The Spelling Society’s Guide To Better Spelling

The Rules and Misrules of English Spelling

Despite the “double whammy” described above, English spelling does have a number of underlying rules and some of them are fairly reliable and helpful. If they were applied consistently, English spelling would be a lot easier. Unfortunately, for reasons that are too long and complicated to discuss in this booklet, English spelling breaks its own rules with depressing frequency, and it is these breaches, together with a fair number of common words spelled quite eccentrically, that cause most of the problems. What we are going to do in this booklet is to set out these rules, and offer some help for dealing with instances where they appear to be broken.

This booklet is not a magic bullet to teach English spelling at one fell swoop. Many have sought such a cure, but our spelling system is too irregular for any such teaching method to offer more than limited help. A major feat of memorisation is required of anyone tackling English spelling, whatever aids and short cuts they use. Nevertheless we hope that this publication will make it easier for you to help your children to overcome their spelling problems. Essentially we are going to define rules that can usually be relied on and show how to ease the task of coping with exceptions and irregularities. This in turn will reduce the amount of memorisation required: if a word can be brought within a rule, then you don’t have to learn it on its own as an irregular.

The Sounds Made by 21 Consonants


Sounds represented






cat, city


choke, chemistry, chef






gold, gin


hat, who






















slam, please,






thing, that








execute, exactly, xylophone


yak, fairy, why, dysfunction



We start with single and pairs of consonants because they have fewer irregularities than vowels and are therefore easier to deal with.

(a) The letters in normal font can only represent one sound, thus: bat, den, fog, hill, jam, lane, pin, pheasant, psychiatry, queen, run, sham, tumble, van, win, why, zebra.

(b) ph (derived from the Greek Ф) is pronounced as an f (pheasant). Exception: the boy’s name Stephen (when not spelled Steven), and in some compounds such as uphold, upholstery, haphazard, uphill

(c) ps (derived from the Greek letter Ψ) is pronounced as “ss” (psycho”).

(d) q is always followed by a u and represents the sound “kw” (queen), except at the end of a word when it represents the sound “k” – eg cheque, or in isolation: Iraq.

(e) wh represents essentially the same sound as in w – except in certain dialects that pronounce it as a “hw”. Exception – who (pronounced hoo.)

The letters in italics can represent more than one sound:

(a) c usually represents the sound “k” as in king. But it can also represent the sound “ss” when followed by an e, i, or y. Thus cede, city, cyber.  The combination sc usually follows the same rules eg scene, scythe, scatter. A double cc usually represents the sound “k” (eg tobacco),  Exceptions: accede, accept etc.

(b) ch usually represents the sound in “chop”. But it can also represent the sounds in “chemistry” and “chef” respectively. TIP: There are no easy rules for deciding which sound is represented. The best one can say is that the ch sound is the usual one, the k sound usually occurs in words of Greek origin and the sh sound in words of French origin. If it looks scientific, it is probably one of the former – if it’s about cookery one of the latter! The combination sch usually stands for the sound “sk” (eg school).

(c) g usually represents the sound as in “goat”, “gobble”, “grasp” etc. It often stands for the sound in “jam” when followed by e, i, or y (eg gem, ginger, gyro). When a u follows a g it means that the sound is hard not soft – as in guess, guide, guild, guilt). Exceptions: get, gelding, gaol (if not spelled jail), gild (golden), girder, girl, (h)anger.

(d) s usually represents the hissing sound in sun, simple, snatch etc. It represents the sound z when coming between vowels and at the end of words. Thus wise, easier, represent, his, pans, goes. (Exceptions:  this, house, mouse etc).A double ss is often used at the end of words to show that the sound is not a z (eg miss, hiss, mass, kiss).

(e) The letter z can also be used where -se would otherwise be acceptable: eg amaze).

(f) th can represent two sounds: in thin and in this. There are some rules to help. Treat the “normal” sound as in thin. The other sound occurs: (i) before –er (eg brother, lather, whether, other, wither. Exception: ether; (ii) at the end of a word before an e (eg breathe, seethe). AND (iii) in a number of common words that just have to be learnt: the, this, that, these, those, than, then, there, thus, with.

(g) x has three basic sounds. It represents “ks” when stressed, or before a consonant (eg execute, axe, extreme). It represents the sound “gz” when unstressed and before a vowel example, example, exonerate).When an x comes at the beginning of a word (usually of Greek origin) it is pronounced as a z (xylophone).

(h) y has four sounds and is a vowel as well as a consonant.  At the beginning of a word it is consonant and represents the sound as in “yellow”. In all other cases it is a vowel. At the end of a word when unstressed it represents the sound as in fairy (turning to ie in the plural or in the past tense – fairies, carried). When stressed other than at the beginning of a word it usually represents the sound as in cyber, dye, my, why etc. When unstressed other than at the end of a word it can represent  “i” as in dysfunctional, dystopia. Exception: beyond.

Other ways of representing consonant sounds.

(a)    The combinations  –tion,  –ssion, -cian and –cean all represent the sound like “shun” at the end of words such as nation, mission, politician, ocean.

(b)   The combinations –sion and –sure after a vowel represent a sound found in words such as lesion, adhesion, leisure, pleasure, measure (BUT expulsion).

(c)    Endings such as -ace, -ece, -ice, -oce –uce produce the same hissing sound as s (eg police)

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