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Dictionary of the British English Spelling System

Greg Brooks

6. Some spelling rules for vowels

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1It is notoriously the case that English vowel spellings are much less predictable than consonant spellings (compare chapters 5 and 3), so in this chapter I provide some guidance on this – but be warned (again): the guidance doesn’t and can’t cover every word, so I end up saying ‘The rest you just have to remember’. Such (relatively) easy bits as there are for vowel spellings are summarised at the beginning of chapter 5.

6.1 ‘<i> before <e> except after <c>’

2This is the only spelling rule most British people can recite. Stated as baldly as that it is thoroughly misleading. A letter in Times Higher Education in the summer of 2008 (Lamb, 2008) provided a more nuanced formulation:

‘<i> before <e> except after <c> if the vowel-sound rhymes with bee’.

3The qualification ‘if the vowel-sound rhymes with bee’ (or similar) is hardly ever mentioned, perhaps because it is difficult to explain to children – but let us explore it.

4In order to use the expanded rule, writers have first to realise that an/iː/phoneme they wish to spell needs to be written with one of the graphemes <ei, ie> and not with any of the other possibilities – not necessarily an easy matter (a quick look at section 5.7.2 will reveal that there are 15 ways of spelling/iː/in English besides <ie, ei>, some admittedly very rare). If they do realise they must choose between <ei> and <ie>, they will find that the expanded rule works pretty well for ‘<i> before <e>’ (= not after <c>): there are at least 90 words with /iː/ spelt <ie>, and only two of these are exceptions to the rule: specie, species. But it works very poorly for ‘<e> before <i> after <c>’: the only words that conform to it are ceiling, conceit, conceive, deceit, deceive, perceive, receipt, receive, and exceptions are more numerous: caffeine, casein, codeine, cuneiform, disseisin, heinous, inveigle, Keith, plebeian, protein, seize, plus either, leisure, neither in their US pronunciations, and counterfeit if you pronounce it to rhyme with feet.

5I suppose you could count all these words together and say that the rule works for about 90 per cent of them – but the second half of the rule is weak, and writers are mostly left with no guidance on the myriad other words in which <ei> and <ie> occur without rhyming with bee – for examples see sections 10.12 and 10.23 (especially the set of words containing the sequence ‘cie’ which naïve spellers who forget the ‘when the vowel-sound rhymes with bee’ condition may well be confused about: ancient, coefficient, conscience, conscientious, deficiency, deficient, efficiency, efficient, omniscience, omniscient, prescience, prescient, proficiency, proficient, science, scientific, society, sufficient, sufficiency) – or in which /iː/ is not spelt either <ie> or <ei>. In my opinion, this rule should be consigned to oblivion.

6.2 ‘To spell the names of letters <a, i, o, u> in one-syllable words ending with a single consonant phoneme, write the vowel-name letter and the consonant letter and magic <e>’

6This fact is well known, but not often expressed like this. Examples are too numerous and familiar to need listing. The rule holds good about three-quarters of the time for relevant monosyllables. There are about 60 ‘letter-name-vowel except /iː/ plus single consonant’ endings in English monosyllables, and this rule works well for all but a handful of them. For example, the only word ending /ǝʊp/ and spelt with <-oap> is soap – all the rest are spelt with <-ope>, including scope, slope. The main exceptions are that /eɪl, eɪn/ are spelt <-ail,-ain> about as often as they are spelt <-ale,-ane> (see section 5.7.1), and that the principal spelling of /aɪt/ is <-ight> (see section 5.7.3).

7The rule also applies, but less strongly, to the final syllables of polysyllabic words where the full letter-name sounds including /iː/ occur, and regardless of whether the syllable is stressed or unstressed.

8There are two important limitations: it doesn’t apply to phoneme/iː/in monosyllables, and all words containing /aɪ/ spelt <y. e> (see section 5.7.3) are exceptions. So it could be stated more exactly (but less usefully for teaching purposes) as:

‘In words ending in a single consonant phoneme, spell letter-name vowels (EXCEPT /iː/ in monosyllables) with their name letters plus the consonant letter plus magic <e> (and watch out for words spelt with <y> and magic <e>).’

9In monosyllables ending in a consonant very few occurrences of /iː/ are spelt <e. e>, and the main spelling of /iː/ is <ee>, but there are many exceptions – and even more, numerically, in the final syllables of polysyllabic words even though there <e.e> is the most frequent pattern (see section 5.7.2).

6.3 ‘In non-final syllables of stem words, spell letter-name vowels with their name letters’

10This is my generalisation of various regularities stated in sections 5.1 and 5.7: the letters <a, e, i, o, u> are the regular spellings of phonemes /eɪ, iː, aɪ, əʊ, juː/, plus /uː/, in non-final syllables, that is, outside one-syllable words and the final syllables of polysyllabic words. The rule applies to both stressed and unstressed syllables where the full letter-name sounds occur. Long lists of examples can be found in Wijk’s Rules of Pronunciation for the English Language, especially pp. 19-20, 22-26, 69, 73. A few representative examples (in stressed syllables before the semi-colons; in unstressed syllables after them) are:

  • /eɪ/ spelt <a>: agent, baby, bacon, capable, crustacean, danger, data, hazel, ingratiate, insatiable, labour, lady, loquacious, nation and all the other words ending in /ˈei∫ən/, plagiarism, stranger, wastrel; fatalistic

  • /iː/ spelt <e>: amenable, appreciable, decent, diabetes, European, frequent, idea, Leo, lever, medieval, museum, neon, oedema (second syllable), penalise, pleonasm, region, senior, sequence, species, theatre; abbreviation, area, galleon, geographic, hideous and about 80 others ending in <-eous>, nucleus, petroleum

  • /aɪ/ spelt <i>: annihilate, bicycle, climate, dialogue, diaphragm, disciple, giant, hierarch, inviolable, liable, library, lion, rival, siphon, violence; criterion, diabetes, diarrhoea, gigantic, idea, iota

  • /əʊ/ spelt <o>: diplomacy, focus, iota, lotion and all the other words ending in /ˈəʊ∫ən/ (including ocean itself, despite the rest of its spelling), molten, motor, negotiable, ocean, ochre, only, profile, rosy, sociable, swollen; coerce, cryostat, Eloise, grotesque, loquacious, obese

  • /juː/ spelt <u>: alluvial pronounced /əˈljuːviːjəl/, computer, numerous, peculiar, reducible, stupid, unit; intuition pronounced /ɪntjuːˈwɪ∫ən/

  • /uː/spelt <u>: alluvial pronounced /əˈluːviːjəl/, inscrutable, judo, lunatic, scrutiny, suicide; fluorescent, intuition pronounced /ɪnʧuːˈwɪ∫ən/, judicial, superior.

11There are of course exceptions to all of these, e.g.

12•/eɪ/ not spelt <a>: Gaelic pronounced /ˈgeɪlɪk/, maelstrom; aileron, caitiff, complaisant, daisy, gaiter, liaison, maintain, maintenance, raillery, raisin, traitor, wainscot; bayonet, cayenne, crayon, layer, layette, maybe, mayonnaise, rayon; debacle, debris, debut (ante), decolletage, decor, denouement, detente, eclair, elan, elite, ingenu(e), menage, precis, regime, séance, ukulele; heinous pronounced /ˈheɪnəs/, obeisance, reindeer; neighbour; abeyance, heyday; laissez-faire, rendezvous

13/iː/ not spelt <e>:

141) Exceptions with <i> (there are at least 1000 words in this category – see under /iː/, section 5.7.2):

15(stressed) albino, ballerina, casino, cliché, concertina, farina, kilo, lido, litre, maraschino, merino, mosquito, ocarina, piquant, scarlatina, semolina, visa; first <i> in kiwi, migraine; second <i> in bikini, incognito, libido

16(unstressed) ap/de-preciate, associate, audio, calumniate, caviar, foliage, luxuriate, mediaeval (second syllable), negotiate, orient, oubliette, patio, radio, ratio, serviette, studio, trio, verbiage; also first <i> in conscientious, liais-e/on, orgiastic, partiality, psychiatric, speciality, second <i> in inebriation, insomniac, officiate, superficiality, vitriolic, third <i> in initiate

172) Other exceptions: aegis, aeon, aesthete, anaemi-a/c and other words ending /ˈiːmɪə, ˈiːmɪk/ spelt <-aemi-a/c>, anaesthetist, archaeology, Caesar, encyclopaedia (fourth syllable), faeces, haemoglobin, mediaeval (third syllable), naevus, praetor, quaestor; beacon, beadle, beagle, beaker, beaver, creature, deacon, eager, eagle, easel, Easter, easy, feature, heathen, meagre, measles, queasy, reason, season, sleazy, squeamish, teasle, treacle, treason, weasel; beetle, cheetah, feeble, freesia, gee-gee, geezer, needle, squeegee, sweetie, teeter, wheedle; ceiling, cuneiform, heinous pronounced /ˈhiːnəs/, inveigle; feoffee, feoffment, people; geyser pronounced /ˈgiːzə/; amoeba, coelacanth, coelenterate, coeliac, coelom, foetal, foetid, foetus, oedema (first syllable), oenology, oesophagus, oestrogen, oestrus; phoenix, subpoena; caryatid, embryo(nic), halcyon, polyandry, polysyllable, polytechnic. In US spelling many of the words just listed with <ae, oe> are instead spelt with <e>, thus conforming to the rule

18• /aɪ/ not spelt <i>:

  1. Exceptions with <y>: asylum, aureomycin, cryostat, cyanide, cycle, (hama)dryad, dynamic, forsythia, glycogen, gynaecology, hyacinth, hyaline, hybrid, hydra, hydrogen, hyena, hygiene, hygrometer, hymeneal, hyperbole and other compounds in hyper-, hyphen, hypothesis and other compounds in hypo-, lychee, myopic, nylon, psyche and all its derivatives, pylon, thylacine, thymus, typhoid, typhoon, typhus, xylophone, zygote and derivatives

  2. Other exceptions: naive, papaya; maestro; balalaika, Kaiser, naiad; aye-aye; deictic, deixis, eider, eidetic, eirenic, either, feisty, kaleidoscope, meiosis, neither, seismic; geyser pronounced /ˈgaɪzə/; blighty; iron; island, islet, viscount; coyote, foyer pronounced /ˈfwaɪjeɪ/, voyeur; duiker, Ruislip

19• /əʊ/ not spelt <o>: chauffeu-r/se, chauvinis-m/t, hauteur; yeoman; gloaming; boulder (contrast the comparative adjective bolder), bouquet pronounced /bəʊˈkeɪ/, poultice, poultry, shoulder, smoulder

20• /juː/not spelt <u>: beauty; feudal, leukaemia, neurosis, pseudo; skewer; nuisance

21• /uː/ not spelt <u>: leeward pronounced /ˈluːwəd/; pleurisy, rheumatism; brewer, jewel, sewage, sewer (‘foul drain’); approval, movie and other derivatives of words with /uː/ spelt <o.e>; manoeuvre; bazooka, booby, boodle, boogie, boomerang, booty, canoodle, coolie, doodle(bug), googly, hoodoo, hoopoe, loony, moolah, noodle, oodles, poodle, voodoo; accoutrement, acoustic, boudoir, boulevard, bouquet, boutique, carousel, coulomb, cougar, coupon, croupier, goulash, insouciance, louvre, moussaka, oubliette, outré, ouzo, rouble, roulette, routine, silhouette, soubrette, soufflé, souvenir, toucan, toupee, troubadour, trousseau, voussoir; denouement; gruesome, muesli, Tuesday.

22But the generalisation seems mainly sound for stem words. It is particularly strong for /əʊ, juː/ spelt <o, u>; the only exceptions I’ve been able to find are the 13 and 7 respectively just listed. It’s weakest for/iː/spelt <e>, where there are over 1000 exceptions, and there are of course other instances in derived forms, e.g. (to name just a few) mould-er/y, moult-ed/ing, fewer, hewer.

23For how the <e>-deletion rule makes many derived forms conform to this rule see the next section.

6.4 <e>-deletion (Part 2 of ‘double, drop or swop’)

24For ‘double, drop or swop’ see also section 4.2 and the next section.

25The main rule for dropping a word-final letter <e> when adding a suffix is easily stated:

In words which end in <e> preceded by a consonant letter, drop the <e> before suffixes beginning with a vowel letter.

26Examples: arousal, arrival, assemblage, baker, behaviour, chaplain, collegial, convalescent, debatable, drudgery, forcible, hated, muscly (!), revival, rousing, storage, surety, treasury, wiry, writing.

