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Vocabulary and Spelling Improvement

by Albert H. Marckwardt


Why Study Words?

The author of a recent book on the English language asks the question and then proceeds to answer it as follows: “The fact is that, if we are going to be able to talk about anything very far beyond our day-to-day, bread and butter living, if we are going to associate in an easy manner with cultivated people, if we are going to read books which such people have found to be important and significant, then we must have at our command a great many words that the man in the street and the man with the hoe neither know nor use.”1

This is a direct and convincing answer to the question, but it is by no means the only reason for improving your vocabulary. The needs of society must be considered as well as those of the individual. If it were not for language, human society could not function; language makes it possible for human beings to cooperate and to create a social order. This is true even of the very simple, the most primitive societies. Throughout the entire twentieth century our societies have been growing more and more complex; the problems which they face both internally and externally are vastly more complicated and difficult than they were in the days of our grandparents. This places a greater burden upon the language, and thus places a greater responsibility upon every one of us to use the language as effectively as he can. Accordingly, vocabulary improvement becomes a responsibility of the man in the street as well as the man in the library.

There is, moreover, a large element of personal satisfaction in being able to use words effectively. The fluent speaker and the exact writer are widely admired for being able to express their thoughts and feelings in a manner that is both precise and direct. Precision and fluency are the qualities for which we must strive in our command of words, tempered always by a sense of what is suitable for the audience to whom our language is directed. Almost everyone of us has a dual task: to learn more words than we now know, and to use both those which we now know and the new ones that we learn as exactly as we can.

The English Lexicon

Let us set out immediately to add a new word to the total stock of many who will read this passage. Lexicon is often used as a term for the totality of words in a language. The few who know Greek will recognize its origin in lexis, the Greek for “word” or “speech.” The many who know English may have encountered the words lexical or lexicography. At any rate here lexicon gives us a convenient alternate for vocabulary, although the two words do not have exactly the same range of meaning.

The point to be made, however, is that the English lexicon poses certain peculiar problems for anyone who is trying to improve his mastery of it. For one thing, it consists of two classes of words, learned and popular. As one writer has described the situation, “First, there are those words with which we become acquainted in ordinary conversation—which we learn . . . from the members of our own families and from our familiar associates, and which we should know and use even if we could not read or write. They concern the common things of life and are the stock in trade of all who speak the language. Such words may be called ‘popular,’ since they belong to the people at large and are not the exclusive possession of a limited class.”

The author then goes on to say, “On the other hand, our language includes a multitude of words which are comparatively seldom used in ordinary conversation. Their meanings are known to every educated person, but there is little occasion to employ them at home or in the market-place. Our first acquaintance with them comes not from our mother's lips or from the talk of our schoolmates, but from the books that we read, lectures that we hear, or the more formal conversation of highly educated speakers, who are discussing some particular topic in a style appropriately elevated above the habitual level of everyday life. Such words we call ‘learned’ and the distinction between them and ‘popular’ words is of great importance to a right understanding of linguistic process.”2 He then goes on to cite the words lively and vivacious as examples of the popular and learned classes respectively.

Not all of us would necessarily agree with the author that the learned words are known to every educated person, but there can be little question over the existence in English of two sectors of the vocabulary. It is also true that these two sectors are farther apart from each other in English than in most other languages. Consequently, a manner of speaking or writing that uses learned words to the exclusion of the popular is often felt as artificial or pretentious. There is little point in saying, “There was general rejoicing over the cessation of hostilities,” when we might as well say, “People were glad that the war was over.” At the same time, we must recognize that the chemist who wrote, “Neuraminic acid in the form of its alkali-stable methoxy derivative was first isolated by Klenk from gangliosides and more recently from bovine sub-maxillary gland mucin,” could not have expressed his ideas in the popular vocabulary.

The popular vocabulary consists of short words, native words, words which often have many meanings. The learned vocabulary for the most part contains long words, words of foreign origin, often though not always somewhat more precise in their meanings. The problem for each of us is to acquire the learned words which are necessary and useful to us in our reading, in the exercise of our professions, and in carrying on the affairs of our society, but to use them with discretion, with a feeling for our audience.

The Individual Vocabulary

Because of the very existence of the two sectors of our lexicon, the English language has a very large stock of words. The larger dictionaries generally record about 450,000, almost half a million words, and there are others, of course, that never get into the dictionary for various reasons. Some authorities on language have expressed the opinion that perhaps our language is too richly endowed, that there are too many words that almost duplicate one another in meaning. The opposing view is that a large vocabulary makes it possible to give to words a great many shades of emotion as well as of meaning, and that individual styles may thus be developed. The net result, however, is that the average individual commands a smaller proportion of the total wordstock of English than is the case with speakers of many other languages. This also creates a problem for anyone who wants to improve his vocabulary.

We must also recognize the distinction between what is called a passive or recognition vocabulary and an active or use vocabulary. The recognition vocabulary is composed of those words which you recognize when you see or hear them. The active vocabulary consists of the words which you, yourself, employ. The recognition vocabulary is by far the larger. According to some estimates, it is about three times the size of the active vocabulary.

Enlarging Your Vocabulary

We have seen that the English language contains a large number of words, divided into two fairly well-defined layers, the learned and the popular. The total lexicon of the language is vastly greater than that of any person who speaks it. Every speaker has a passive and an active vocabulary, the

1 Thomas Pyles, The Origins and Development of the English Language, Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., New York, 1964, p. 302.

2 J. B. Greenough and G. L. Kittredge, Words and Their Ways in English Speech, Macmillan, N.Y., 1901, p. 19.

former more extensive than the latter. Anyone who wants to increase his word power must do so within this context, concentrating especially upon three phases of it:

  1. He must increase the range and extent of his recognition vocabulary.
  2. He must transfer words from his recognition to his active or use vocabulary.
  3. He must develop the ability to form new words as he needs them, particularly by using the rich supply of prefixes and suffixes in the language.

Increasing the Passive Vocabulary

How do we come to learn new words, even when we are not consciously trying to add to our stock of them? Generally we do so through reading or hearing them and then coming to some conclusion about their meaning from the context in which they appear.

Suppose, for example, you did not know what a Cape Cod lighter was, and you heard someone say that he had just bought one and luckily it was working very well. At this point you may conjecture that it is some kind of operational device, either for the purpose of illumination or kindling a fire. The next time you encountered the word was when you heard someone say that he had bought some kerosene for his Cape Cod lighter. Since illumination by kerosene is relatively rare, you eliminate the light-giving function and conclude that it must have something to do with getting a fire started. Upon your third encounter with the word you learn from the speaker that he keeps his Cape Cod lighter near the fireplace but occasionally uses it for his outdoor grill. By this time you have formed a clear idea of its function; you do not yet have an idea about its size and shape, or how it actually works. Other contextual clues will furnish this information, if you have not already seen or acquired one by that time. But this is the way that much of our adult knowledge of words comes about and, of course, all of our pre-reading knowledge.

Vocabulary enlargement through reading comes about in much the same way. Our first contact with a new word may be in a context which is not particularly suggestive or revealing. Suppose, for example, a reader's earliest encounter with commendatory is in the sentence. “It was a commendatory speech about our economic administration.” Unless he connects this word with commend or commendation, which he may well do, he concludes, perhaps, that it refers to some quality which a speech may possess, but he gets little more out of it than just that. But when he then comes upon the sentence, “The official sent a commendatory letter to the chief of police for the excellent manner in which he quelled the riot,” he is able to deduce that the kind or quality is a favorable one.

But we do have resources beyond these very general contextual clues, and we must learn to be sensitive to them. For example, words are often paired with others of similar though not identical meaning. Suppose we come upon utilize in a sentence such as the following: “Certainly it should be regarded as a preeminent quality of true genius to utilize and transform to its own purposes the rich resources of the world in which it reaches.” From this we sense that utilize is, if not equivalent, at least not unrelated and possibly even similar to transform to its own purposes. A similar pairing, “to improve and utilize each opportunity,” will give us a further notion of the positive meaning of the word, and finally when we come upon, “They must either nullify or utilize the mouth of the Danube,” our concept of positive effort and beneficial result is strengthened by seeing the word in opposition to a strong negative. Then, when we encounter, “Let all physical exertion be utilized,” and “Her services could not be utilized for missions,” our sense of the meaning of the word is fairly complete.

