1. Before the invention of printing in the 15c, English and other European languages lacked any regularity of spelling and usage was largely based on personal preference. Despite the development of rules, English remains notoriously beset by irregularities of spelling, and various proposals have been made over the years for reforms that would make spelling more straightforward in the interests of native speakers and foreign learners alike. These proposals have usually been based on phonetic principles, so that a reformed spelling conforms more to pronunciation, but questions of whose pronunciation forms the basis and which spellings are appropriate when more than one is available for a particular sound (e.g. ou as in count or ow as in cow) have not been resolved. Another objection is that a phonetic orthography would obscure word origins and connections, especially in groups of words in which the stress pattern changes, e.g. adore / adoration and nation / national. In any case, no machinery for reform exists, and it is unlikely that significant change can be achieved except by the weight of ordinary usage. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, see The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992, 973–6.)
2. A major cause of confusion is the exceptional tolerance English has for variant spellings. This works in unpredictable ways, so that accessary / accessory and judgement / judgment are all permitted spellings whereas accomodation is not a permitted variant of accommodation nor millenium of millennium. In this book, preferred spellings are given when legitimate alternatives exist and correct spellings are identified when other occurring forms are not legitimate.
3. There are three broad categories of spelling difficulty: (1) systematic problems that occur in words belonging to a certain type (e.g. the formation of nouns from verbs in -dge, such as acknowledgement and judgement) and in the inflection of words (e.g. the plural of nouns in -o such as potato and solo, and the -ed and -ing forms of verbs such as benefit and unravel), (2) individual difficulties attached to particular words (e.g. embarrass with two rs but harass with one, and millionaire with one n but questionnaire with two), including words adopted with little change from other languages that cause problems of inflection in English (e.g. shanghai and ski), and (3) words with similar spellings that are confused, e.g. complement / compliment, hoard / horde, and principal / principle.
4. Guidance on the more important systematic features of spelling and inflection will be found in the following separate entries: abbreviations, co-, contractions, de-, dis-, doubling of final consonants with suffixes, -er and -est forms, -er and -or, -ey and -y in adjectives, -ful, hybrid formations, i before e, -ize, -ise in verbs, Latin plurals, -less, -like, -ly, mis-, non-, -o, palindrome, pre-, -re and -er, self-, semi-, -t and -ed, -um, un-, -xion.
5. For differences in British and American spelling, see American English 3.
6. The table below lists words in common use that cause particular spelling difficulties. Some of these are also given as separate entries.
word / comment
accommodate, accommodation, etc. / two cs, two ms
acknowledgement / -dge- preferred form
acquaint, acquaintance, etc. / acq-
acquire / acq-
acquit / acq-
aggressive, aggression, etc. / two gs, two s's
apostasy / ends -asy
appalling / two ps, two ls
artefact / arte- preferred to arti-
asphalt / not ash-
bail / bale / see entry
baulk / see entry
beneficent / not -ficient
biased / preferred to biassed
billionaire / two ls, one n
breach / breech / see entry
changeable / -eable
chord / cord / see entry
commemorate / two ms followed by one m
committee / two ms, two ts
complement / compliment / see entry
connoisseur / two ns, two s's
consensus / not concensus
cooperate, cooperation, etc. / no hyphen
desiccated / one s, two cs
desperate / two es
diphthong / not dipthong
dispatch / preferred to despatch
dissect / two s's
dissipate / two s's, one p
draft / draught / see entry
ecstasy / ends -asy
eighth / two hs
embarrass, embarrassment, etc. / two rs, two s's
enthral / one l
exhilarate / two as
fulfil / one final l; AmE also fulfill
gauge / -au- not -ua-
guard, guardian, etc. / -ua- not -au-
harass, harassment, etc. / one r, two s's
hoard / horde / see entry
idiosyncrasy / ends -asy
impostor / ends -or
install / two ls
instalment / one l; AmE installment
judgement / -dge- preferred form
liquefy / ends -efy
manoeuvre / -oeu-; AmE maneuver
mayonnaise / two ns, one s
medieval / -e- preferred to -ae-
mellifluous / two ls followed by fl
memento / mem- not mom-
millennium / two ls, two ns
millionaire / two ls, one n
minuscule / not miniscule (see entry)
mischievous / not -ievious
misspell / two s's
moccasin / two cs, one s
necessary / one c, two s's
niece / -ie- not -ei-
occurrence / two cs, two rs
Portuguese / u before and after g
practice / practise / see entry
principal / principle / see entry
questionnaire / two ns
rarefy / ends -efy
recommend / one c, two ms
restaurateur / no n
resuscitate / -s- followed by -sc-
Romanian / Rom- not Rum-
sacrilegious / -i- followed by -e-
seize / -ei- not -ie-
separate / two as
siege / -ie- not -ei-
stationary / stationery / see entry
supersede / not -cede
threshold / one h
transsexual / two s's (preferred)
twelfth / note the f
unwieldy / not -wieldly
veterinary / not vetinary
weird / -ei- not -ie-
wholly / preferred to wholely
withhold / two hs
yield / -ie- not -ei

Modern English usage. 2014.


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