27Note that:

  • when the suffix begins with <e> (past tense and participle <-ed>, agentive or comparative adjective-forming <-er>, superlative adjective-forming or archaic second person singular person tense ending <-est>, archaic third person singular person tense ending <-eth>, verb singular or noun plural <-es>, adjective-forming <-ent>, noun-forming <-ery, -ety>), technically the <e> of the stem is dropped and replaced by the <e> of the suffix, even though it looks simply as though <d, r, st, th, s, nt, ry, ty> has been added. A few quite odd words belong here, e.g. bizarrery, freer, freest, weer, weest (comparative and superlative forms of the adjectives free, wee), freest, freeth, seest, seeth (/ˈfriːjɪst, ˈfriːjɪθ, ˈsiːjɪst, ˈsiːjɪθ/, archaic second and third person singular present tense forms of the verbs free, see), sightseer /ˈsaɪtsiːjə/. In the words containing <e, e> those two letters, unusually, do not form a digraph;

  • <e>-deletion makes many words in which it applies (including arrival, collegial, debatable, hated, revival and writing) conform to the generalisation in the previous section about letter-name vowels in non-final syllables. Thus in the spelling ageing, now probably more frequent than aging, the <e> is strictly speaking unnecessary, as is the first <e> in mileage (also spelt milage);

  • even more unnecessary is the <e> in axeing, which is starting to appear but should definitely be axing, the only possible form in US spelling where the unsuffixed form is ax; in 2012 I also noticed apeing, which should be aping. Similarly, the (US?) spelling knowledgeable strictly speaking has an unnecessary <e>, since knowledgable conforms better to the general <e>-deletion rule.

28Exceptions: Where the consonant letter preceding word-final <e> is <c, g> forming a digraph with the <e> spelling /s, ʤ/ (whether or not the <e> is also part of a split digraph), the <e> is retained in order to show that <c, g> are not pronounced /k, g/, for example in noticeable, peaceable, pronounceable, serviceable, traceable; advantageous, changeable, chargeable, damageable, manageable, marriageable, outrageous (therefore not *noticable, *peacable, *pronouncable, *servicable, *tracable; *advantagous, *changable, *chargable, *damagable, *managable, *marriagable, *outragous). The <e> is also retained in routeing, singeing, swingeing, whingeing to avoid confusion with routing (from rout), singing, swinging and winging; also in bingeing, cringeing, sponge-ing/y to avoid suggesting the existence of stem words *to bing, *to cring, *to spong – though there was of course Bing (Crosby), and Spong is a rare but real surname. Also, the <e> in acreage, (a/un-) bridgeable, ogreish, ochreous, saleable, unshakeable is never deleted. Conversely, when <-or> is added to mortgage, which should produce the spelling *mortgageor, the result is instead mortgagor, thus both breaking what we might call the ‘<e>-retention’ rule as it applies to words ending in /ʤ/ spelt <ge> and producing one of the few words in which <g> before <o> is pronounced /ʤ/ (see section 9.15). And the <e> of more is retained in moreover.

29The past tense form recceed is very odd, not just visually (my spellchecker tried to change it to recede) or because of the irregular spelling of /k/ as <cc> before <e>, but also because the stem-final <e> isn’t deleted before <-ed>. If it were, *recced would look as though it was pronounced /rekt/, like wrecked. Similarly, the participle recceing also has to retain the <e> to spell /iː/.

30The adjective fiery is always so spelt, and never *firey or *firy. There appear to be no words ending <irey>, but *firy might seem a more logical application of the <e>-replacement rule – perhaps there is a feeling that, because fiery is pronounced /ʽfaɪjəriː/, the schwa needs to be represented.


32• Adjectives ending in <-able, -ible> drop the <e> and add <y> to form adverbs ending – ly, e.g. probably, visibly.

33(Almost all other adverbs add <-ly> but this would produce, e.g., *probablely, *visiblely which might suggest the presence of a nonexistent schwa vowel corresponding to the <e>; and omitting the <e> from those forms would produce *probablly, *visiblly, which would go against the tendency to reduce <ll> to <l> – see section 4.4.7)

34Whole loses the <e> when <-ly> is added: wholly (though some dictionaries list the form wholely; contrast solely, which is never spelt *solly).

35• A few words optionally lose the <e> before <-ment>: abridg(e)ment, acknowledg(e)ment, judg(e)ment, and argument always does.

36• Where loses an <e> in wherever (but not in whereas, whereat, whereupon).

37• Nine loses the <e> before <-th>, and while before <-st>: ninth, whilst (presumably so that they will not look as though they have two syllables, like archaic third or second person singular present tense verbs: *nineth, *whilest).

38• One noun ending in <-ue> drops the <e> when adding <-ery> to form a derived noun: demagoguery.

39• Adjectives ending in <-ue> drop the <e> when adding <-ly> to form adverbs: duly, truly; and true loses the <e> in truism, but blueish keeps it.

40• A few verbs ending in <-ue> lose the <e> before <-able>: arguable, issuable, rescuable, subduable, suable, valuable. These six words (plus changeable, debatable, saleable and serviceable) all fit the generalisation about <-able> versus <-ible> (see section 6.7).

41The extensions, noted in the last three bullet points above, of <e>-deletion to some suffixations of words ending in <-ue> never apply where the letter before the <e> is a vowel letter other than <u>, e.g. hoeing. Even where the preceding vowel letter is <u> some words can retain or drop the <e> before <-ing>, e.g. cuing/cueing, queuing/queueing, but most other words with <ue> always drop the <e>, e.g. arguing, burlesquing, issuing, rescued, subdued, suing, valued.

42However, where the stem ends in <-gue> the position is complicated. If the suffix begins with <e, i> AND the pronunciation of the <g> remains /g/ after suffixation only <e> is deleted, e.g. catalogued, intriguing, voguish (though I have also seen vogueish in print); but both letters <-ue> are deleted if either the pronunciation of the <g> changes to /ʤ/ after suffixing, e.g. analogy, dialogic, ideological, or the suffix begins with <a>, e.g. fugal, vagary (N. B. *vaguery does not appear to exist). And then there is the group of 3 words ending in <-ngue> spelling /ŋ/: harangue, meringue, tongue retain the <u> in haranguer, haranguing, meringued, tongued, presumably to prevent the <ng> appearing to spell /nʤ/: *haranger, *haranging, *meringed; in the case of forms of harangue, also to prevent the second <a> looking as though it spells /eɪ/ ; and in the case of tongue, to avoid confusion with derivatives of tong, e.g. tonged.

6.5 <y>-replacement (Part 3 of ‘double, drop or swop’)

43For ‘double, drop or swop’ see also sections 4.2 and 6.4.

44The rule for replacing a word-final letter <y> with <i> when adding a suffix is more complicated than that for <e>-deletion:

DON’T change the <y> if the preceding letter is a vowel letter, e.g. playing, or if the suffix is <-ing>, e.g. crying.
Otherwise, in words which end in <y> preceded by a consonant letter:

  1. change the <y> to <ie> before <-s>, e.g. tries;

  2. change the <y> to <i> before other suffixes, e.g. tried.

45Extensions and exceptions:

46The ‘multiples-of-ten’ numerals from twenty to ninety change the <y> to <i> before <-eth>: twentieth, thirtieth, etc.

47A few examples of <-y> changing to <i> before <-a> might be considered extensions, e.g. porphyry, porphyria.

48There seems to be only one word where <y> after a vowel letter exceptionally is deleted before a suffix beginning with a vowel letter: laity.

49There seem to be only four words where <y> changes exceptionally to <e>: beauteous, duteous, piteous, plenteous.

50Where the preceding letter is a consonant letter, most words change <y> to <i> before <-ful, -fy, -hood, -less, -ly, -ment, -ness, -some, -work>, e.g. beautiful, bountiful, dutiful, fanciful, merciful, pitiful, plentiful; beautify, dandify, glorify, jollify, ladify, mummify, prettify; likelihood, livelihood; merciless, penniless; crazily, drily (also spelt dryly), greedily, wittily; accompaniment, embodiment, merriment; business (‘enterprise’, pronounced /ˈbɪznɪs/), foolhardiness, spiciness, weightiness; wearisome; handiwork. But bellyful, babyhood, shyly, slyly, wryly, busyness (‘state of being busy’, pronounced /ˈbɪziːnɪs/), dryness, shyness, slyness, wryness, bodywork keep the <y>. Several other apparent exceptions to this paragraph (joyful, playful, joyless, coyly, greyly, coyness, greyness, glueyness) are obeying the part of the rule that says ‘Don’t change the <y> if the preceding letter is a vowel letter’. A great oddity is multiplication, which could be (mischievously) analysed as a derived form of the verb multiply with an otherwise unknown suffix <-cation> - in May 2009 I came across an instance of a child reported as writing *multiplycation.

51The adjective and adverb daily, the adverb gaily, the past tenses and participles laid, paid and the past participles lain, slain have <i> despite day, gay, lay (present tense of laid, past tense of lie ‘be horizontal’), pay, slay having a vowel letter before the <y>; the regular spellings of daily, gaily, laid, paid would be *dayly, *gayly, *layed (and on 30 June 2010 I saw the form *overlayed in an exhibition caption at the British Library), *payed. The irregularity in laid, paid consists not just in changing <y> to <i> but also in omitting the <e> of the regular past tense and participle ending <-ed>. It is more difficult to work out what the ‘regular’ spellings of lain, slain would be. They are irregular past participles formed with the ending usually written <-en> (e.g. broken, written), but they also seem to be the only cases where this ending is added to stems ending in <-y>. The spellings *layen, *slayen would, however, look disyllabic even though the words are monosyllables – the few occurrences of medial /eɪ/ spelt <ay> are all in polysyllables, whether stem or compound words (see /eɪ/, section 5.7.1) – but on the other hand *layn, *slayn would spell medial /eɪ/ with <ay> when this correspondence never occurs in monosyllables. So perhaps lain, slain are logical after all.

52The nouns fryer (as in deep-fat-) and dyer (‘person who dyes’) always have <y>. The noun meaning ‘thing that dries’ (as in hair-, hand-, tumble-) can be spelt drier or dryer, but the adjective meaning ‘more dry’ must be drier. The nouns meaning ‘an aircraft pilot, a handbill’, etc., can be either flier or flyer, but the adjective meaning ‘more knowing and clever’ is always flyer (and why this differs from the adjective drier escapes me).

6.6 <ie>-replacement, <y>-deletion and <e>-insertion

53I’ve invented these terms to draw attention to three processes which contrast with those in the two previous sections. <ie>-replacement is regularly remarked upon, and <e>-insertion is a notorious source of confusion for some people, but <y>-deletion has hitherto apparently escaped notice.

<ie>-replacement: There are just five verbs in which the opposite ‘swop’ to <y>-replacement occurs, that is, <ie> is changed to <y> before <-ing>, namely belying, dying, lying, tying, vying.

54What I have called ‘<y>-deletion’ occurs where abstract nouns ending in <-y> correspond to ‘agentive’ nouns ending in <-er,-ist>, e.g. astrolog-y/er, astronom-y/er, biograph-y/er, geograph-y/er, philosoph-y/er; botan-y/ist, chiropody-y/ist, geology-y/ist, misanthrop-y/ist, theor-y/ist, etc. This might also cover the loss of <y> in laity relative to lay (‘not clergy’).

55I’ve invented the term ‘<e>-insertion’ to draw attention to the Oddity of some polysyllabic nouns which end in <-o> in the singular adding <e> before the plural ending <-s>, e.g. heroes, potatoes, tomatoes. This occurs only in nouns ending in <-o> (and in rare occurrences of such nouns being used as singular verbs, e.g. The submarine torpedoes the battleship), and never with other word-final single vowel letters: bananas, clichés, rabbis, menus, not *bananaes, *clichées, *rabbies, *menues. Carney (1994: 174) points out that there are a few clear rules here:

‘The <-oes> form is not found in decidedly Exotic words (generalissimos, mulattos) or in words where the plural is unusual (indigos, impetigos) or in words with the colloquial ending <-o> (boyos, buckos, dipsos, winos)… [or] if there is a vowel before the final /əʊ/ … (radios, cameos).’

56And to the last group one could add patios, rodeos, studios.

57But otherwise one is reduced to listing words which:

  • only have <-os>, e.g. concertos, espressos, provisos, quartos, solos

  • only have <-oes>, e.g. buboes, heroes, potatoes, tomatoes, torpedoes

  • can have either, e.g. cargo(e)s, commando(e)s, halo(e)s, tornado(e)s.

58In my opinion, nothing but a source of confusion (for Dan Quayle, among others; this story re-appeared in the Guardian Education Section, 19 August 2008, p. 3) would be lost if all such polysyllabic words were spelt only with <-os> (but monosyllables like doe, floe would still have plurals in <-oes> because the <e> is there in the singular; throes would still need its <e> despite not having a singular form, goes, noes and the verb does would need to be exceptions, and past tenses would still need the <e>, e.g. torpedoed).

6.7 <-able/-ible>

59These adjective endings are an awkward pair. The origins of the two spellings go back to Latin. (If the adjective’s root is descended from a Latin verb of the 2nd, 3rd or 4th conjugation, the suffix is generally spelt <-ible>; otherwise, <-able> and a fat lot of use that rule is to most people.) Pronunciation of the endings is no guide to which adjectives have which ending – both are pronounced /əbəl/, and there are almost no related forms in which the stress falls on the relevant syllable and gives the vowel its full value, thus removing the uncertainty. (The only exception seems to be syllable – syllabic, and here the <-able> word is a noun, not an adjective, and derived from Greek, not Latin).

60However, there is a generalisation which is fairly reliable:

Try saying the adjective without the /əbəl/. If the result is a freestanding word, or ends in /k/ spelt <(c)c>, /g/ spelt <g> or /ʃ/ spelt <ci, ti>, spell the ending with <a>. Otherwise, spell it with <i>.

61Examples: biddable, suitable, walkable; amicable, applicable, despicable, educable, impeccable, implacable, irrevocable, practicable; navigable; appreciable, sociable, insatiable, negotiable; (with retained <e>) traceable, manageable; eligible, illegible, intelligible, susceptible, plus the noun crucible.


  1. Where the root does not sound like a free-standing word but the ending has <a>: abominable, admirable, affable, amenable, charitable, culpable, demonstrable, disreputable, equable, equitable, execrable, flammable, formidable, hospitable, impregnable, incalculable, ineffable, inestimable, inevitable, inexorable, inimitable, inscrutable, inseparable, interminable, inviolable, irritable, malleable, memorable, miserable, palpable, permeable, probable, tolerable, venerable.

  2. Where the root does sound like a free-standing word but the ending has <i>: accessible, contemptible, convincible, defensible, discernible, flexible, forcible, gullible, reducible, responsible, sensible; also legible and the noun mandible even though not derived from ledge, manned.

63Curiously, the generalisation works for some <-able> words where the root sounds like a free-standing word but that word isn’t related to the adjective ending in <-able>, for example amiable, capable, liable, syllable, tenable, viable, as though derived from Amy, cape, lie, sill, ten, vie. In some cases it is necessary to remove a prefix before the test works, e.g. (un)palatable.

6.8 <-ant/-ent,-ance/-ence,-ancy/-ency>

64There are two useful generalisations for <-ant/-ent>:

651) The unstressed ending /mənt/ is almost always spelt <-ment>.

66Examples (N. B. when these words are nouns; when words of the same spelling are verbs or take the adjectival endings /əl, əriː/ spelt <-al,-ary> the <e> is traditionally pronounced /e/ (though this distinction is dying out), and this helps to indicate the <e> spelling): complement, compliment, document, element, excrement, experiment, ferment, fragment, implement, increment, instrument, supplement. Extension: The adjectives (in)clement also have /mənt/ spelt <-ment> but have no related verb.

67Exceptions: adamant, claimant, clamant, dormant, informant.

682) The ending /ˈesənt/ is always spelt <-escent>, e.g. adolescent, convalescent.

69Otherwise all these paired endings are if anything even more awkward than <-able/ -ible>. Again, the source of the spellings is Latin, and pronunciation is of little help unless there’s a related word in which the stress falls on the relevant syllable and the full sound of the vowel removes the uncertainty.

70For example:

circumstAnce(s) – circumstAntial
componEnt – componEntial
confidEnce – confidEntial
consequEnce – consequEntial
differEnce, differEnt – differential
dominAnt - dominAtion
elemEnt – elemEntal, elemEntary
elephAnt – elephAntine
influEnce – influEntial
jubilAnt – jubilAtion lubricAnt – lubricAtion
migrAnt – migrAtion
mutAnt – mutAtion
presidEncy, presidEnt – presidEntial
protestAnt – protestAtion
residEnce, residEnt – residEntial
substAnce – substAntial

6.9 Using related forms to spell schwa

71Finding the full vowel in a related word is also the clue to spelling /ə/ in many other words. In the following examples, the words on the left have capitalised vowels spelling schwa whose spelling can be derived from the capitalised vowel letters in the words on the right:

abdOmen – abdOminal
AcadEmy – AcadEmic
acAdemic – acAdemy
adamAnt – adamAntine
advocAcy, advocAte (noun) – advocAte (verb)
anAlyse, anAlytic – anAlysis
Analysis – Analyse, Analytic
anARchy – anARchic
artEry – artErial
associAte (noun, adjective) – associAte (verb)
articulAcy, articulAte (adjective) – articulAte(d) (verb)
atOm – atOmic
Atomic – Atom
biOlogical – biOlogy
biolOgy – biological
canOn – canonical
cAnonical – cAnon
cAtholicism – cAtholic
celEbrate – celEbrity
cElebrity – cElebrate
cOlloquial, cOlloquium – cOlloquy
collOquy – collOquial, collOquium
colUmn – colUmnar
cOlumnar – cOlumn
compOnential – compOnent
cOnfirm – cOnfirmation
cUstodial – cUstody
custOdy – custOdial
defInIte – fInIte
dramA – dramAtic
drAmatic – drAma
duplicAte (noun/adjective) – duplicAte (verb)
essEnce – essEntial
Essential – Essence
factOR – factORial
frequEnt (adjective) – frequEnt (verb)
grammAR – grammARian
grAmmarian, grAmmatical – grAmmar
infInIte – fInIte
majEsty – majEstic
mAjestic – mAjesty
medAl – medAllion
mEdallion – mEdal
memOry – memorial
mEmorial – mEmory
mentAl – mentAlity
methOd – methOdical
mEthodical – mEthod
monARch (y) – monARchical
mOnarchical – mOnarch(y)
Obligatory – Obligation
octAgon – octAgonal
orAcle – orAcular
Oracular – Oracle
palAce – palAtial
pAlatial – pAlace
pArabOla – pArabOlic
parAbolic – parAbola
patriOt – patriOtic
perfEct (adjective) – perfEct (verb)
photOgraph – photO, photOgrapher
phOtogrApher – phOtogrAph(ic)
populAR – populARity
prOcure – prOcurator
prOfessOR – prOfessORial
profEssorial – profEssor
psychiAtry – psychiAtric
regulAR – regulARity
separAte (adjective) – separAte (verb), separAtion
sepUlchre – sepUlchral
sObriety – sOber
sOciety – sOcial
sulphUR (ous) – sulphURic
syllAble – syllabic
telEgraph, telEgraphic –
telegrAphy – telegrAph, telegrAphic
theAtre – theatrical
variAnt – variAtion

72As the list shows, many pairs provide reciprocal guidance.