It is also helpful to form the habit of seeing words in relation to others which are built upon the same base forms. It has already been suggested that the connection of commendatory with commend, commendation, and even recommend and recommendation would shed some light upon its meaning. Preeminent, in the phrase, “a preeminent quality of true genius,” also quoted above, should bring to mind both eminent and eminence. Utilize, which has just been discussed, has obvious connections with utility and utilitarian. The recognition of such groups and families is bound to increase not only the knowledge of meanings but a sensitivity to the shades of feeling which they convey.

Using the Dictionary

The obvious source of information for the meanings of words that you do not know is your dictionary. Yet there are times in the course of reading even a paragraph of moderate difficulty that you will come upon a half-dozen words that are unfamiliar to you. If you were to look up every one of them, you would not only increase the reading time of the passage by five or six minutes, but you would have broken the train of thought six times. This is clearly a nuisance and tends to make reading a chore rather than a pleasure. In the long run you will profit more by reading for enjoyment and enjoying what you read. This does not mean that you should avoid what is intellectually challenging. Tackle it. Get the most out of your dictionary by using it selectively and intelligently, only after you find that contextual clues and word relationships seem not to be helpful in giving you an idea about the meaning of a word or the way in which it is being used.

When you do turn to the dictionary for the meaning of a word, it is important that you get all it has to give. Suppose, for example, that you are confronted with the following: “Precocity flames up in a brief moment, and drawing only from within, quickly burns itself out; but genius, growing with what it feeds on, its natural powers reinforced through union with congenial elements from without, glows with increasing warmth until it reaches its full potential strength.” Let us assume that you are reasonably certain about the meaning of every word in the passage except the very first, precocity. You know that the passage is about the poet Keats, who died as a young man. You also recognize that in this passage precocity is somehow being contrasted with genius, but this is not enough for your purpose. Stupidity and mediocrity could also be contrasted with genius. You need a dictionary explanation for precocity if the sentence in which it occurs is to mean much of anything.

Go to the dictionary. In this dictionary you will find that precocity is not given a main entry. It is one of the derivatives listed under the main entry precocious. There are two meanings given under the main entry. One shows the word in a favorable sense: “Unusually forward or advanced, especially mentally.” The other nontechnical definition is less so: “Developing before the natural season.” Going back to our passage, we recognize that in it precocity is being contrasted rather unfavorably with genius, hence it is the more neutral definition that more nearly fits the case.

At the same time, we should not overlook the etymology. From it we learn that the adjective precocious comes from Latin prae, “before,” combined with coquere, “cook.” This suggests, of course, the combination pre-cook in our present-day speech, and if we stop to think we might also recall that the slang phrase half-baked makes use of virtually the same figure of speech. All of this suggests that if a single difficult word is thus carefully studied and considered, there is a far greater likelihood that it will remain in your memory than any six words hastily looked up.

To conclude, try to recognize words in their context. You will make some mistakes, as does everyone else. Look up only those words necessary to the meaning. When you do look up a word, get everything that the dictionary treatment has to offer. Interest yourself in these words. Become word conscious in a wholesome, not in a picayunish manner. When Sir Francis Bacon wrote, more than two hundred and fifty years ago, “Reading maketh a full man,” this was part of what he had in mind.

From Recognition to Use

Bacon followed his statement about reading with the assertion that “conference,” that is to say speaking, produces a ready man. A ready man is one who thinks clearly and swiftly, and can express his thoughts easily. He is articulate. It has already been suggested that this comes about in part by putting words to work, transferring them from the passive to the active vocabulary. “Use a word six times and it is yours,” so the saying is. The number varies, all the way from three to ten, but the advice is sound on the surface. Certainly practice is necessary to bring about vocabulary increase. The question is how one goes about it.

The best suggestion is to keep reading and speaking in close relationship with each other. Talking with others about what you read is the best way to create opportunities to put into use the words you encounter in the course of your reading. It does not matter whether your reading is in connection with your occupation, your outside interests, or if it is purely recreational. The principle is valid in any event. Certainly one must avoid the difficulty which plagued Leora, the wife of Martin Arrowsmith, in Sinclair Lewis's novel. After an afternoon spent in reading about modern painting in order to impress her husband's associates, she found herself unable to maneuver the evening's conversation in that direction.

It is here that writing comes to our aid. To a degree at least, we can, when we write, choose the subject which will allow us to use our newly acquired words. Far too often we tend to shy away from opportunities to express ourselves on paper. When we sit in a meeting, we leave it to someone else to frame a resolution or a motion. If we are asked for suggestions or to frame a plan for action, we often content ourselves by making a few scattered notations instead of a well-formed and coherent statement. It is in thinking through an idea, in phrasing it in such a way that it cannot be misunderstood or misinterpreted that we call upon our vocabulary reserves and put them to use. Muscles do not develop without exercise; the same may be said of anyone's vocabulary. The third part of Bacon's statement was that “Writing maketh an exact man.”

Synonyms and Antonyms

One way of achieving both precision and variety in language is to develop an awareness of the many words in English which may be used to express a particular idea, words which have nearly the same meaning. These are called synonyms, and most dictionaries will discuss the differences in shades of meaning within a group of related words, such as postpone, adjourn, defer, delay, and procrastinate. The entry in this dictionary for this group of words runs as follows: “Adjourn signifies literally to put off to another day, and, hence, to any future time. A deliberative assembly may adjourn to another day or to another hour of the same day, and resume business where it left off, as if there had been no interval; or it may adjourn to a definite later date or, when no day can be fixed, to meet at the call of the president or other officer. In common usage, to adjourn a matter is to hold it in abeyance until it may be more conveniently or suitably attended to; in such use defer and postpone are close synonyms of adjourn; defer is simply to lay or put aside temporarily; to postpone is strictly to lay or put aside until after something else occurs, or is done, known, obtained or the like; but postpone is often used without such limitation. Adjourn, defer, and postpone all imply definite expectation of later consideration or action; delay is much less definite, while procrastinate is hopelessly vague. One who procrastinates gives no assurance that he will ever act.”

The foregoing illustration dealt with a group of words easily interchanged but which, nevertheless, are by no means identical in meaning. The problem here is to know under what circumstances they may be substituted for one another and when such a substitution would be inappropriate. Note the following examples:

  1. amateur, connoisseur, dilettante. Etymologically, the amateur is the one who loves, the connoisseur one who knows. The amateur practices to some extent that in regard to which he may not be well informed; the connoisseur is well informed in regard to that which he may not practice at all. Dilettante, which had originally the sense of amateur, has come to denote one who is superficial, pretentious, and affected, whether in theory or practice.
  2. forgery, counterfeiting. Imitating or altering a coin or note which passes as currency or money is counterfeiting; the making of a fraudulent writing, or the material alteration of a genuine writing with intent to defraud, is forgery. . . .

Sometimes in speaking of writing we are at a loss for words which indicate the opposite of one we have in mind. The technical term for these is antonym. Again the dictionary helps us here by listing these as part of the synonymy. For example, the treatment of despair, quoted above, is followed by the listing hope, expectation, confidence—words suggesting positive or healthy attitudes. Information of this kind can also be found in a thesaurus, a kind of glossary which lists and organizes words according to the classes of ideas they express. For most people, however, the dictionary is easier to use.

Prefixes and Suffixes

Many of the words in English consist of a base form or root to which prefixes and suffixes may be added. Every speaker and writer of the language forms words in this fashion, even when he has not heard them before. Let us suppose that a particular child of ten has, in his lifetime, encountered and learned the words gladness, hardness, softness, happiness, sadness, and smoothness. Out of this experience he will have learned, though he doesn't know it, that -ness is added to adjectives to form abstract nouns. Consequently, when he needs to form a word meaning “the quality of being rough,” he merely extends the -ness pattern to the adjective rough and comes up with roughness. He may never have heard or read the word before, or he may have heard it and forgotten it. The process works unconsciously and automatically. In the same way, he will be able to interpret other formations with -ness, new to him, when he meets them in conversation or reading. This process is called word derivation. It is most useful in expanding our individual vocabularies.

In general the common prefixes and suffixes give us very little trouble, partly because they are so universally applied. Almost any verb can take the suffix -er to refer to the person who performs the action or undergoes the state which the meaning of the verb suggests: work, worker; bake, baker; sit, sitter; think, thinker. The prefix un- is almost equally common in its application to adjectives which suggest a state of affairs: unwell, unhappy, unusual, unclean. Most native speakers have a built-in set of restrictions which prevent them from concocting such unacceptable formations as unold, smoothen, or coolth. But these prefixes and suffixes are all native; they belong to the familiar part of our vocabulary.

