APRIL 1999

Spelling Dilemmas

The English language is notorious for its inconsistent and irregular spelling. However, there are some minor rules which can guide you. In this article we will take a look at a few trouble spots in English spelling.

Thanks to the modern technology of the spelling check function on your computer, you may not need to worry too much about the orthographic fine points of any language. However, the English language often confronts writers with choices, dilemmas even. Words that sound the same may be spelled differently. Is that word spelled with a single or a double letter? Is it this vowel or that one? There are certain areas of difficulty which cause even native speakers to stop and reach for the dictionary.


Spelling dilemmas often arise when suffixes are used. A good example is the suffix -able (and in some cases -ible), which can be attached to any verb to create an adjective. The adjective then means that it is possible to do something, or that it is likely to occur. However, attaching that suffix is no simple matter.

If the verb ends in a silent "e", it will often be dropped before the addition of -able except after the soft "c" or "g" (as in usable, dyable, but pronounceable, manageable, bridgeable). In the case of verbs ending in "y" preceded by a consonant, the "y" becomes an "i" (justifiable, triable, but buyable). Verbs that end in -ate will drop the -ate (demonstrable, abominable, alienable, appreciable, calculable, assumable, confiscable, etc.). However, in the case of -ate verbs with two syllables, they will become "dictatable, creatable, locatable".

There is a long list of adjective forms which have simply been established using the -ible suffix. Because the -ible and -able suffixes are correctly pronounced the same, (roughly "uh-ble"), it may be difficult to remember which adjectives belong to this category. Some examples are admissible, convertible, credible, digestible, divisible, edible, intelligible, invincible, perceptible, reprehensible, suggestible, and suppressible. Keep in mind that by far the majority of words will take -able.


Many non-native speakers become confused about the -al and -ical suffix. Quite a lot of adjectives appear with alternative forms ending in -ic and -ical. In most cases, more or less distinct meanings have developed for the two versions, such as for the following examples. Politic (meaning artful or shrewd as in a politic manager) and political (meaning of or relating to the government or involved with politics as in a political person); historic (famous or likely to become famous in history, significant, as in a historic decision) and historical (pertaining to history, as in a historical perspective); economic (referring to the study of or the subject of economics or relating to an economy, as in a country's economic problems) and economical (meaning being frugal instead of wasteful, as in "Buying a day-ticket is more economical than paying the full fare each time"); or electric (meaning producing, transmitting or powered by electricity, as in an electric guitar) and electrical (meaning relating to or concerning electricity, as in electrical engineering). From these examples, you can basically see that the -ical suffix will be the one which relates to the subject more broadly.

-er /or errors

A cause of much confusion can be the choice between the suffixes -er and -or, in the sense of a person or thing which does something. To some extent, -er is preferred in the case of a person, such as reviser and promoter, while the suffix -or, which is associated with modern technological words, is used for machines or things, such as refrigerator and hydrogenator. The pair adapter and adaptor is a good illustration of this distinction, an adapter being generally a person who adapts something while an adaptor would only be said of an appliance for adapting electrical currents. There are many exceptions, however, such as translator, educator and supervisor.

"I before E..."

A simple spelling rule which is very useful to remember is the rhyme that goes "'I' before 'e', except after 'c'". You would be surprised at how many people mutter this under their breath when writing such common words as achieve, hygiene, receive and deceive. The endings of these words sound exactly the same but they are spelled with ie and ei respectively.

Spelling in English is the product of the complex history and evolution of the language. It is a story which is still developing. Distinctions and preferences are in the process of being established all the time. It may seem frustrating that they cannot be simply explained, but there are many general rules on minor points which can help to make sense of it, even if there are almost as many exceptions!

Kate Grady