same way to create two degrees of comparison between two or more people, things, actions, etc.
The first is known as the comparative degree, which, for adjectives, expresses a higher or lower degree of an attribute, or, for adverbs, indicates how an action is performed. In both cases, we form the comparative degree by attaching the suffix “-er” to the end of the word or by using the words more or less before it. (Note that adverbs that can take the “-er” suffix can also be used as adjectives.) For example:
Adjectives
Adverbs
formed with “-er”
(one-syllable adverbs, one-syllable adjectives, and two-syllable adjectives ending in “-y”)
big→bigger
weak→weaker
happy→happier
small→smaller
hard→harder
quick→quicker
fast→faster
late→later
formed with “more/less”
(adverbs ending in “-ly”; adjectives with three or more syllables, or adjectives with two syllables not ending in “-y”)
more/less careful
more/less caring
more/less intelligent
more/less beautiful
more/less carefully
more/less efficiently
more/less happily
more/less recently
The second degree of comparison is known as the superlative degree, which is used to describe characteristics that are the highest or lowest compared to someone or something else. We form the superlative degree in the same way as the comparative, but, instead of “-er,” we use “-est,” and, instead of more/less, we use most/least. For example:
Adjectives
Adverbs
formed with “-er”
(one-syllable adverbs, one-syllable adjectives, and two-syllable adjectives ending in “-y”)
big→biggest
weak→weakest
happy→happiest
small→smallest
hard→hardest
quick→quickest
fast→fastest
late→latest
formed with “more/less”
(adverbs ending in “-ly”; adjectives with three or more syllable, or adjectives with two syllables not ending in “-y”)
most/least careful
most/least caring
most/least intelligent
most/least beautiful
most/least carefully
most/least efficiently
most/least happily
most/least recently

Forming Contractions

Another way that we alter the spelling of a word is when we create contractions. These are formed when words are shortened by omitting one or more letters, which are most often replaced with an apostrophe.
The most common type of contraction is when two words are joined together and one of them (usually the second) is shortened. It’s important to remember that the apostrophe marks the letters that are left out of the contracted word; it does not mark the space that was between the words. For example:
We’ll go over some of the most common contractions here, but you can continue on to the full section on Forming Contractions to learn more.

Contracting is, am, and are

The most common type of two-word contraction occurs when the present simple tense forms of the verb be (is, am, are) are combined with the subject of a clause—usually a proper noun, personal pronoun, or question word (who, what, where, when, why, and how). For example:
Be conjugation
Contracted form
Example sentences
is
’s
  • “Jonathan’s coming over later.”
  • “I think she’s pretty happy with the results.”
  • “I can’t believe it’s still raining outside!”
  • “How’s your project coming, Billy?”
am
’m
  • “I’m going to the park later, if you want to come with me.”
  • “You know the reason why I’m angry!”
are
’re
  • “You’re being so annoying!”
  • “I think we’re going to be late.”
  • “Who’re you taking to the dance?”

Contracting other auxiliary verbs

In addition to the three forms of be, there are four other auxiliary verbs that can also be contracted as enclitics: have (and its conjugations has and had), did, will, and would. For example:
Auxiliary verb
Contracted form
Example sentences
’ve
  • “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”
  • “We think we’ve found a pretty elegant solution.”
  • “Why’ve they been avoiding us?”
’s
  • “She’s been rather quiet lately.”
  • “Johnny’s applied to be a police officer.”
  • “It’s been about a week since I last heard from them.”
’d
  • “We’d dreamed about living in Ireland for years before we finally moved here.”
  • “I’d been feeling a little unwell, so I took Monday off from work.”
  • “She’d never been prouder of herself before that moment.”
’d
  • “Who’d you ask to cover your shift on Monday?”
  • “What’d you think of the movie?”
  • “How’d you do on the test?”
’ll
  • “He’ll call you in the morning.”
  • “If you wash the dishes, I’ll take out the trash.”
  • “What’ll they do with all that money?”
’d
  • “He told you he’d call you in the morning.”
  • “I’d like to go to the amusement park for my birthday.”
  • “I thought she’d be here by now.”