Because of the great number of borrowed words in English and the frequency with which they are used, some foreign prefixes and suffixes have also become part of the working mechanism of the English language. Certain of these, such as -able (lovable, passable) and -ess (huntress, princess) are common and cause no difficulty. Those from Latin and Greek, however, do give trouble and will be taken up in some detail here.

Prefixes In general, prefixes tend only to modify the meanings of the words to which they are attached; they do not change the grammatical function. It is merely necessary, therefore, to associate the Latin or Greek prefix with its meaning in English. The table of prefixes on page 1534 is designed to help you make these associations. The prefixes are listed according to the meaning in English which they convey.

Suffixes It is grammatical function rather than meaning which is affected by the addition of a suffix. The meaning of the base form coma is still present in the combination comatose, but the word has changed from noun to adjective. The same would be true of development (noun) from develop (verb) or beautify (verb) from beauty (noun). Thus, suffixes serve as a means of making the language flexible. Quite often the suffix is added not to an independent word but to a base form which does not normally stand alone: sanctify, contrary, aviatrix. The tables of suffixes on page 1534 will give you a start toward the analysis of words, but only a start. Developing a sense for the way in which suffixes are added and what they do to the base forms is a study worth pursuing with your dictionary. This awareness will enhance your feeling for the language.


Americans have always placed a high value upon the ability to spell correctly. The blue-backed spelling book was a fixture of the colonial schoolroom and sold literally millions of copies. The spelling bee was for a long period a favorite school and even community activity, and recently newspapers, radio, and television have developed it on a national scale. Despite all this, business men constantly complain about secretaries who are unable to spell; college professors make the same charge against their students.

The very complaints bear witness to our awareness of spelling; the actual situation is not as bad as it is often painted. Recent studies have shown that the average high-school graduate spells correctly most of the words that he uses. Most of the spelling difficulties of college students are caused by no more than 250 words out of the ten thousand or so that they are likely to use. Poor spelling is seldom something that cannot be remedied if the ailing victim is determined to improve and will go about it in a systematic way.

Why We Misspell

Some of the principal reasons for our difficulties with English spelling lie in the nature of the English language and certain aspects of its history. English has always had from twelve to sixteen distinct vowel sounds, not to mention the diphthongs or vowel combinations. At the same time, there have been only five vowel characters—or seven at most, if w and y are counted—to spell them with. This is a problem which, as we shall see, has been dealt with in several ways during the twelve hundred years we have been using the Roman alphabet, but no one of them has been carried out consistently. The reduction of vowels in unstressed syllables, as in Cuba, custom, circus, outrageous, where a, o, u, and ou all represent the same pronunciation, has created another problem.

In addition, many of the thousands of English words which have come into English from other languages have kept the spellings which they had in those languages, sometimes a far cry from the characteristic patterns of English spelling. Finally, it was about the year 1500 when printing replaced manuscript copying, as a result of which spelling became relatively fixed. But since that time many changes in pronunciation, not only of individual words but of entire classes of words, have occurred, and this has only served to increase the distance, already great enough, between spelling and pronunciation. Therefore we have “silent” letters such as b in dumb and gh in thought, fossilized remains of sounds which are no longer pronounced. We also have various ways of spelling the same vowel sound, as in meat and meet, where the spelling once served to indicate a distinction in pronunciation no longer present.

We have discussed these matters briefly neither to excuse or justify bad spelling nor to make the task of spelling improvement seem hopelessly difficult, but rather to explain why our rules for spelling seem to have such frequent exceptions.

Ways of Indicating Vowel Length

As a background which will help us to understand some of the spelling rules, we must first notice three devices which have been developed throughout the history of our language to differentiate certain pairs of sounds. One of the earliest of these was to double the vowel letter, with a single letter indicating a short or lax sound and the doubled character signaling a long or tense sound. We still do this in pairs like cop, coop; rot, root; met, meet; fed, feed. Today the practice is confined to the letters e and o.

A second way of showing vowel length was to place an unpronounced final -e after a syllable when the vowel in it was long, but to close the syllable with a consonant when the vowel was short. Thus we have cap contrasting with cape, bed with bede (the Middle English form of bead), bit with bite, hop with hope, us with use. Notice that the -e has no value in and of itself; it merely signals something about the preceding vowel letter.

Finally, a doubled consonant may be used to signal a preceding short vowel, whereas a single consonant suggests the long-vowel quality usually associated with the spelling. Thus latter contrasts with later, bitter with biter, mopping with moping, and cutter with cuter. Usually this device is employed when a syllable is joined to the one in which the length of the vowel needs to be specified.

