Thursday, August 26, 2010

How to Spell

by Douglas Grudzina

Many, many years ago, when I was still a young teacher, I had a packet of handouts, allegedly written by famous people, that gave out quick-and-dirty tips on all sorts of language and writing problems. The handouts were distributed by Dow or DuPont or some other chemical or paper company, and I honestly do not remember how I came to be in possession of them.

The one I found most useful—I copied it with abandon and distributed it freely to my students year after year until it disappeared from my cabinet as mysteriously as it had appeared—was “How to Spell.” It was written by (I think) Bill Cosby and offered some of the neatest observations on American English that I have ever encountered.

Here are the tips I remember from the handout. I don’t think I’m violating anyone’s copyright.

I’m tempted to call these “rules,” but I am a descriptivist, and every one of these rules has a few exceptions (though not as many as you’d think), so I’ll call them “tips” instead. Let’s face it, if the following tips clear up half of your kids’ spelling problems, you’re doing pretty well, aren’t you?

First, let’s look at some of our most puzzling and annoying word endings:


Tip: ABLE generally follows complete words; IBLE follows incomplete words, or words that have changed in form.

Examples: agreeable (agree + able), remarkable (remark + able), foreseeable (foresee + able)

reprehensible (reprehens—), edible (ed—), legible (leg—), visible (vis—)

Exceptions: Collectible is a commonly accepted spelling. Don’t ask me why.

Digestible, flexible


Tip: Only three words in the entire English language end in EGE: college, privilege, cortege.

Learn them, and you know all the others (because the rest all end in AGE).

Examples: advantage, coinage, village, and so on …


Tip: Generally, CIAL follows a vowel; TIAL follows a consonant.

Examples: facial, official, special

residential, martial, nuptial

Exceptions: commercial, initial, financial, palatial, provincial, spatial,



Tip: Generally, CIAN identifies a person; SION produces a soft, zhun sound after an l or an s; TION identifies a condition or non-person entity.

Examples: academician, musician, politician

elision, precision, vision

condemnation, elation, recommendation

Exceptions: Words ending in double s take SION regardless of pronunciation.


Tip: Only four words in the entire language end in ERY: cemetery, confectionery, millinery (ladies’ hats), stationery (as in paper)

Learn them, and you know all the others (because the rest all end in ARY).

Examples: cautionary, reactionary, voluntary and so on …

Now, consider the compound word. We don’t have too many of them in English as compared to other languages—I’m thinking especially of German and the Scandinavian languages—but we do have a few. The key to spelling them correctly is to remember that the compound word is not a prefix-and-root or a root-and-suffix; it is two words fused together into one.

Thus, in words like roommate, bookkeeper, and granddaughter, we don’t have to memorize rules about double-consonants. We need only remember that room ends with m, and mate begins with m. We need the k that ends book, and we need the k that begins keeper, so we need two. Granddaughter is grand + daughter (just as grandfather, grandson, grandmother are all compounds of grand + the name of a filial affinity).

One of my pet peeves—and it’s not a double-consonant word, and I don’t remember its being in the Bill Cosby handout, but—is the misspelling (one s for the prefix and one for the word itself) of background.

What in the world would a back + round be?

We’re not done yet.

How about the way we mangle words and phrases containing the word all?

All right is two words. It means “completely (all) correct, proper, or permissible (right).”

• Would it be all right if I stayed home tonight?

• I checked my work and, while it wasn’t superb, it was all right.


The opposite of all right is all wrong.

• As usual, your assessment of the situation is all wrong.


It’s simply a matter of thinking before you (or your students) write. Or at least thinking before they edit, revise, and proofread.

There is a great deal of logic in the English language, and those who complain otherwise are either inconversant with the facts or just plain lazy.

One final set of tips I remember from the Cosby handout.

All ready is a two-word phrase that means “completely (all) ready (ready).”

• My teeth are brushed, I’ve got clean underwear on, and I am all ready to go.

Already is a single word, an adverb, that means something like “so soon” or “by now.”

• By the time I got to the bus stop, the bus had already left.

• I’ve been late to school three times this week already.

Again, it’s a matter of thinking before writing or revising or editing or proofreading. When you think about it, it is logical: we don’t have much problem using all correctly as an adjective:

All year, Maureen has taken all the credit for all the work we’ve done together.

We shouldn’t have trouble using it as an adverb:

• The glue is all gone. The glitter is all used up as well. Still, the project is all ready, and I think we’ll be all right once we present it to the class.

Last one:

A lot is two words. The opposite of a lot is a little.

• Angus ate a lot of beef while Naomi ate only a little.

We don’t seem to believe there’s such a word as alittle, so why do we think there’s a word like alot?

As I said at the beginning of this, learning these tips—learning the convention, perhaps memorizing the few exceptions in order to apply the convention in all the other cases—should help your students eradicate a lot (two words) of their spelling errors.

And that’s a good thing … right?

No comments: