David Appleyard's English Language User Guides and References
Page Contents
Noun Plural Formation Troublesome Suffixes and Endings
Dropping of Letters General Observations
Doubling of Letters One Word or More?
Troublesome Prefixes Words Commonly Confused

 

Noun Plural Formation

Spelling Rule Examples Exceptions to the Rule
To form the plural
of
most nouns,
simply add -s
a cat > two cats
one dog > six dogs
Surviving Old English plural forms:
deer > deer
sheep > sheep
ox > oxen
man > men
woman > women
child > children
brother
(in a religious sense)
> brethren
foot > feet
tooth > teeth


A few compound nouns:
passer-by > passer
s-by
mother-in-law > mother
s-in-law

Some foreign words that are not yet
fully naturalized:
chateau > chateau
x
crisis > crises
formula > formulae
index > ind
ices
stimulus > stimuli

Plural forms of metric abbreviations:
100 km (kilometres)
60 g  (grams)
2.5 l  (litres)


In abbreviations of non-metric measurements, the s-plural is optional:
60 lb or 60 lbs
To form the plural of nouns ending in
s, sh, ss, z, x
or ch,

add -es 
to facilitate pronunciation
gas > gases
dish > dishes
boss > bosses
box > boxes
watch > watches
 
To form the plural of nouns ending in y
after a consonant,

remove the y

and then add -ies
lady > ladies
baby > babies
strawberry > strawberries
laboratory > laboratories
lay-by > lay-by  BrE
stand-by > stand-bys

Family names also retain any final y when pluralized:
Mr. & Mrs. Brady > The Brady
s
To form the plural of
a number of
long established English nouns ending in
f or fe
(but not ff or ffe!)
remove the f or fe
and then
add -ves
half > halves
leaf > leaves
life > lives
knife > knives
Most other nouns ending in f or fe simply add -s as usual, but there are a few cases in which the -ves plural is optional:
belief > beliefs
chief > chiefs
safe > safes
handkerchief > handkerchiefs

         BrE  also handkerchieves

Caution is advised so when in doubt please consult a dictionary.
To form the plural of imported nouns
ending in o
and long established in English,
add -es
cargo > cargoes
domino > dominoes
echo > echoes
embargo > embargoes
hero > heroes
potato > potatoes
tomato > tomatoes
tornado > tornadoes
torpedo > torpedoes
veto > vetoes
For less naturalized nouns ending
in o, add -s only:
kilo > kilos
piano > pianos
kimono > kimonos
radio > radios


In a few cases the -es plural formation is optional. When in any doubt, consult your dictionary!
archipelago > archipelagos
                      
or archipelagoes
fiasco > fiascos
or fiascoes
halo > halos
or haloes
mango > mangos
or mangoes

 

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Dropping of Letters

Spelling Rule Examples Exceptions to the Rule
A final silent e
is
usually dropped
before you
add
any suffix beginning
with a vowel
-able
It is not so easy to predict when a final e should be dropped before adding the suffix -able.
Generally speaking, this is more common in American English.
In some cases it is optional,
e.g. likable or likeable
Words ending in -ce  and -ge usually
retain their final e to help clarify the soft pronunciation of a preceding
consonantal sound:
notice > noticeable
peace > peaceable
knowledge > knowledgeable
manage > manag
eable

The final e is also retained for words ending in -ee:
agree > agreeable
foresee > forese
eable
-age
store > storage
acre > acreage
mile > mileage

Note also that linage and lineage are entirely different words.
-ed
clone > cloned
 
-est
cute > cutest
 
-ing
dive > diving
write > writing
You must retain the final e when it is needed to distinguish meaning:
dye > dyeing  (cf. die > dying)
singe > singeing  (cf. sing > singing)

Sometimes the e is kept to clarify the soft pronunciation of a preceding consonantal sound (e.g. ageing). American English, however, seems to pay less attention to this:
 BrE  to age > ageing
 AmE  to age > aging

The final e is also kept for words ending in -ee, -oe, or -ye:
flee > fleeing
canoe > canoeing
eye > eyeing
-ous
fame > famous
pore > porous
Words ending in -ge keep their final e to clarify the soft pronunciation of a preceding consonantal sound: advantage > advantageous
courage > courageous

In the case of words ending in -ce this final e becomes an i:
grace > gracious
space > spac
ious
-y
ice > icy
bone > bony
The final e is not dropped before adding the y-suffix if the preceding letter is u:
glue > gluey  (comparative: gluier)

Other important exceptions:
price > pricey
space > spacey

Remember too that holy and holey are very different words!

