6 incredibly useful spelling rules from childhood


In English, there are words that sound the same but are spelled differently (such as “their,” “they’re,” and “there”); words with letters that have nothing to do with how the word is pronounced (“brought,” “although”); words that contain silent letters (“gnat,” “pneumonia”); and words that simply don’t follow any spelling rules.

Let’s revisit those spelling rules we learned long ago and the words that break those rules.

1. “I before E except after C or when sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh”

Words that break this rule:

  • ancient
  • species
  • science
  • sufficient
  • society
  • either
  • foreign
  • leisure
  • protein

2. “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking?” (Meaning when there are two vowels in a row, the first usually has a long sound and the second is silent.)

Words that break this rule:

  • said
  • through
  • leather
  • early
  • piece
  • build
  • guide
  • shoes
  • does
  • guest
  • break

3. Final silent E makes the vowel say its name (such as “rat,” “rate,” “hid,” “hide”)

Words that break this rule:

  • have
  • done
  • lose
  • where

4. Plural nouns—add an “s” or an “es”

Words that break this rule:

  • goose/geese
  • man/men
  • mouse/mice
  • tooth/teeth
  • alumnus/alumni
  • series
  • deer
  • sheep
  • species

5. If a word ends with an “ick” sound, spell it “ick” if it has one syllable (“trick”) and “ic” if it has two or more syllables (“sarcastic”)

Words that break this rule:

  • candlestick
  • seasick
  • nitpick

6. “A” versus “an”—if the first letter is a vowel use “an”; if the first letter is a consonant, use “a.”

Words that break this rule:

  • an honest
  • an honorable
  • a unicorn
  • a united front
  • a urologist
  • a onetime

Readers, any other rule-breaking words to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. Read more of her work at Impertinent Remarks.


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4 responses to “6 incredibly useful spelling rules from childhood”

  1. Profitable Growth Services, LLC says :

    Thanks for the spelling lesson! I sure do need it. 🙂

  2. Charles says :

    Weird is an “i before e” rule breaker.

  3. Katy says :

    For the articles a / an – it is the sound at the beginning of the word that determines which one to use, rather than the first letter.

    Words such as ‘unicorn’ and ‘university’ may start with the vowel ‘u’, but the sound is actually ‘y’, as in ‘yellow’ – therefore it is a consonant sound, and takes the article ‘a’. ‘Onetime’ starts with a ‘w’ sound, and iso it’s the same.

    However ‘honest’ and ‘honourable’ begin with a silent ‘h’, and therefore the first sound is ‘o’ – a vowel sound – hence the article ‘an’. ‘Hotel’ can be pronounced with an aspirated or a silent ‘h’, and the article changes according to whether it begins with the ‘h’ or the ‘o’ sound.

    If you look at it this way there are actually no exceptions to the rule:
    vowel sound = ‘an’
    consonant sound = ‘a’

  4. Irina says :

    woman – women
    foot – feet
    louse – lice
    child – children
    ox – oxen
    swine – swine
    grouse – grouse
    corps – corps

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