Spelling Rules: Common Spelling Rules and Tips (Examples)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on May 31, 2023

Want to learn about the common spelling rules in English grammar? Look no further. In this article, you'll learn the basic rules you need to know in order to master spelling your words correctly.

  • English grammar has many spelling rules, all pertaining to a different part of the language.

This article groups all the rules into categories so you can quickly find the rule you're looking for.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

Common Spelling Rules

The English language can be one of the trickiest when it comes to spelling because often words aren't spelled the way they sound. But it hasn't always been this way. In fact, English used to be a pretty phonetic language, and all the letters in a word would be pronounced. But over time, language has evolved to drop certain sounds when saying words while the spelling has remained the same.

  • That's why we're now left with words that have silent letters, like the 'k' in 'knock' or letters that sound different depending on the word, like the 'c' in 'cow' and 'mice.'

And let's not forget about homophones which are words that sound exactly alike but are spelled differently and mean different things. Some examples are 'site' vs 'sight' vs 'cite' and 'know' vs 'no.'

And to make matters worse, some words are spelled differently in American English vs. British English, like 'behavior' vs 'behaviour' or 'catalog' vs' catalogue.'

Does all this sound a little confusing and quite overwhelming? Don't worry! The good news is that there are a bunch of rules to standardize spelling, so you can refer to those whenever you're unsure.

Since there are so many spelling rules in English grammar, I have grouped them into categories. So let's dig in.

Common Spelling Rules for Letter Combinations

Did you know that certain letters can never be used after another letter? Or that certain letters almost always precede others? If you're not sure what this means, read on.

U Follows Q

This one's pretty straightforward: the letter' q' is always followed by the letter' u.'

This is due to the fact that the language English stems from—Latin, German, French, etc.—used this rule themselves. We borrowed their words and their spellings, and it sort of just stayed that way.

Here are some examples:

  • equal
  • Queen
  • quiz

This is important to know because you'll find that there are actually words that contain a 'q' not followed by a 'u,' and that's usually words that were introduced to the English language more recently or that originate from other languages.

Here are some examples:

  • qigong
  • burqa
  • souq

S Never Follows X

Words like 'excite' and 'excellent' can be a tad confusing because they contain the 's' sound, which can lead us to want to spell them with the letter' s.'

  • The fact is, 's' never follows the letter' x.'
  • Instead, the letter' c' takes over and produces the 's' sound.

So, if you're ever tempted to spell a word with an 'x' followed by an 's,' don't! This is never correct. It will always be a 'c' (if there's an 's' sound).

Here are some more examples:

  • exceed
  • excel
  • except

Top Tip! The letter' c' actually only makes the sound /s/ when placed before an 'e," i', or 'y'.

I Before E

Words that contain an 'i' and an 'e' side-by-side can be a little confusing. Many wonder whether the 'i' should come first or the' e.'

Let's start simple. The digraph' ie' is pronounced /aɪ/ like in the word 'pie.' So it makes sense that you should put the 'i' before the' e.'

But what about when 'ie,' doesn't make the sound /aɪ/? Some examples include the words' niece,' achieve,' or 'believe.' In these words, 'ie,' makes the sound /i/. What should you do in these cases?

  • The answer is that the 'i' always comes before the' e,' no matter the sound the word combination produces.

There are two exceptions to this rule.

  • The first is when the 'ie' letter combo comes after a 'c,' like in 'ceiling,' Then, the 'e' comes before the 'i.'
  • The second is when the 'ie' letter combo makes the sound /eɪ/, like in 'neighbor' and 'beige.' Then, too, the 'e' comes before the 'i.'

Do Not End a Word With V, J, or Q

The letters' v," j', and 'q' are never found at the end of a word.

You might be thinking, "But I know of some words that end in these letters." So let me address that.

  • This rule doesn't include slang words or loan words (borrowed from other languages).
  • No spelling rule could ever cover slang and loan words because it's impossible to predict which new terms will come into use.

So yes, there are words that end with the letters v,' 'j,' and 'q.'

Here are some examples:

  • Shiv (slang word for knife)
  • Taj (an Indian crown)
  • coq au vin (French dish)

Silent 'e'

The silent 'e' is a powerful tool in spelling. Its mere presence can change the sound of the other letters in the word. In fact, when it's taught to kids, it's often referred to as "the magic 'e.'" So what is this mystical creature, and how do you use it? Let's find out.

