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Compact Oxford English Dictionary for Students

Top 10 Spelling Tips

Although there are some words, such as necessary and rhythm, where you just have to learn the spelling, many other words follow special rules. Here are ten easy-to-remember tips to help you to brush up your spelling.

You'll find more detailed advice and extra spelling rules in the dictionary's centre section, or you can read our lists of common spelling errors or commonly confused words.

You could also test yourself with this quick quiz.

1. Changing endings of nouns to make plurals

Although most nouns form their plurals by simply adding -s to the end (room, rooms), some form their plurals by changing their endings.

TIP: the main nouns that change their endings to form their plurals are:

  • nouns ending in a consonant plus -y: change the -y to -ies:
  • cherry cherries

  • nouns ending in a consonant or a single vowel plus -f or -fe: change the -f or -fe to -ves:
  • knife knives
    half halves

    2. Plurals of nouns ending in -o

    Most nouns that end in -o just add -s to make the plural: solo, solos; embryo, embryos; zero, zeros; avocado, avocados.

    TIP: some nouns that end in -o always add -es to make the plural. The main ones are as follows:

    buffalo buffaloes
    domino dominoes
    echo echoes
    embargo embargoes
    hero heroes
    mosquito mosquitoes
    potato potatoes
    tomato tomatoes
    veto vetoes

    3. -ie- or -ei-?

    TIP: the general rule is 'i before e except after c'. Here are some of the main -ie- words:

    achieve hygiene
    aggrieved piece
    belief relief
    believe relieve
    brief thief
    chief wield
    fierce yield
    grieve

    Here are some of the main -ei- words:

    ceiling misconceive
    conceit perceive
    conceive preconceived
    deceit receipt
    deceive receive
    inconceivable

    There are a few exceptions to this rule (such as seize and weird) where the -ei- spelling doesn't follow a 'c': you just need to learn the spellings for these.

    4. affect or effect?

    The words affect and effect are often confused: they are one of the pairs of English words that look or sound alike but have different meanings (called confusables).

    TIP: an easy way to know which spelling to use is to understand the difference between the two words - then you can choose the right one for the particular situation.

    Affect is a verb meaning 'to change or make a difference to someone or something':

      The changes will affect everyone.
      No other products are affected by the ban.

    Effect is mainly a noun meaning 'a result':

      Wildlife populations are feeling the effects of climate change.
      What effect would this law have?

    and it can also be a verb meaning 'to bring about a result':

      Oliver Cromwell effected a temporary union between England and Scotland.

    5. their, there, or they're?

    The words their, there, and they're are often confused when written down because they sound alike.

    TIP: make sure you know what each word means and what it does in a sentence - then you can choose the right one.

    Their is a possessive determiner meaning 'belonging to them':

      She had three sons, all lawyers like their father.
      If their needs are not met, people will move away from the mainstream.

    There is mainly an adverb meaning 'in, at, or to that place':

      He never went there again.
      The opportunity is right there in front of you.

    They're is short for 'they are':

      Maybe they're all coming to see me.

    6. Doubling consonants

    There's usually no need to make any changes to the infinitive of a verb when adding -ing and -ed endings to make the present participle and the past tense:

    ask asking asked
    infinitive present participle past tense

    There are some cases where spelling changes do occur, such as doubling consonants (there's more information about other changes in the dictionary's centre section).

    TIP: when adding -ed and -ing endings to verbs that end with a single vowel plus a consonant, do not double the final consonant if the stress doesn't fall at the end of the word:

    budget budgeting budgeted
    inherit inheriting inherited
    target targeting targeted
    visit visiting visited

    When adding -ed and -ing endings to verbs that end with a single vowel plus a consonant, double the final consonant if the stress falls at the end of the word:

    admit admitting admitted
    commit committing committed
    defer deferring deferred
    refer referring referred

    7. Adding endings to words that end in -our

    TIP: When adding the endings -ous, -ious, -ary, -ation, -ific, -ize, and -ise to a word which ends in -our, change the -our to -or before adding the ending:

    colour coloration
    humour humorous
    glamour glamorize (or glamorise)
    honour honorary
    labour laborious
    odour odorous

    But such words are spelled -our when other endings are added:

    colour colourful
    favour favourite
    flavour flavourless
    honour honourable
    odour odourless

    8. Adding endings to words that end in -ce or -ge

    TIP: when adding the endings -able and -ous to words that end with a soft -ce or -ge sound, keep the final -e:

    advantage advantageous
    change changeable
    courage courageous
    manage manageable
    notice noticeable
    outrage outrageous

    9. Words ending with -ful

    TIP: the ending -ful is always spelled with one -l:

    cheerful
    faithful
    grateful
    skilful
    spoonful

    The related ending -fully is always spelled with a double -l:

    cheerfully
    faithfully
    gratefully
    skilfully

    10. Adding endings to words that end with a double -l

    TIP: drop the final -l from words that end with a double -l before adding endings which begin with a consonant (such as -ment, -ful, and -ly):

    chill chilly
    dull dully
    install instalment
    skill skilful
    will wilful

    The ending -ness is an exception to this rule:

    small smallness
    ill illness

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