 

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Doubling of Letters

Spelling Rule Examples Exceptions to the Rule
When a suffix
beginning with
a vowel
is added to
a stressed syllable ending in a single consonant

that is preceded by
a single vowel,
the consonant is usually doubled
-able
control > controllable


-ed
admit > admitted
stop > stopped

In the following two cases the stress in the final syllable is secondary:
kidnap > kidnapped
program > programmed


-er
big > bigger


-ing
begin > beginning
refer > referring


-ish

red > reddish
In British English, a final letter l following a single vowel is doubled even if the syllable is unstressed:
travel > travelled

American English not only adheres to the usual rule requiring the final syllable to be stressed before doubling, it doubles the final l in all forms of the verb, thereby eliminating this particular spelling headache altogether:

 AmE
enroll > enrolled
fulfill > fulfilled

 BrE
enrol > enrolled
fulfil > fulfi
lled
Consult a dictionary before doubling a final s to form noun plurals, especially in monosyllabic words:
gas > gases
bus > buses
(but AmE busses)

A final z is always doubled:
fez > fezzes
quiz > quizzes

In words of more than one syllable, both British and American English follow the usual stress rule when adding  -es to form the third person singular of the present tense:
focus > focuses
nonplus > nonplusses

In British English (as in the case involving a final l above), a stressed syllable is not a prerequisite for doubling the s before -ed and -ing to form past tenses and gerunds.
So  BrE  grants you the option of either focussed or focused
and focussing or focusing.
 AmE  on the other hand, prefers the latter variants focused and focusing, in line with the general rule requiring a stressed syllable for consonant doubling.
Instead of doubling a final consonant c (which only occurs in unstressed syllables), it becomes ck before the addition of a suffix:
traffic > trafficking
frolic > frolicking
The consonants h, w, x and y are never doubled (e.g. affix > affixing), and neither are silent consonants found in words of foreign origin:
crochet > crocheting
ricochet > ricocheting

Troublesome Prefixes

Spelling Rule Examples Exceptions to the Rule
ante- or anti- ?
Choose the prefix

ante-
 if your word means before or ahead,
and
anti- if it means opposite or against  
ante- does not usually have to be followed by a hyphen:
antecedent
antedate
antenatal
anteroom  
 
  Even with anti- most words
require no hyphenation:
antibiotic
anticlockwise
anticyclone
antidepressant
antifreeze

anti- is always followed by a hyphen before an i or a capital letter:
anti-
inflammatory
anti-
French 
There are many other anti- words that are hyphenated by convention, according to personal preference, or to avoid a vowel clash:
anti-aircraft fire
anti-establishment
anti-government
anti-gravity
anti-personnel mines

Whenever you're in doubt, consult a good dictionary!
fore- or for- ?
Choose the prefix

fore-
if your word means before or ahead;
otherwise you need
for- 
Forecast, forefather, foresrunner, foreshadow, foresight, forestall,
foretaste, foretell, forewarn, etc.

Forbid, forfeit, forget, forgive, forgo,
forlorn, forsake, forswear, etc.
 

 

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Troublesome Suffixes and Endings

Spelling Rule Examples Exceptions to the Rule
-able or -ible ?
The suffix
 -able
is far more common
than
-ible 
Most roots, including all modern
ones, add -able:
drink > undrinkable
read > readable
wash > washable
You'll find -ible only in a few old words that are derived directly from(or modeled on) Latin:
flex > flexible
comprehend > comprehens
ible
respond > respons
ible
Lat. "edere" (to eat) > ed
ible
-ance or -ence ?
-ant
 or -ent ?
Here we present a few
useful rules, but since they are not 100% reliable, when in doubt
consult a dictionary!
-ance is always added to
a hard c or g:
elegance
significance

If the preceding c or g is soft
choose -ence:
innocence
intelligence
Note the unique spellings of
allegiance and vengeance.
  If other forms of the word end in an
a-suffix
, then your choice is likely
to be -ance and -ant:
dominate > dominance
ignoramus > ignorant
vigilante > vigilance 
Irregularity:
violate > viol
ence
  Verbs ending in -ear, -ure and -y have noun forms ending in -ance:
appear > appearance
endure > endurance
defy > defiance
 
  Verbs ending in -ere will have noun forms ending in -ence:
interfere > interference
Irregularity:
persevere > perseverance
  The core syllables -cid-, -fid-,
-sid-
, -vid-, -flu-, -qu- and -sist-
are usually followed by -ence:
incidence
confidence
subsidence
evidence
influence
consequence
insistence   
Notable exceptions:
assistance
resistance
  To form nouns from verbs ending in a stressed -er or -ur, add -ence:
confer > conference
concur > concurrence

Note for "concurrence" that typical doubling of the end consonant in a stressed syllable before adding a suffix beginning with a vowel.
 