Using the Silent' e.'

The letter' e' can be pronounced, or it can be silent if found at the end of the word.

  • The word 'red' is an example where the 'e' is pronounced. You can clearly hear the letter's sound when you say the word.
  • The word 'cape' is an example of a word where the 'e' is silent.'

You can't hear it when you say the word aloud, so it might as well not be there, right?

Wrong.

The 'e' at the end of a word changes the sound of the vowel that comes earlier in the word.

When there's a silent 'e,' pronounce the vowel's name.

'cape' → letter 'a' /eɪ/

When there's no silent 'e,' pronounce the vowel phonetically.

'cap' → sound 'a' /æ/

So with the word 'cape,' pronounced /keɪp/, if you were to remove the silent 'e' at the end, you'd be left with the word 'cap,' which is pronounced /kæp/ and has a totally different meaning.

Here are some more examples of words with a silent 'e.'

Note that the silent 'e' can also affect other letters in the word. It often softens the sound of the consonant that comes right before it.

Take the word 'bathe,' for example, which is the verb form of the noun' bath.' In the word' bath,' which doesn't contain a silent 'e,' the digraph' th' has the hard sound /θ/. But add in the silent 'e,' and suddenly the 'th' in 'bathe' takes a soft /ð/ sound.

The same goes for the 'g' in 'stag' vs. ' stage.' In the former word, the 'g' has the hard sound /g/ whereas the latter makes the soft sound '/dʒ/.

The Silent 'e' and Suffixes

Things can get a little complicated when you need to add a suffix to a word with a silent 'e.'

"What's a suffix?" I hear you ask. It's a group of letters that gets added to the end of a word to change it to a different type of word. For example, adding the suffix 'ly' to the noun 'nice' turns it into the adverb 'nicely.'

The silent 'e' sometimes gets dropped when you add a suffix.

For instance:

  • inflate → inflation
  • supreme → supremacy
  • feminine → feminism

But there are also many instances when it does not.

Like, for example, with '-esque' suffixes:

picture → picturesque

Or with '-able,' suffixes:

adore → adorable

And with '-ful,' suffixes:

care → careful

As well as with '-ment' suffixes:

move → movement

As well as that, words with some specific endings don't drop the magic 'e' when a suffix is added. For example, words that end with '-ee,'

And then there's the case of the '-y' and '-ly' suffixes, where sometimes the silent 'e' is dropped, and other times it isn't.

Here are some examples when it remains:

  • flake → flakey
  • nice → nicely
  • late → lately

And here are some cases where it's dropped:

  • shine → shiny
  • race → racy
  • crackle → crackly

So how will you decide whether to keep the silent 'e' or remove it? In all honesty, the best way is just to memorize the rules. And this will come with practice. Whether you're a native speaker or learning English as a second language, this is a tricky area, so go easy on yourself and use dictionaries and spellcheckers!

Vowels and Consonants

The topic of vowels and consonants is a  super important grammar concept. It's really simple, but it's the foundation for many more complex rules, so it's essential to know your stuff.

To review, vowels are a, 'e,' 'i,' 'o,' 'u,' and sometimes' y.' All the other letters are consonants.

Now we've got that out of the way, let's look at some spelling rules pertaining to vowels and consonants.

All Syllables Include a Vowel

Words have a minimum of one syllable, but some words have many more than that.

  • One thing's for sure, though, no matter the number of syllables: each syllable must include a vowel.

Pick a word—any word—and say it loud. Is there a vowel in each syllable? You betcha!

Sometimes, it might be a vowel digraph, which is a pair of letters that are both vowels, like 'ee' in 'teeth.'

This is helpful to know because you can check your spelling is correct by asking yourself, "Have I included a vowel in each syllable?"

'ck' Comes After a Short Vowel

There are long sounds and short sounds in the English language. Some letters can have both. And specifically, some vowels can have both. Take the vowel' u,' for example. It sounds different in the word 'huge' than it does in the word 'cut.' In 'huge,' it has a long sound, and in 'duck,' it has a short sound.

  • The idea is that when a letter's sound is pronounced for longer, it's said to have a long sound. And conversely, when the sound is quicker, it's said to be a short sound.