6.10 Elided vowels

73Even more difficult for novice spellers and non-native learners may be words where a vowel letter appears in the written version that has no counterpart at all (not even schwa) in the spoken version. Five examples in common words are:

  • secondary /ˈsekəndriː/ with no phoneme corresponding to <a>

  • different /ˈdɪfrənt/ with no phoneme corresponding to <e>

  • business /ˈbɪznɪs/ with no phoneme corresponding to <i>

  • category /ˈkætəgriː/ with no phoneme corresponding to <o>

  • favourite /ˈfeɪvrɪt/ with no phoneme corresponding to <ou>.

74Even these few words show significant variability in the vowel grapheme that needs to be recovered and written. In this section I enclose many such elided vowel letters in round brackets – for this convention see Wijk (1966: 77-8). Vowel elision is one of four special processes which I have identified as operating in English spelling (for the others see section 3.6 and chapter 7), and has serious implications for any attempt to deduce the stress patterns of words from their written forms (see section A. 10 in Appendix A).

75The reason for this syncopation or telescoping phenomenon seems to be that English-speakers dislike having to say three syllables containing unstressed vowels consecutively, and tend to drop one where this would be the case. We even do it sometimes where there would be only two consecutive unstressed syllables. And it affects not just single words, but also strings of words in running speech, e.g. I should have thought can be telescoped into something like /aɪʃtəfˈθɔːt/, with three syllables rather than four. At the extreme this is the process which allowed W.S. Gilbert to create outrageous rhymes such as monotony rhyming with got any, that is, monot’ny – got’ny /məˈnɒtniː - ˈgɒtniː/.

76This trend towards eliding vowels seems to be due to the nature of English as a stressed-timed language. It is particularly strong in RP, so some non-native learners with experience of a wide range of the accents with which English is spoken might be helped by the US pronunciations of some words in this category:

  • secondary /ˈsekəndeəriː/ with /eə/ corresponding to <a>

  • category /ˈkætəgɔːriː/ with / ɔː/corresponding to <o>.

77But no helpful vowel phoneme surfaces in mid-Atlantic in different, so some such words will continue to pose problems.

78Besides which, a great many native-speaking children learning to spell English will receive no such help from their own accents or those of people around them, and almost certainly won’t notice the relevant details of different accents heard on television, video or DVD or at the cinema.

79The largest category (that word again) of words with an elided vowel is those ending in/riː/spelt <-ry> and with the main stress two syllables earlier and /ə/ or /ɪ/ in the syllable after the stress:

80 with /ə/ in that syllable:

81syllab(a)ry; apothec(a)ry; dromed(a)ry, legend(a)ry, second(a)ry; custom(a)ry; concession(a)ry, coron(a)ry, diction(a)ry, discretion(a)ry, legion(a)ry, mercen(a)ry, mission(a)ry, ordin(a)ry, precaution(a)ry, probation(a)ry, pulmon(a)ry, reaction(a)ry, revolution(a)ry, station(a)ry, urin(a)ry, vision(a)ry; advers(a)ry, emiss(a)ry, necess(a)ry; comment(a)ry, diet(a)ry, fragment(a)ry, moment(a)ry, necess(a)ry, propriet(a)ry, salut(a)ry, secret(a)ry, sedent(a)ry (also pronounced with stress on the second syllable and with a schwa corresponding to <a>), tribut(a)ry, volunt(a)ry. In extr(a)ordin(a)ry /ɪkˈstrɔːdənriː/ the first <a> is also elided

82cemet(e)ry, chancell(e)ry, confection(e)ry, dysent(e)ry, jewell(e)ry (the alternative spelling jewelry avoids the problem), monast(e)ry, station(e)ry. In confection(e)ry, jewell(e)ry, station(e)ry the fact that <-y> is a suffix would help give the correct spelling

83categ(o)ry; promiss(o)ry; amat(o)ry, conciliat(o)ry, conservat(o)ry, contribut(o)ry, declamat(o)ry, defamat(o)ry, desult(o)ry, dilat(o)ry, explanat(o)ry, explorat(o)ry, inflammat(o)ry, interrogat(o)ry, invent(o)ry (also pronounced with stress on the second syllable and with a schwa corresponding to <o>), laborat(o)ry, lavat(o)ry, mandat(o)ry, nugat(o)ry, obligat(o)ry, observat(o)ry, offert(o)ry, orat(o)ry, predat(o)ry, preparat(o)ry, promont(o)ry, purgat(o)ry, repert(o)ry, retaliat(o)ry, signat(o)ry, statut(o)ry. Some words that fit this pattern in one pronunciation don’t in another (even within RP, let alone the differences between RP and GA), e.g. migratory as either /ˈmaɪgrətriː/ (three syllables, stress on first, <o> elided) or /maɪˈgreɪtəriː/ (four syllables, stress on second, no elision).

84 with /ɪ/ in that syllable:

85lapid(a)ry; vineg(a)ry; culin(a)ry, imagin(a)ry, prelimin(a)ry; budget(a)ry, dignit(a)ry, heredit(a)ry, milit(a)ry, monet(a)ry, pituit(a)ry, planet(a)ry, sanit(a)ry, solit(a)ry, unit(a)ry;

86millin(e)ry, presbyt(e)ry. In these words the fact that <-y> is a suffix would help give the correct spelling

87alleg(o)ry, audit(o)ry, de/ex/re/sup-posit(o)ry, dormit(o)ry, inhibit(o)ry, territ(o)ry, transit(o)ry.