Contracting not

The adverb not is used to express negative actions, so, unlike the words we’ve looked at so far, it only contracts with verbs, not personal pronouns or question words. However, we can only do this with auxiliary verbs, not main verbs.
Another difference from the words we’ve looked at so far is that when we contract not, we don’t omit all of the letters leading up to the final consonant; instead, we only omit -o- and replace it with an apostrophe. What’s especially unusual about contractions of not is that sometimes the first word is altered as well. There’s no specific pattern to help us gauge when (or how) these extra alterations will occur, so we have to memorize them:
  • is + not = isn’t
  • are + not = aren’t
  • was + not = wasn’t
  • were + not = weren’t
  • have + not = haven’t
  • has + not = hasn’t
  • had + not = hadn’t
  • do + not = don’t
  • does + not = doesn’t
  • did + not = didn’t
  • can + not = cannot = can’t
  • could + not = couldn’t
  • will + not = won’t
  • would + not = wouldn’t
  • shall + not = shan’t
  • should + not = shouldn’t
  • might + not = mightn’t
  • must + not = mustn’t
Remember that this is just a cursory summary of contractions; there are many other informal contractions we can form, as well as several one-word and even three-word contractions. For more information on all of these, go to the section on Forming Contractions.

Inconsistent Spelling Rules

Because English spelling is often so haphazard, there are a few different sets of rules that have been popularized in an attempt to help standardize the way words are spelled. The problem is that there are many exceptions to each of them, which means that they are not the most reliable methods for determining a word’s spelling. However, they are still useful to know, so we will briefly touch on them here; continue on to their full sections to learn more about each.

I Before E, Except After C

Perhaps the best known spelling convention in English is “I Before E, Except after C,” meaning that I comes before E in most words, except when both letters immediately follow C. Due to the simplicity of the rule and its easily remembered rhyming mnemonic, it is often one of the first rules taught to those learning English spelling. The full rhyme typically goes like this:
  • I before E,
  • Except after C,
  • Or when sounding like A
  • As in neighbor or weigh.
In addition to the “A” sound (/eɪ/) described in the rhyme, there are many exceptions and special cases that we have to consider when deciding whether I should come before E.

When the letters sound like E (/i/)

The “I before E” rule is most useful if we focus on instances when E and I are put together as vowel digraphs—that is, two vowels working together to form a single speech sound.
With this in mind, the basic rule “I before E, except after C” is fairly reliable when IE or EI function as digraphs that produce the sound /i/ (the way the letter E is said aloud as a word). For example:
I before E
Except after C
achieve
(/əˈʧiv/)
believe
(/bɪˈliv/)
field
(/fild/)
grief
(/grif/)
piece
(/pis/)
shield
(ild/)
ceiling
(/ˈsilɪŋ/)
conceive
(/kənˈsiv/)
deceit
(/dɪˈsit/)
perceive
(/pərˈsiv/)
receipt
(/rɪˈsit/)

E before I when sounding like A (/eɪ/)

The second half of the rhyme—“when sounding like A”—alludes to the fact that E often comes before I without C when EI is pronounced /eɪ/ (the way the letter A is said aloud as a word).
This is especially common when EI is followed by a silent GH, as in:
  • freight (/frt/)
  • eight (/t/)
  • inveigh (/ɪnˈv/)
  • neighbor (/ˈnbər/)
  • sleigh (/sl/)
  • weight (/wt/)
(Remember this when using these roots in other words, as in eighteen or weightless.)

And sometimes when sounding like I (/aɪ/)

Less commonly, the digraph EI produces the sound /aɪ/ (the way the letter I is said aloud as a word).
There are only a few common root words in which this is the case:
  • feisty (/ˈfsti/)
  • height (/ht/)
  • heist (/hst/)
  • sleight (/slt/)
Just be sure not to confuse the spelling for slight (an adjective meaning “small in size, degree, or amount”) with sleight (a noun meaning “skill or dexterity” or “a clever trick or deception”)—they both sound the same, but have slightly different spellings.

Exceptions and other helpful tips

The main problem with the “I Before E” rule is that there are many different exceptions, as well as other special cases that dictate which letter will come first in a given word. There are too many to quickly summarize here, so continue on to the full section on I Before E, Except After C to learn more.