  To form nouns from verbs ending
in an unstressed -er, add -ance:
utter > utterance
hinder > hindrance
Irregularity:
differ > difference
-ce or -se ?
During centuries of separation from Britain,
American English retained the original -se
ending in certain words borrowed from French, while
British English modified it to -ce
 AmE
defense
offense
pretense
vise (a tool)

 BrE
defence
offence
pretence
vice
Note that even in British English any related adjectives have to be spelt with an s:
defence > defensive
offen
ce > offensive
  Along the lines of advice vs. advise, British English sometimes utilizes the -ce and -se suffixes to help distinguish a noun from a verb:

 BrE
a licence / to license
some practice / to practise
American English, which tends to lay emphasis on simplified spelling, sees no reason to make this kind of subtle distinction:

 AmE
a license / to license
some practice
/ to practice
-cede or -ceed ?
The ending -cede
is far more common
than -ceed
concede
precede
recede
You'll find -ceed only in:
exceed
pro
ceed
suc
ceed

Note the unique spelling of supersede.
-ch or -tch ?
Choose -ch if it is to be
preceded by either
a consonant
or two vowels,
but if it is to be preceded
by
a single vowel,
you need
-tch  
filch
bench
church
 
approach
touch
coach
One exception to the rule requiring a -ch ending after two vowels is the letter h:
aitch
catch
fetch
watch
A handful of very common words are exceptions to the rule requiring -tch after a single-vowel, so you should make a point of memorizing them:
attach
deta
ch
enri
ch
mu
ch
ri
ch
sandwi
ch
spina
ch
su
ch
whi
ch
-ction  or -xion ?
The ending 
-ction
is far more common
than
-xion 
reaction
reduction
-xion is only found in a few words:
complexion
crucifixion
effluxion
flexion
fluxion
prefixion
retroflexion
transfixion
  connection
deflection
inflection
reflection
In  BrE  only, you may come across
the following variants:
connexion
deflexion
inflexion
reflexion
-er  or -or ?
The ending -er
is far more common
than
-or 
-er is added to most verbs
(and certainly all modern ones)
for someone or something
performing an activity:
player
baker
singer
A few -er nouns are created from other nouns or from adjectives
foreign > foreigner
law > lawyer
prison > prisoner
  Note the following words:
adapter (a person who adapts) adviser
caster
conjurer
conveyer
resister (a person who resists).
Especially in British English,
an adaptor is a device to make
two pieces of (usually electrical)equipment compatible, as well as
being an accepted variant of adapter
(someone who adapts something); the variant advisor is not uncommon but is still rather controversial; the variants castor, conjuror and conveyor are quite correct; and a resistor is an electronic component.
  -or is found in words of French or classical origin:
mayor
donor

Many end in -ator, -itor, -ctor,
-essor and -utor:
curator
auditor
director
professor
tutor  
 
-ize  or -ise ?
The verbal suffix 
-ize
is far more common
than
-ise 
criticize
demoralize
realize
vandalize  
In Britain, under the influence of neighboring French, the -ise ending remains a widespread alternative, but if chosen it should be used consistently throughout the same piece of writing:
critic
ise
demoral
ise
real
ise
vandal
ise 

Memorize these common verbs, which are always spelt with  -ise:
advertise
chast
ise
desp
ise
disgu
ise
franch
ise
merchand
ise
surm
ise

Note too those verbs reliably ending in -cise, -prise and -vise:
exerc
ise
surprise
advise
-our  or -or ?
Words of primarily
French origin
ending in -our
in British English
end in a simplified -or
in American English  
 BrE
colour
favour
honour

 AmE
color
favor
honor
British English also often uses -or: error
terror
stupor


British English also drops the u in
-our before the addition of a suffix to certain words:
vapour > vap
orize
honour > hon
orific; honorary