88In many cases, where adjectives in the preceding lists add /liː/ spelt <-ly> to form adverbs the tendency to elide the vowel seems to me to be even stronger. A few examples would be moment(a)rily, necess(a)rily, statut(o)rily, volunt(a)rily, when stressed on the first syllable; those with <a> can alternatively be stressed on the <a>, in which case it is a full vowel pronounced /e/, e.g. necessarily pronounced /nesəˈserɪliː/ rather than /ˈnesəsrəliː/.

89In a very few cases a related word with a surfacing vowel might help:

seminary – seminArian
adversary – adversArial
sanitary – sanitAtion
dysentery – dysentEric
presbytery – presbytErian
allegory – allegOrical
category – categOrical
lavatory – lavatOrial
oratory – oratOrical
territory – territOrial

90But writers who already know the words in the right-hand column would surely already know the correct spellings of the words in the left-hand column; and in secretary, secretarial the pronunciation of the adjective might mislead uncertain spellers into writing *secretery, *secreterial (and I won’t go into pronunciations such as /ˈsekəteriː/ where the first /r/ is lost).

91Extensions (1), where the ending is still /riː/ spelt <-ry> but the stress pattern is not as predictable:

  • A few words where the stress is on the syllable immediately preceding the elided vowel: gooseb(e)rry /ˈgʊzbriː/, raspb(e)rry /ˈrɑːzbriː/, strawb(e)rry /ˈstrɔːbriː/), where in normal pronunciation there is no schwa vowel after the /b/ ; annivers(a)ry, compuls(o)ry, element(a)ry, ev(e)ry, fact(o)ry, hist(o)ry, myst(e)ry, nurs(e)ry, vict(o)ry pronounced /ˈevriː, ˈfæktriː, ˈhɪstriː, ˈmɪstriː, ˈvɪktriː/. Very rapid pronunciations of February, diary, library, boundary may also be contracted to two syllables /ˈfebriː, ˈdaɪriː, ˈlaɪbriː, ˈbaʊndriː/, but this is usually considered too colloquial

  • lit(e)rary /ˈlɪtrəriː/, (con)temp(o)rary /(kən)ˈtemprəriː/, where the spoken ending is /rəriː/ and this is spelt <-rary>, so that the elided vowel is immediately after the stressed syllable. In temporarily pronounced /tempəˈrerɪliː/ there is a schwa in the relevant position but it gives no guide to the spelling, and the word may in any case be pronounced with three syllables: /ˈtemprəliː/; however, if it is pronounced /tempəˈreərɪliː/ this would guide the <a> spelling

  • vet(e)rin(a)ry, which is usually pronounced (in RP) with only three syllables /ˈvetrɪnriː/, so that there are two elided vowels, needing to be spelt with the second <e> and the <a> (Mr Biggins, the farmer in All Creatures Great and Small, reduced it even further, to /ˈvetənrɪ/)

  • a few nouns ending in <-tuary>: act(u)ary, est(u)ary, mort(u)ary, obit(u)ary, sanct(u)ary, stat(u)ary, volupt(u)ary which are normally pronounced with /ʧəriː/ rather than /ʧʊəriː/).

92Extensions (2), where the ending is no longer /riː/ spelt <-ry> but the consonant after the elided vowel is still /r/:

  • Words ending in /rəbəl, rətɪv, rətɪst/ spelt <-rable,-rative,-ratist>, where the preceding vowel always seems to be elided: adm(i)rable, comp(a)rable, consid(e)rable, deliv(e)rable, fav(ou)rable, hon(ou)rable, inex(o)rable, mis(e)rable, op(e)rable, pref(e)rable, vuln(e)rable; dec(o)rative, fig(u)rative, gen(e)rative, op(e)rative; sep(a)ratist. In some cases the unsuffixed stem will help: consider, deliver, favour, honour, miser(y), prefer, décor, figure

  • Words where the vowel is sometimes elided, sometimes not, but the unsuffixed stem or a related word would normally guide the spelling: advent(u)rous, barb(a)rous (cf. barbarian), conf(e)rence, dang(e)rous, def(e)rence, diff(e)rence, diff(e)rent; ent(e)ring, fav(ou)rite, laund(e)rette (the alternative spelling laundrette avoids the problem; in the spelling with three <e>’s this word is unusual in having the main stress on the syllable after the elided vowel), lev(e)rage, nat(u)ral, off(e)ring, pref(e)rence, prosp(e)rous, suff(e)rance, temp(e)rament, utt(e)rance

  • Two adjective/verb pairs where a vowel is always or almost always elided in the adjective but a schwa in the verb may help to indicate where a corresponding vowel letter needs to be written: delib(e)rate (/dɪˈlɪbrət/ (adjective) with three syllables – contrast deliberate /dɪˈlɪbəreɪt/ (verb) with four syllables; sep(a)rate /ˈseprət/ (adjective) with two syllables – contrast separate /ˈsepəreɪt/ (verb) with three syllables, separation, where there is a schwa corresponding to the first <a>, though it is no guide to the correct spelling, so that *seperat-e/ion are amongst the most frequent misspellings in English

  • Words where the vowel is always or almost always elided and stems or related words do not help: adm(i)ral, asp(i)rin, av(e)rage, cam(e)ra, Cath(e)rine, consid(e)rate (if pronounced with three syllables), corp(o)ral, corp(o)rate, desp(e)rate, em(e)rald, gen(e)ral, int(e)rest, lib(e)ral, lit(e)racy, lit(e)ral, lit(e)rature, op(e)ra, rest (au) rant, rhinoc(e)ros, sev(e)ral, sov(e)reign, temp(e)rament, temp(e)rature; also prim(a)rily /ˈpraɪmrəliː/ with 3 syllables, where the alternative 4-syllable pronunciation /praɪˈmerɪliː/ would show that a vowel letter is needed after the <m> but the unusual correspondence of /e/ spelt <a> (see section 5.4.2) might mislead some writers into spelling the word *primerily

  • Words where the vowel might be elided in very rapid pronunciation but normal pronunciation would reveal the prefix: hyp(e)ractive, hyp(e)rintelligent, int(e)ractive, int(e)ragency

  • the Latin phrase et cet(e)ra.

