The mechanics of spelling

Spelling is the structural order of the letters that make up a word. The mastery of spelling plays a crucial role in the use of language, especially in formal situations. Thus, the knowledge contributes to proficiency in language use. With the robust lexicon of the English language, mastering spelling is a tedious task for many language users, native and non-native alike.

The inconsistency in the spellings of English words particularly worsens the situation. When an English language user thinks s/he has learnt that the ‘f’ or ‘fe’ in some singular nouns should be replaced with ‘ves’, as found with words like knife, leaf, and life, you are soon challenged with other nouns like proof, cliff and safe which should only be pluralised as proofs, cliffs, and safes. Against this backdrop, misspellings can make one appear like an ignorant user of English and can also divert readers’ attention from the content of one’s writing.

While the computer and the Internet have made the business of spelling a whole lot easier in recent times, there are still challenges that come with spelling words and telling their variants while using the computer. Again, examination situations could get one so tensed up that only a consolidated knowledge of how words should be spelt could be the saving grace at such times. It is, therefore, pertinent to master a few rules which make the spelling of English words easy. These rules are discussed in the subsequent paragraphs of this treatise.

One of the aspects of spelling that should be mastered is doubling consonants. There are a few situations when consonants can be doubled, and the first is when the word has a single syllable and a single vowel, then ends in a single consonant. Such a final consonant has to be doubled before a suffix that begins with a vowel can be added:

Hit- hitting

Drag- dragged

Shop- shopped


When the last consonant in a monosyllabic word is any of ‘w’, ‘x’ or ‘y’, the consonant should not be doubled.

Box- boxing

Buy- buying

Row- rowed

In addition, words that have two syllables also have the last consonants doubled when the consonants follow vowels, as the words below show:


Begin- beginning

Deter- deterred

Occur- occurrence

Unwrap- unwrapped

Another feature of English spelling is the possibility of retaining or dropping the final ‘e’ in a word, depending on the word structure. On the one hand, if a word ends in ‘e’, and the ‘e’ is seen immediately after a consonant letter, the ‘e’ will be dropped, so long as the suffix (a letter or a group of letters added at the end of a base word) attached to the word starts with a vowel:

Desire- desirable

Excite- exciting

Love- loving

Extreme- extremity

Move- movable

On the other hand, when the suffix following the word begins with a consonant sound, the ‘e’ is retained in the word, as the examples below show:

Care- careless

Rude- rudeness

Safe- safety

Engage- engagement

Fortunate- fortunately

Read also: Demystifying voice in English

Note, however, that sometimes this difference could be about regional variants. For example, Americans spell ‘aging’ while British spell ‘ageing’. Moving on, most words that end in ‘ue’ have the ‘e’ dropped when suffixes are added to them:

Argue- argument

Due- duly

True- truly

In contrast to this last set of words, the ‘e’ is retained in words that end in ‘oe’:

Canoe- canoeing

Hoe- hoeing

Shoe- shoeing

While ‘–able’ is added to many words, such as fashion, reason, and comfort to derive the adjectives, fashionable, reasonable, and comfortable, words that have an‘–ion’ ending usually accept the use of‘–ible’ to realise their adjectives:

Corruption- corruptible (not, corruptable)

Digestion- digestible (not, digestable)

Permission- permissible (not, permissable)

While most nouns that end in ‘o’ attract ‘es’ to form their plural forms (heroes, tomatoes, potatoes, echoes, vetoes, and so forth), few words which are of foreign origin only add ‘s’ after the ‘o’ (pianos, memos, and dynamos), whereas some others attract both ‘s’ and ‘es’:

Halo – halos, haloes

Memento – mementos, mementoes

Volcano – volcanos, volcanoes

Mosquito – mosquito, mosquitoes

Similarly, while the ‘f’ or ‘fe’ in some singular nouns are replaced with ‘ves’ to derive their plurals (for instance, wives, lives, halves, loaves, wolves, selves, calves, and thieves), few others are only pluralised by the addition of ‘s’ to the word (cliff – cliffs, safe-safes, belief-beliefs, proof-proofs, et cetera). What is more, a number of such words can attract both options:

Dwarf – dwarfs, dwarves

Scarf – scarfs, scarves

Wharf – wharfs, wharves

Hoof – hoofs, hooves

Handkerchief – handkerchiefs, handkerchieves

Last but not least, do not forget that when converting sustain (a verb) to sustenance (a noun), the ‘ain’ in the former is replaced with ‘enance’. Thus, we have:

Sustain – sustenance (not, ‘sustainance’)

Similarly, we have:

Maintain – maintenance (not, ‘maintainance’)

In conclusion, spelling is an aspect of language use that should be taken seriously, if one does not want one’s writing to appear awful and unappealing. This piece is one simple approach to the mastery of English spellings, but learners of the language must advance their efforts in that regard.

© 2021 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB)

Department of English,

Lagos State University

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