For words that end with the sound' k,' there are two possible spellings: 'k' or 'ck.'

  • The official rule says that if the vowel preceding the final /k/ sound is long, you should use the 'k.'
  • If it's short, use the 'ck' spelling.

Let's have a look at some words that illustrate this rule.

First, words that end with the 'ck' digraph:

  • duck
  • knock
  • attack
  • peacock
  • feedback

And now that end in 'k':

  • park
  • cork
  • cheek
  • embark
  • catwalk

Like with everything, however, there are some exceptions, such as the words' skunk,' 'whisk,' and 'disk.'

Doubling the Consonants

Double consonants in spelling are tricky because they sound the same as if there was only a single letter. So how do you know whether to use one or two consonants when spelling a word? The answer, of course, is "know the rules"!

The final consonant of a word is often doubled when a suffix is added to the word in order to turn it into the past or progressive tenses, or comparative or superlative forms.

But this doesn't apply to all words! There are two rules to remember.

First, you should double the final consonant of single-syllable words when adding a suffix if and only if the last three words follow the consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) pattern.

  • shop → shopped
  • sad → sadder
  • pat → patting

The second rule is that you should double the final consonant of multi-syllabic words when adding a suffix if and only if it ends in vowel-consonant, and the final syllable is the one that's stressed.

  • compel → compelled
  • fulfil → fulfilled
  • admit → admitted

Watch out for words where doubling the consonants can go as far as changing the word's meaning.

For example:

desert → dessert

Also, watch out for words where both the single and double consonant spelling is accepted, such as 'canceled' and 'cancelled.'

Double Letters

Speaking of doubling letters, doubling the consonant is not the only scenario where you would double a letter in a word. There's another rule, too, and it applies to mono-syllabic terms.

Double Fs, Ls, and Ss for Mono-Syllabic Words

The final letter should be doubled when a word ends with a vowel + 'f,' vowel + 'l,' or vowel +' s,' and only has one syllable.

This rule is illustrated in the following words:

  • off
  • smell
  • kiss

There are a few exceptions to the vowel +' s' rule. The rule doesn't apply to plural nouns, words where the letter 's' makes the sound /z/; when the 's' is the mark of a verb in the present indefinite tense; words that have three or fewer letters; and the word 'this.'

Miscellaneous Rules

Here are some more rules that don't fit into a particular category.

Use Apostrophes in Place of Omitted Letters

You can use contractions to reduce the length of a word. When you do that, you must replace a letter with an apostrophe when spelling the word.

Here are some examples:

  • it will → it'll
  • I cannot → I can't
  • she is → she's

Plurals

If you want to talk about more than one noun, you need to use pluralization rules. We've written a whole article about this, so do refer to that if you want to learn more, but I'll summarize it for you here.

  • The majority of plural nouns are attained by -s or -es to the singular word.
  • But there are exceptions to that, as well as additional requirements for certain words. For example, before adding -es to words ending in 'z,' you must double the 'z.'
  • And some plural nouns straight up dismiss the -s or -es rule and end in -i, -a, or -ia.

Again, if you want to learn about these rules in more depth, check out the article. I'll link it here for you again.

Capitalization

You'll need to capitalize certain words when you're writing in English. This means using an uppercase letter for the first letter of the word.

For this, too, we have an at-length article detailing the rules and exceptions. You can check it out here.

But if you just want the general rundown, here goes:

  • You should capitalize the first word of a sentence, proper nouns, the pronoun 'I,' and most words in titles. 

Of course, there are many exceptions and exceptional cases, so to learn more, visit the article.

Concluding Thoughts on Common Spelling Rules

That concludes this article on the main spelling rules. There's quite a lot to learn, as you've probably noticed. But don't panic; take it one day at a time, and remember that these rules will become second nature over time.

So let's summarize:

  • English isn't a phonetic language, meaning words aren't always spelled as they sound.
  • The most common spelling rules center around letter combinations, the silent 'e,' vowels and consonants, doubling letters, contractions, plurals, and capitalization.
  • Keep practicing until you become confident with spelling rules. In the meantime, use a dictionary or spell checker.

If you enjoyed this article, you're sure to like our Grammar Book, a free online database full of grammar blogs like this one. Check it out!

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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