All of these devices are centuries old. Each of them has a certain logic behind it. Unfortunately no one of them has been carried out consistently. Much of our spelling difficulty arises from not knowing which device or practice to apply. But understanding just this much about them leads one to see something of a system, a kind of consistency in the use of single or double consonants and whether the final -e is lost or kept.

Loss of Final -e

Final -e is lost before a suffix beginning with a vowel. It is kept before a suffix beginning with a consonant.

We have already seen that final -e was used to indicate the length of a preceding vowel, as in hope. When a suffix like -ful, beginning with a consonant is added to hope, we still need the -e to show that the o is long; thus our spelling is hopeful. On the other hand, any vowel letter can serve the purpose of suggesting the long sound; hence we can spell hoping without it. Note the following:

Suffix Beginning With a VowelSuffix Beginning With a Consonant

There are certain exceptions to this rule which a careful speller should remember:

1. After c or g, final e is kept before a and o in order to maintain the soft sound of the consonant: noticeable, traceable, vengeance, outrageous. This is not necessary when c or g is followed by i: noticing, tracing.

2. Final e is dropped after g in such combinations as judgment, acknowledgment, abridgment. In England the -e is usually retained in the spelling of these words.

3. A few other common words do not follow this pattern: argument, awful, duly, truly, hoeing, singeing, dyeing (“the process of coloring”), wholly, mileage.

Doubling of Consonants

We have already seen that our spelling system provides for such contrasts as hop, hope, fat, fate, sit and site. But when we add suffixes beginning with a vowel, the scheme is likely to break down: we need to be able to distinguish between hop + ing and hope + ing. We do it by doubling the consonant after the short vowel:


Some further observations:

1. Note that when vowel length is indicated by a doubled vowel character or a combination of vowel characters, the consonant is not doubled: stooping, reader, sleeping, boating.

2. Thus far, we have applied the rule about doubling of consonants only to words of one syllable, when a suffix is added. In words of more than one syllable, we must notice which syllable is stressed. Compare these pairs:


Note also the position of the stress and the spelling of the following: réference, but reférring; préference, but preférred; regrétting, fócused, prohíbitive, overlápping, devéloped.

Spelling the Long e Sound

There is probably no sound in the English language that is spelled in quite so many ways. There are at least six that are used quite frequently, and certain others which appear from time to time. Note: cedar, ease, agree, receive, achieve, antique, people, key, quay, Caesar. The two spellings which are most often confused are ie and ei. A two-line jingle makes the spelling rule easy to remember:

Spell i before e

Except after c.

ie: achieve, believe, chief, grief, niece, piece, relieve

cei: ceiling, conceit, conceive, deceive, perceive, receive, receipt

There are two kinds of exceptions to this rule. First, certain words pronounced with a long e sound behave in direct opposition to the rule:

ei: either, leisure, neither, seize, weird

cie: financier, species

Moreover, there are certain ei spellings which are pronounced with a sound other than long e, usually with long a or with the vowel of care: weigh, neighbor, veil, reign, freight, heir, their.

Y as a Vowel

Y sometimes represents a consonant sound (year, yet, your, youth), usually at the beginning of a word or syllable. Y, in final position and preceded by a consonant, normally represents a vowel. This creates a problem when we want to spell such combinations as dry + ed or study + es, since it would be difficult at times to tell whether the y was indicating a vowel or consonant value. For this reason:

1. Final y preceded by a consonant is usually changed to i before all suffixes except those beginning with i:

flyflies flierflying

2. Final y preceded by a vowel generally retains the y when a suffix is added.


Exceptions: daily, gaily, gaiety, laid, paid, said.

Plural of Nouns Ending in o

1. Nouns ending in o preceded by a consonant usually form their plurals by adding -es:


2. Proper names ending in o add s only:


3. Many nouns clearly of foreign origin and others that are seldom used in the plural or seldom used at all add only s: albino, credo, crescendo, dynamo, embryo, kimono, magneto, octavo, photo, piano, silo, solo, soprano, tyro.

4. Nouns ending in o preceded by a vowel add s only:


Vowels in Unstressed Syllables

One of the characteristic features of English is the reduction of vowels in unstressed syllables to a neutral sound which is indicated in this dictionary by the symbol ə. Yet this reduced vowel may be spelled with any one of the five vowel letters: sofa, silent, charity, kingdom, circus. Naturally, this causes a great deal of confusion; unstressed syllables are a frequent source of misspelling. For example, a, e, and i become indistinguishable in the endings -ate and -ite, -able and -ible, -ance and -ence, -ant and -ent. Associating the word in question with a closely related one will sometimes be helpful in suggesting the correct spelling. If you are uncertain about definite, think of finIsh and definItion. SeparAtion will suggest the a in separate, as will ultimAtum in ultimate. If you know that the verb freQUENT is pronounced with the vowel of let, this will help you with the spelling of frequent when the stress is on the first syllable.

Unfortunately, this device will help you with only a limited number of words; for many others no such help is available. The following are particularly likely to give some trouble:

a:acceptable, acceptance, attendance, brilliant, performance
e:consistent, excellence, existence, experience, independent, persistent, occurrence
i:irresistible, plausible, possible, susceptible

Confusion of Prefixes

Some spelling difficulties arise from the confusion of prefixes which look alike, are pronounced similarly, but are so different in meaning that they cannot be attached to the same roots. The following are especially troublesome:

anie, “before”: antedateanti, “against”: antidote
de, “from, down, away”: debatedi, “twice”: diploma
dis, “separation”: disgracedys, “hard, ill”: dystrophy
per, “through”: performpre, “before”: prescribe

Pronunciation and Spelling

Some spelling errors arise from the tendency to leave out the vowels of unstressed syllables in pronunciation, or to omit one of a combination of consonants. Reasonable care in the pronunciation of the following, and words like them, may help in creating a more accurate word image:


There is always a question as to how far to go in the cultivation of pronunciations which consciously match the spelling. For example, in the case of February, some dictionaries recognize pronunciations with or without the first r. In this instance, if a pronunciaton with the r will help you to remember the spelling, there can be no objection to adopting it. In the case of Wednesday, however, where no dictionary sanctions the pronunciation of the d, and it is employed only by a few overzealous radio and television announcers, there is little excuse for adopting it.

There are other instances of confusion where it is difficult to say if the faulty spelling is the cause of the mispronunciation or the other way around. All that can be done is to try to straighten out both spelling and pronunciation. Words of this kind are:


Words Similar in Spelling But Different in Meaning

Some words need attention because they sound somewhat alike but differ in spelling, meaning, and origin. Here are listed some of the most troublesome pairs and triplets:

exceptisleall together
adviseall readyassent

Dual Spellings

Some words have at least two acceptable spellings. In some cases there is a difference between American and British practice. With certain other words, both spellings are current in the United States. If you have already mastered one correct spelling, there is generally little point in taking the trouble to learn another. Nevertheless, it is better if you spell consistently all of the words in the same class or group: if you spell labor and not labour, then spell humor and not humour. Your dictionary will list variant spellings and often will indicate where the variants are used. The list below will give some idea of the nature and extent of the problem.


Words Often Misspelled

Even though spelling seems to present a whole series of problems, studies of the words most frequently misspelled have shown that these constitute a relatively small group. The list which follows includes most of them, except for those which have been discussed previously. You will find the list useful for drills and practice. Study it carefully.

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Use Your Dictionary

The dictionary is your best help. Irregular spellings of noun plurals, verb participles, and past tenses, all of which can cause trouble, are usually given in connection with the treatment of the individual word. If you are in doubt about such a spelling, look it up.

We have already seen that it is helpful to know the parts which go to make up related words. The dictionary helps you to learn these by listing all the derived forms that a word may have. Sometimes the origin of a word, its etymology, will give you useful information. Finding a Latin form such as cura in the etymology of cure will help you to understand why the English derivative is curable and not curible.

The dictionary performs another useful service in indicating whether compound words are written solid, with a hyphen, or as two words. The spelling of compounds in English is inconsistent. There are no simple rules, and no one can be expected to remember the spelling of every word combination he is likely to use. Form the habit of checking the spelling of every compound that you use in your writing.

Most experienced writers use the dictionary to check the spelling of foreign terms and of particularly difficult words. Form the dictionary habit. Looking up words when you are writing does take a little time but amply repays your efforts in the correctness it helps you to attain.

Phrases starting with the letter: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z