The Three-Letter Rule

A less popularly taught spelling rule is known as “The Three-Letter Rule,” which states that “content words” (words that communicate meaningful information, such as nouns, (most) verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) will almost always be spelled with at least three letters. Words that are spelled with only one or two letters, on the other hand, will almost always be “function words”—words that perform grammatical functions to help construct a sentence, such as pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, articles, or particles.

Determining spelling using the three-letter rule

The three-letter rule is a useful convention to follow when we’re trying to determine the spelling of short, single-syllable words. Many one- and two-letter function words are homophones of short content words: they have different spellings, but their pronunciations are the same.
Function Words
Content Words
aw
(interjection)
awe
(noun)
be
(auxiliary verb)
bee
(noun)
by
(preposition)
buy
(verb)
do
(auxiliary verb)
dew
(noun)
due
(adjective)
doe
(noun)
er
(interjection)
err
(verb)
ere
(preposition/conjunction)
hi
(informal interjection)
high
(adjective/adverb)
in
(preposition/particle)
inn
(noun)
I
(pronoun)
aye
(noun)
eye
(noun)
lo
(interjection)
low
(adjective/adverb)
of
(preposition)
off
(adjective/adverb/preposition)
or
(conjunction)
oar
(noun)
ore
(noun)
ow
(interjection)
owe
(verb)
to
(preposition/particle)
too
(adverb)
two
(noun/determiner)
toe
(noun)
tow
(verb/noun)
us
(pronoun)
use
(verb/noun)
we
(pronoun)
wee
(adjective)
Even where a short content word does not have a homophonic function word from which it needs to be distinguished, we still commonly find silent, seemingly extraneous letters in three-letter words that would have the same pronunciation with only two letters. For example:
add
bow
cue
die
dye
ebb
egg
foe
hoe
hue
ill
joe
law
lay
lie
odd
paw
pea
pie
raw
roe
row
rue
rye
saw
sea
see
sow
sue
tea
tee
tie
vie
As with the “I Before E” rule, there are many exceptions to this convention. Go to the full section on The Three-Letter Rule to learn more.

Rules for Capitalization

Capitalization refers to certain letters being in the upper case. While there are some words that are always capitalized no matter where they appear in a sentence, most words are only capitalized if they appear at the beginning of a sentence.
There are also various conventions regarding the capitalization of words in the titles of creative or published works, but these can be difficult to learn because there is no single, generally accepted rule to follow.
Letters can also be capitalized in other specific circumstances, too. Let’s briefly look at some of the capitalization conventions here; to learn more, go to the Rules for Capitalization.

Capitalizing the first word of a sentence

The first word of a sentence is always capitalized.
We also capitalize the first letter of a full sentence that is directly quoted within another sentence, as in:
  • John said, “You’ll never work in this city again!”
  • The other day, my daughter asked, “Why do I have to go to school, but you don’t?”
Note that we do not capitalize the first word in the quotation if it is a word, phrase, or sentence fragment incorporated into the natural flow of the overall sentence; we also do not set it apart with commas. For example:
  • My brother said he feels “really bad” about what happened.
  • But I don’t want to just “see how things go”!

Proper Nouns

Proper nouns are used to identify a unique person, place, or thing (as opposed to common nouns, which identify generic or nonspecific people or things).
The most common proper nouns are names of people, places, or events:
  • “Go find Jeff and tell him that dinner is ready.”
  • “I lived in Cincinnati before I moved to New York.”
  • “My parents still talk about how great Woodstock was in 1969.”
The names of organizations, companies, agencies, etc., are all proper nouns as well, so the words that make up the name are all capitalized. However, unlike the names of people or places, these often contain function words, which are not capitalized. For example:
  • “You’ll have to raise your query with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.”
  • “I’ve been offered a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania.”