American English still prefers glamour to glamor. Contrary to widespread belief, this term does not emanate from French but rather surprisingly from a Scottish alteration of the English word grammar. In the Middle Ages the casting of spells was apparently associated with people of learning.
-re  or -er ?
While British English
retains the chic -re  ending in words
of French origin,
American English
generally prefers the anglicized form -er  
 BrE
centre
metre
theatre

 AmE
center
meter
theater
Despite its efforts to simplify modern spelling, American English still plays host to the -re ending in some words, especially when it is needed to indicate a preceding hard consonant. This applies to the following words with a stem ending in the letter c:
ac
re
massac
re
medioc
re

But note also cadre and ogre.
-yse or -yze ?
The verbal suffix
-yse
 is British and
-yze
 is American  
 BrE
analyse
paralyse

 AmE
analyze
paralyze
 

 

General Observations

Spelling Rule Examples Exceptions to the Rule
-ae/oe or -e ?
ae (æ) and oe (œ) in
words of Greek or Latin origin are retained
in
British English
and replaced
with a simple e
in American English  
 BrE
archaeology
gynaecology
haemoglobin
diarrhoea
foetus
oesophagus

 AmE
archeology
gynecology
hemoglobin
diarrhea
fetus
esophagus
The degree to which British English is willing to give up these rather cumbersome Latin and Greek spellings appears to depend on the extent to which a term is truly in the public domain and not just confined to professionals and academics.
For example, the form encyclopedia is now far more common than the traditional encyclopaedia.
ie or ei ?
In the case of
'ee' /i:/ sounds,
i goes before e
except after c 
No preceding c hence ie:
believe
chief
siege

After c hence ei:
ceiling
receive
deceit 
Notorious deviants from this rule:
caffeine
protein
inveigle
seize
weird


And beware of words that have varied pronunciation:
either
neither
heinous


Some common names:
Keith, Sheila, Neil, Madeira

Latin words like species
q_ ?
q is almost invariably
followed by u
quack
quality
queen
question
quiz
quote
Acronyms and non-English words: Qantas (Australian Airline)
Al Qaeda (Islamist terror franchise)
Qatar (Gulf state)

 

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One Word or More?

Options Clarification
alright
or all right ?
all right is still widely regarded as the correct form
already
or all ready ?
"Kids, it's already 8 o'clock. Are you all ready to leave for school?"
altogether
or all together ?
"There are altogether four occasions per year
when the entire family are all together."
anyone
or any one ?
"Anyone can use the library and borrow any one of 10,000 books."
cannot
or can not ?
cannot is the correct form in British English, while can not is generally preferred in American English. Even BrE lets you use can not for emphasis: "She cannot speak any oriental languages, but when it comes to African languages she can not only speak Swahili but Shona and Zulu as well."
-ever
or ever ?
ever is only separated from a wh-word for the sake of emphasis:
"You can go wherever you like and do whatever you want!"
"Where ever have you been and what ever have you been up to?"
everyone
or every one ?
Everyone is the same as "everybody" and applies to people only.
Every one means 'each single one' and applies to both people and things: "Everyone ate at the restaurant and every one of them ordered spaghetti."
inasmuch as
or in as much as ?
Both forms are correct but inasmuch as now seems to be more common:
"He is responsible for the accident inasmuch as he failed to prevent it."
insofar as
or in so far as ?
Both forms are correct but in so far as now seems to be more common: "She appreciated him in so far as he was always very positive."
into
or in to ?
These two mean slightly different things and are often confused in modern English. Into is a preposition: "They got into their car."
With in to we have the combination of an adverb followed by a preposition:
"She joined her friend at the hotel and accompanied her in to dinner." 
maybe
or may be ?
"Maybe he'll stay a while longer in Chicago, although he may be moviing down to Dallas next spring."
no-one
or no one ?
Nowadays both these forms are considered correct, but purists may like to see the following two distinct usages reflected in their spelling:
"No-one has so far been charged with causing the accident because no one person was to blame."
onto
or on to ?
It seems that onto does not enjoy the same dominant status as into above. So in modern-day English, onto and on to are both regarded as correct prepositional forms. In cases where the on is an adverb, however, on to must be used: "When he finally got onto the highway, he went on to LA."
sometime
or some time ?
"She'll do it sometime when she gets some time."