93Extensions (3), where the consonant after the elided vowel is /l/:

  • cath(o)lic pronounced /ˈkæθlɪk/– contrast cathOlicism; chanc(e)llor, choc(o)late, om(e)lette; origin(a)lly /əˈrɪʤɪnliː/; p(o)liceman pronounced /ˈpliːsmən/; fam(i)ly pronounced /ˈfæmliː/

  • adverbs with the unstressed ending /ɪkliː/ which is almost always spelt <-ically>, e.g. radic(a)lly. Since all the corresponding adjectives end in /ɪkəl/ spelt <-ical> there should be no problem with spelling these adverbs, except when the pattern is overgeneralised to the few adverbs which are exceptions to it: follicly (challenged) (jocular from derived from follicle), impoliticly, politicly (‘judiciously’, stress on first syllable), publicly, not *follically (but this form seems to be gaining ground), *impolitically, *publically – but politically (‘pertaining to government’, stress on second syllable) does exist, as the adverb from political. Extensions: equivoc(a)lly, unequivoc(a)lly

  • adjectives ending (in rapid speech) in /ʧəl/ spelt <-tual>: accent(u)al, act(u)al, concept(u)al, contract(u)al, effect(u)al, event(u)al, fact(u)al, habit(u)al, intellect(u)al, mut(u)al, perpet(u)al, punct(u)al, rit(u)al, spirit(u)al, text(u)al, virt(u)al. These words also have a slower pronunciation in /ʧuːwəl/ where the vowel is not elided and guides spelling

  • adverbs derived from the adjectives just mentioned, e.g. act(u)ally, which seem to me to be pronounced with /ʧəliː/more with often than /ʧuːwəliː/ but the spelling of the adjectives would guide the spelling of the adverbs

  • some adverbs ending in <-fully> pronounced /fliː/, e.g. beautif(u)lly, dutif(u)llyl.

94The next phoneme is also /l/ in a large set of words whose stems end in /əl/ spelt <-le>, where the schwa is lost when these words have a suffix added which adds a syllable, e.g. peddle /ˈpedəl/ v. peddling /ˈpedlɪŋ/, but these words do not add any consonant letter + elided vowel sequences to the inventory below because the <e> is deleted before the initial vowel letter of the suffix. For much more on this set of words see section 4.4.3.

95Extensions (4), adverbs where the consonant after the elided vowel is /r/ and there is an ending/liː/spelt <-ly>, e.g. advent(u)rously, delib(e)rately, irrep(a)rably, pref(e)rably, nat(u)rally. Here again I think that the tendency for the vowel to be elided is stronger than in the corresponding adjectives, but the spelling of the adjectives would guide the spelling of the adverbs.

96Extensions (5), where the consonant after the elided vowel is /n/:

  • ars(e)nal, ars(e)nic, broad(e)ning, bus(i)ness, christ(e)ning, deep (e)-ning, def(i)nitely, ev(e)ning, falc(o)ner, fash(io)nable, fresh(e)n-er/ing, fright(e)n-er/ing, gard(e)n-er/ing, laud(a)num, list(e)n-er/ing, nati(o)nal, nom(i)native, op(e)n-er/ing, pers(o)nal, prelim(i)nary, rati(o)nal, reas(o)nable, seas(o)ning, sharp(e)ner, sweet(e)n-er/ing, weak(e)ning, wid(e)ning (for opening see also section 10.28)

  • twop(e)nny, halfp(e)nny /ˈtʌpniː, ˈheɪpniː/ which no longer exist except in the memories of aging Brits like me, but where the ending was contracted to /pniː/.

97For most of the words in this subcategory stems or related forms do help.

98Extensions (6), a final ragbag:

  • caf(e)tiere – contrast café, cafeteria

  • comf(or)table – contrast comfort

  • ecz(e)ma – contrast eczematous

  • forec(a)stle pronounced /ˈfəʊksəl/

  • med(i)cine – contrast medicinal

  • ramekin pronounced /ˈræmkɪn/ (also pronounced /ˈræmɪkɪn/)

  • veg(e)table.

99In this section I have identified 49 consonant letter(s)-plus-elided vowel sequences (and there are probably others I’ve not noticed). Just 17 of these appear as consonant graphemes in chapter 3:

  • <de> spelling /d/ is needed for aide, horde, etc., as well as for considerable

  • <fe> spelling /f/ is needed for carafe as well as for cafetiere, deference, preferably, etc.

  • <ffe> spelling /f/ is needed for gaffe, giraffe, pouffe as well as for different; etc.

  • <ge> spelling /ʤ/ is needed for words like image as well as for vegetable

  • <gi> spelling /ʤ/ is needed for words like legion

  • <ke> spelling /k/ is needed for Berkeley, burke as well as for weakening

  • <lle> spelling /l/ is needed for bagatelle, vaudeville, etc., as well as for chancellery

  • <me> spelling /m/ is needed for become, handsome, etc., as well as for camera, emerald, omelette, ramekin pronounced /ˈræmkɪn/

  • <ne> spelling /n/ is needed for heroine, etc., as well as for confectionery, stationery, etc.

  • <pe> spelling /p/ is needed for cantaloupe, troupe as well as for opera, operable, twopenny, etc.

  • <se> spelling /z/ is needed for gooseberry as well as miserable

  • <si> is needed as the main correspondence for /ʒ/ in vision, etc., as well as for /z/ in business

  • <(t)te> spelling /t/ are needed for words like granite, route, gavotte, roulette, as well as for interest, literal, utterance, etc.

  • <the> is needed to spell /ð/ in words like soothe as well as /θ/ in Catherine

  • <ve> spelling /v/ is needed for most words ending /v/ as well as for every, etc.

  • <ze> is needed as a correspondence for word-final /z/ as well as for eczema.

100The other 32 sequences are: <ba, ca, da, ga, ma, na, pa, ra, sa, ssa, ta, tau; be, she; fi, mi, pi, shio, tio; co, for, go, nou, po, so, sso, tho, to, vou, xo; fu, tu>. None of these are required by other parts of the analysis, so I have not added them to the inventory of graphemes. Even I find there are limits to the principle of accounting for every letter under the aegis of some phoneme or other (see section A. 5 in Appendix A).

101So for some of the words in this section you can rely on related forms; for the rest you have no guidance but your visual memory.

102When the consonant letter-plus-elided vowel words are sorted alphabetically by the consonant letter, it becomes apparent that far and away the most common preceding letter is <t> - see the last paragraph of section 9.34.


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