Acronyms and Initialisms

Acronyms and initialisms are abbreviations of multiple words using just their initial letters (or fragments of each word); like the initials of a person’s name, these letters are usually capitalized. Acronyms are distinguished by the fact that they are read aloud as a single word, while initialisms are spoken aloud as individual letters, rather than a single word. (Because the two are so similar in appearance and function, though, it is very common to simply refer to both as acronyms.)
For example:
Acronyms
Initialisms
NASA
(acronym of “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”)
AWOL
(acronym of “Absent Without Leave”)
SWAT
(acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”)
USA
(initialism of “United States of America”)
ATM
(initialism of “Automated Teller Machine”)
UFO
(initialism of “Unidentified Flying Object”)
However, there are some acronyms that have become so common in modern English that they are not capitalized at all. For example, the word scuba is actually an acronym of “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus,” but it is now only written as a regular word. Similarly, ASAP (which stands for “as soon as possible” and can be pronounced as an acronym or an initialism) is commonly spelled with lowercase letters as asap due to how frequently it is used in everyday speech and writing.
There are also two initialisms that are always in lowercase: i.e. (short for the Latin id est, meaning “that is”) and e.g. (short for the Latin exempli gratia, meaning “for example”).

Capitalizing titles and headlines

While proper nouns, acronyms, and initialisms all have fairly standard conventions for capitalization, an area that gives writers difficulty is capitalizing headlines or the titles of written works. Different style guides prescribe different rules and recommendations, so there is little consensus on which words need to be capitalized in a title.
That said, it is generally agreed that you should capitalize the first and last word of the title, along with any content words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs). “Function words” (prepositions, articles, and conjunctions) are generally left in lowercase. This convention is sometimes known as title case, and some style guides recommend following it without exception, even for longer function words like between or upon.
For example:
  • New Regulations for Schools Scoring below National Averages”
  • An Analysis of the Differences between Formatting Styles”
  • President to Consider Options after Results of FBI Investigation”
  • Outrage over Prime Minister’s Response to Corruption Charges”
Many styles guides consider longer function words (such as the conjunction because or the prepositions between or above) to add more meaning than short ones like or or and. Because of this, it is a common convention is to capitalize function words that have more than three letters in addition to “major” words like nouns and verbs. Here’s how titles following this convention look:
  • New Regulations for Schools Scoring Below National Averages”
  • An Analysis of the Differences Between Formatting Styles”
  • President to Consider Options After Results of FBI Investigation”
  • Outrage Over Prime Minister’s Response to Corruption Charges”
However, there are a lot of other variations that different writers and styles guides choose to implement. Continue on to the full section on Rules for Capitalization to learn more.

Other Aspects of Spelling

In addition to the conventions we’ve looked at so far, there are other elements informing how words are spelled and used in English. One important aspect is how many words and phrases enter English from different languages around the world. These are broadly known as borrowings, and they are subdivided into two categories: loanwords and loan translations.
Another aspect that causes writers confusion is the discrepancy between the American style of English compared to the British style. We’ll briefly look at both of these aspects here, but you can continue on to their full sections for more information about each.

Foreign Loanwords and Loan Translations

A loanword is a term taken from another language and used without translation; it has a specific meaning that (typically) does not otherwise exist in a single English word. Sometimes the word’s spelling or pronunciation (or both) is slightly altered to accommodate English orthography, but, in most cases, it is preserved in its original language.
A loan translation (also known as a calque), on the other hand, is a word or phrase taken from another language but translated (either in part or in whole) to corresponding English words while still retaining the original meaning.
We’ll look at some examples of both here, but you can continue on to the full section on Foreign Loanwords and Loan Translations to learn more.

