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ESL Learners: Easy Ways to Remember English Usage Rules

written by: Curt Smothers • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 12/29/2013

It's difficult to remember the rules of thumb for any new language. Here we'll go over a few of them to help the ESL student remember whether the i or the e comes first--plus others.

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    Background

    It is no secret that English learners have to overcome some tough spelling challenges. For example, why are the English words English Language Arts “laughter” and “daughter” spelled almost the same, but pronounced so differently? Where did we come up with the words “through” and “rough,” and why does one end in a vowel sound (“oo”) and the other in a consonant sound (“uff”)? In this article, we will explore the "softer" side of English and some spelling rules that are mainly phonetic and (mostly) consistent. Mastering these rules can help us become better spellers.

    Note: Interested in reading more about quirky English spelling? See the links at the end of this article.

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    What Is the “ie, ei” Rule?

    i before e 

    The rhyme “i before e, except after c…” is usually reliable. This rule discusses words that mostly have a long e sound, such as believe, field, grief (i before e) and ceiling (except after c).

    • Other examples: thief, receive,perceive

    The second part of the rhyme is “..or when sounded like a as in neighbor and weigh.”

    • Other examples: eight, vein, reign, inveigle

    Major exceptions:

    • ie - conscience, science, financier, species (These are not difficult to remember, since the placing of the i after the e keeps the c as a soft "s" sound.)

    • ei - either, neither, leisure, seize, counterfeit, foreign, forfeit, sleight (as in sleight of hand), weird (These must be memorized.)
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    Why Drop That Final 'e' Before Adding a Word Ending?

    Letter e Words like hope, huge, and scrape need the e at the end to keep the long vowel sound. However, when we need to build new words with endings like -ed and -ing, we get rid of the final e of the basic word:

    • advance - e becomes advancing (the ending -ing begins with a vowel)
    • surprise - e becomes surprising (same reason as above)
    • argue - e becomes argument (the e in argue is preceded by another vowel u. We drop the final e. Rule also applies to true = truly, argue = argued)
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    Is the Letter 'y' Really a Vowel Sometimes?

    Letter Y Yes it is! When the letter y has an e or i sound in a word, as in supply, worry, merry, we treat it as a vowel. When it comes time to make it plural or give it another ending we change the y to i and add the ending:

    • supply becomes supplies (y changes to i and we add -es)
    • worry becomes worried (y changes to i again, and we add -ed)

    BUT we keep the y when:

    • The word ends in -ing (crying, studying), and
    • A vowel comes before the final y (obeyed, saying)
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    Why Do We Double a Final Consonant When We Add Word Endings?

    This is a not-so-easy rule, but is included because, by applying the "double consonant rule" the learner can avoid loads of spelling mistakes. Here is the rule:

    • Double the consonant when the last syllable of the word is stressed (e.g. submit) or it is a single-word that ends with a single vowel and consonant (flap),

    AND

    • The multi-syllable word ends with a single vowel followed by a single consonant (submit).

    ◊ submitt becomes submittted/submittting

    ◊ flap becomes flapped/flapping

    Therefore....

    • We do not double the final letter in open, because the stress is on the first syllable (open becomes opening).
    • We do not double the final letter in deal, because of the double vowel (ea) for the the final consonant (deal becomes dealing).
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    What Is the Easiest Spelling Rule?

    Adding a prefix to a word never changes its spelling!

    • necessary becomes unnecessary, satisfied becomes dissatisfied

    Note: The most commonly misspelled word in the English language is none other than misspelling.