Foreign Loanwords

Loanword
Language of origin
Notes on spelling, pronunciation, and meaning
aficionado
Spanish
Literally “fond of,” in English it refers to an ardent fan, supporter, or devotee of some subject or activity.
café
French
In English, café (also spelled cafe, without the accent mark) only refers to a small restaurant in which one can buy food and drinks, usually coffee.
In French, café (itself a loanword from Italian caffé) primarily refers to coffee itself, rather than an establishment that serves it.
chow mein
Chinese
Adapted from Chinese ch’ao mein, meaning “fried noodles.” In English, it typically refers to a dish consisting of chopped vegetables and meat that is served with these noodles.
et cetera
Latin
Literally meaning “and (et) the rest (cetera),” it is used more figuratively in English to mean “and other unspecified things of the same type of class” or “and so forth.”
faux pas
French
Literally “false step,” used in English to mean “a breach in decorum, etiquette, or good manners.”
haiku
Japanese
A type of poem that traditionally juxtaposes two disparate ideas or images in 17 on (Japanese sound units), separated in three phases of 5, 7, and 5. In English, on was translated to syllables, so haikus in English are typically written in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively.
kindergarten
German
Literally “child garden,” referring in both languages to a program or class for young children serving as an introduction to elementary school.
orangutan
Malay
Literally meaning “man of the woods,” in English it refers to arboreal apes with shaggy, reddish-brown hair.
prima donna
Italian
Literally meaning “first lady,” referring to the leading female singer in an opera company. It is more commonly used in English to refer to a self-centered, temperamental, petulant person.
smorgasbord
Swedish
Adapted from the Swedish term smörgåsbord, meaning “open-faced sandwich table.” It refers specifically to a buffet-style meal consisting of a variety of different dishes. By extension in English, it is used figuratively to describe a wide variety of different options or elements, as in, “The festival features a smorgasbord of musical talents.”
vigilante
Spanish
Literally meaning “watchman,” it is used in English to refer to a person who pursues and punishes suspected criminals outside of the law.

Loan Translations (Calques)

While loanwords feature little or no change to the spelling (or phonetic spelling) of the original word, loan translations—typically idiomatic words or phrases—are translated literally into English (but retain the original meaning or one very similar). For example:
Loan translation
Language of origin
Notes on meaning
angel hair
Italian
(capelli d'angelo)
Very thin, long pasta. In English, it is more commonly written as angel hair pasta.
brainwashing
Chinese
(xi nao)
“Calculated, forcible indoctrination meant to replace a person’s existing beliefs, convictions, or attitudes.”
devil’s advocate
Latin
(advocatus diaboli)
This term originated in the Roman Catholic Church, referring to an official whose role was to deliberately argue against the canonization of potential saint, in order to expose any possible character flaws of the candidate or weaknesses of evidence in favor of canonization. In modern English, the term refers to anyone who argues against something either for the sake of argument alone, or to help clarify or determine the validity of the opposing cause (rather than due to personal opinions or convictions).
flea market
French
(marché aux puces)
A type of informal bazaar consisting of vendors who rent space to sell or barter various goods or merchandise. The term is popularly thought to refer to a particular market in Paris known as the marché aux puces, so-called because most of the items being sold were of such age that they were likely to have gathered fleas over time.
lose face
Chinese
(tiu lien)
The phrase means “humiliation” in Chinese, but in English it means “to do something resulting in the loss of status, reputation, or respect from others.” The related term save face comes from this meaning in English, rather than as a loan translation from Chinese.
masterpiece
Dutch
(meesterstuk)
Originally meaning “the work for which an artist or craftsman is granted the rank of master in a guild or academy,” it is used in modern English to refer to any creation that is considered a person’s greatest work or is of outstanding quality.
rest in peace
Latin
(requiescat in pace)
Said of someone who has passed away, and commonly written on tombstones.
world-view
German
(Weltanschauung)
An overall conception of life, the world, and humanity’s place therein.

American English vs. British English Spelling

While English is fairly uniform in terms of structure and spelling across the various regions in which it is the native language, there are a few prominent differences that have arisen over the years. These differences are most notably codified between two major English-speaking regions, resulting in American English (AmE) and British English (BrE).
Most of these differences have to do with the endings of certain types of words, as in “-er” vs. “-re,” “-or” vs. “-our,” and “-ize” vs. “-ise.” There are also differences involving whether a final consonant will remain single (AmE) or be doubled (BrE) after a vowel suffix, as well as whether words once featuring Latin ligatures will be spelled with a single vowel (AmE) or a vowel digraph (BrE). We’ll briefly look at examples of each of these here, but for more in-depth information and exceptions, you can continue on to the full section on American English vs. British English Spelling.

“-er” vs. “-re”

Many words in British English are spelled with “-re” when that ending follows a consonant. This spelling is a reflection of the French spellings of the words from which they were derived. In American English, we usually find “-er” after a consonant at the end of a word, a practice started in the 19th century to more naturally reflect the word’s pronunciation.
For example:
American English
British English
caliber
center
fiber
goiter
liter
luster
maneuver
meager
meter
ocher
reconnoiter
saber
scepter
sepulcher
somber
specter
theater
calibre
centre
fibre
goitre
litre
lustre
manoeuvre
meagre
metre
ochre
reconnoitre
sabre
sceptre
sepulchre
sombre
spectre
theatre

“-ize” vs. “-ise”

In American English, the suffix “-ize” is used to form verbs, and it is ultimately derived from the Greek “-izein.” This Greek suffix became “-iser” in Old French, and it is this form from which the British English “-ise” is derived.
This is a very standard convention, and almost all of the hundreds of words ending in “-ize” in American English will be spelled “-ise” in British English; here are just a few examples:
American English
British English
apologize
baptize
characterize
democratize
equalize
fictionalize
generalize
hypnotize
idealize
jeopardize
legalize
marginalize
normalize
organize
popularize
rationalize
sensationalize
theorize
visualize
westernize
apologise
baptise
characterise
democratise
equalise
fictionalise
generalise
hypnotise
idealise
jeopardise
legalise
marginalise
normalise
organise
popularise
rationalise
sensationalise
theorise
visualise
westernise
There are, however, verbs that only end in “-ise” regardless of region (such as advertise, compromise, or televise) as well a few that only end in “-ize” (such as capsize, prize, and seize).

Doubling L before vowel suffixes

In American English, we follow the rule that if the word has an emphasis on the final syllable before the vowel suffix, then the L is doubled. However, most words ending in a single L are stressed on the first syllable, so L remains singular. In British English, a final L that follows a vowel is almost always doubled before “-ed,” “-er,” and “-ing” regardless of where the stress occurs in the word.
For example:
American English
British English
barrel→barreled, barreling
cancel→canceled, canceling
dial→dialed, dialing
duel→dueled, dueling
fuel→fueled, fueling
grovel→groveled, groveling
label→labeled, labeling
model→modeled, modeling
rival→rivaled, rivaling
signal→signaled, signaling
travel→traveled, traveling
barrel→barrelled, barrelling
cancel→cancelled, cancelling
dial→dialled, dialling
duel→duelled, duelling
fuel→fuelled, fuelling
grovel→grovelled, grovelling
label→labelled, labelling
model→modelled, modelling
rival→rivalled, rivalling
signal→signalled, signalling
travel→travelled, travelling

“e” vs. “ae” and “oe”

Many words (especially medical terms) that were derived from Latin roots originally made use of the ligatures æ and œ to represent specific diphthongs. Over time these specialized characters were divided back into separate letters, creating the vowel digraphs ae and oe.
In American English, however, most of the words featuring these divided ligatures dropped the A and O, respectively, leaving just the E behind.
American English
British English
Spelled “e”
Spelled “ae”
anesthesia
bacteremia
encyclopedia
eon
feces
hemophilia
hemorrhage
ischemia
leukemia
orthopedic
pediatric
paleontology
septicemia
toxemia
anaesthesia
bacteraemia
encyclopaedia
aeon
faeces
haemophilia
haemorrhage
ischaemia
leukaemia
orthopaedic
paediatric
palaeontology
septicaemia
toxaemia
Spelled “e”
Spelled “oe”
apnea
celiac
diarrhea
dyspnea
edema
esophagus
estrogen
fetus
gonorrhea
maneuver
subpena
apnoea
coeliac
diarrhoea
dyspnoea
oedema
oesophagus
oestrogen
foetus
gonorrhoea
manoeuvre
subpoena
There are also a variety of other less common spelling differences that only arise in a handful of words, as well as some specific word pairs that have slightly different spelling between American and British English. To learn more about all of these, go to the full section on American English vs. British English Spelling.
Quiz

1. To what part of a word does a prefix attach?





2. Which of the following can be inflected to indicate gender?





3. Which of the following forms of the verb be is never shortened in a contraction?





4. Which of the following is a function word?





5. When is the rule “I before E, except after C” most often true?





6. Which of the following must be capitalized?





7. Which term refers to foreign words that are used in English without being translated from the original language?



8. What is the convention in American English regarding the Latin diphthongs “ae” and “oe”?





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